The Airedale at Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox
Before Mike Henderson started thinking of names for his cocktails at Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox, he was thinking of a name for the brand-new restaurant itself. Henderson and owner Justin Cucci bounced around hundreds of possible names for the restaurant — located in a building that was once a brothel — in the Ballpark neighborhood. “We had lots and lots of conversations about what to name this place,” Henderson says. “It took lots of time and a lot of energy. There were a lot of names.”
When they finally settled on Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox, they still had a list of unused names, which included Saddle Club, Automatic Slim’s, Diamond Lil’s, Maceo’s and Electric City. When Henderson got to work on a cocktail list, they needed names again. Cucci suggested using all the rejected restaurant names as names for cocktails. Henderson did that, and one of them became the name of a drink that has become the most popular of Henderson’s new cocktails.
That drink is called the Airedale ($8), and it’s named after the building that houses Ophelia’s at 1215 20th Street. The drink contains both bourbon and rye whiskey, Aperol, raw sugar syrup and grapefruit oil.
“I really started thinking about drinks that I wanted to drink when I go out.” Henderson says. As beverage director for Edible Beats, the parent company that includes Root Down, Root Down DIA, Linger and now Ophelia’s, he knows how to design cocktails. The first night Ophelia’s was open, Henderson sold almost 200 Airedales.
One of the whiskeys Henderson uses is a rye, while the other is a wheated bourbon. “The reason that there’s bourbon and rye in there,” Henderson says, “is that I wasn’t finding a rye that did the trick.” He couldn’t find a bourbon that was exactly what he was looking for, either. “If I’d do it one way, it was too spicy,” he adds. “And if I did it the other way it was too soft, so I just decided to do half-and-half.”
While bourbons must, by law, be made of at least 51% corn, the remainder is usually wheat or rye. Henderson uses W.L. Weller, a twelve-year-old bourbon made in Frankfort, Kentucky, that’s heavy on the wheat component. “It’s just a good, awesome workhorse of a wheated bourbon,” Henderson explains. “The wheat softens it. It takes away some of the punch.”
The other whiskey half of the cocktail is Rittenhouse Rye, a 100-percent rye whiskey made in the classic Pennsylvania style. Unlike wheat, rye makes a spicier whiskey. Rittenhouse is bold, with hints of wood and a maple syrup finish.
While W.L. Weller is a strong 90 proof, Rittenhouse is a decidedly potent 100 proof. “They meet right in the middle at 95,” Henderson says, “which is a great base for a cocktail.”
Spicing things up even more is Aperol, a dry Italian liqueur with predominant flavors of bitter orange, rhubarb, gentian and other botanicals, including the bark of the chinchona tree, native to Peru and Ecuador. “It’s got a lot of grapefruit notes, which I don’t think you typically see with whiskey,” Henderson says of Aperol, “but in this application, I think it really works.”
The Aperol turned out to be just a little too astringent, needing just a touch of sugar to blend everything together. Henderson added some sugar, but instead of refined cane sugar, he chose demerara, an organic raw sugar. “Demerara just seems to work better with darker spirits, especially whiskeys,”he says. “Pure cane sugar comes off quite sharp. In a mojito or a daiquiri, that’s a great thing, but sometimes in whiskey, that’s not as great. So using demerara is a better move.”
Liking the citrus notes in Aperol, Henderson wanted to finish the cocktail with a hint of grapefruit, finding that it paired interestingly with the whiskeys. As he played around with expressing the oils from grapefruit peels over the drink, he found that it was too powerful. “If I zested two grapefruit peels over the top, it all layered on the top of the drink,” Henderson says, “and that first sip would just dull your palate.” His solution called for twisting one peel over the ice before stirring, which incorporated the citrus oils into the drink. The other was squeezed over the drink before it was served, then dropped in as a garnish.
Henderson suggests pairing the Airedale with Ophelia’s dry rub ribs ($14), served with Carolina gold mustard and apple slaw. “They are insanely delicious,” he says. “They’re very tender, very easy to eat, and very easy to share.”
The Airedale typifies what Henderson envisioned in a cocktail list. He loves seeing live music, but hates to wait for a cocktail at crowded venues — so he designed his cocktail program around simplicity and speed. Every cocktail on his list except one has four ingredients at most. “We just thought less was more, simpler was better,” he says.
To make drink times even shorter, Henderson began kegging the Airedale. “I wanted to speed things up as much as I could,” he says. “We’ve got a 24-tap system, and I reserve four of those for cocktails.” Each keg holds 180 drinks. On Ophelia’s opening night, the Airedale keg was empty by 8:30.
“I think this drink in particular showcases what we want to do with our cocktail program, more than any other cocktail,” Henderson concludes.
1.25 ounces W.L. Weller bourbon
1.25 ounces Rittenhouse rye whiskey
.75 ounce Aperol
Half bar spoon of demerara simple syrup
Combine both whiskeys, Aperol and sugar syrup in a mixing glass filled with ice. Twist one grapefruit peel over the ice. Stir, incorporating the grapefruit oil. Strain into a glass with one large ice cube. Twist another grapefruit peel over the drink, then wedge it between the ice and the side of the glass.