Photo by Katrina d’Autremont
By Julia Bainbridge
It was near the cypress trees growing by Raleigh’s Big Lake that Zack Thomas first saw blackberries in the wild. Kingfishers tend to set up shop around this part of William B. Umstead State Park, and in the summer of 2018, one of them led Thomas, then a bartender at Crawford and Son restaurant, into a meadow. Blackberry bushes dotted its perimeter.
Kinesthetic thinkers tap their toes, swing their legs, or wiggle pens in their hands in order to shake ideas loose. Thomas walks, making contact with the ground—a foundation to step onto and off from—and looking at something other than rows of bottled bitters and polished Hawthorne strainers. Something alive.
When he saw those berries, Thomas wanted to find a way to work them into a cocktail. He returned to the bar, pulled his shoulder-length brown hair back into a bun, and began tinkering.
Zack Thomas, 31, grew up in the restaurant industry, but he didn’t initially see himself making a career there. Instead, he pursued work in parks and recreation in his early twenties. But a brief stint in Boston introduced him to cocktail culture, an interest he pursued upon returning to Raleigh—even though, like Crawford and Son chef and owner Scott Crawford, Thomas is sober. He has spent time on the other side of the bar and knows what being an afterthought feels like: “Sober folks can be treated like inconveniences,” he says.
Thomas was determined to make the blackberry drink sing without alcohol, and weeks after spotting those bushes, he was coming close. The almost-final version of the recipe contrasted tart yogurt with sweet and acidic blackberry syrup, and had soda water for texture. Salt was meant to bring it all together—but the “all” wasn’t quite there yet. It was missing nuance, he thought. Citrus fruits felt boring. The flavor of carrots wouldn’t pop. Could it use something savory, maybe? Maybe.
He returned to Umstead Park, this time choosing Oak Rock Trail, a short loop that crosses a small stream at two points but is otherwise dry. It tends to take Thomas a while to forget the version of himself that lives miles back through the forest and past Highway 40, the one who has dinner to make and staff meetings to attend. Somewhere around the 20-minute mark, he forgets he has a staff to be a part of at all, hearing a deer rustling against some leaves and seeing wildflowers come into focus, like forgotten but remaining friendships. At one point on this particular hike, Thomas spotted a sign that the season was moving into fall: mushrooms.
Blackberries and mushrooms?
It would be too strange a combination, Thomas thought. Then again, why couldn’t these two ingredients be in conversation? They already were, beneath his feet.
Back at the bar, Thomas made a tea with dried mushrooms and mixed it with the rest of the drink’s components. Then he took a sip. He was met by a pop of bright fruit, then a cool earthiness. It felt both creamy and fizzy and, when he got a piece of flake salt resting on the surface of the drink, crunchy, too. It was ready for a name: The Umstead.
The cocktail might look like a riff on a Shirley Temple, with its mauve hue, but it certainly doesn’t sip like one. It tastes sweet and savory, deliciously strange, and a little bit like North Carolina.
ZACK THOMAS — CRAWFORD AND SON,
RALEIGH, NORTH CAROLINA
1 ½ ounces Blackberry Syrup (recipe follows)
1 ½ ounces Maitake Mushroom Tea (recipe follows)
1 teaspoon Greek yogurt
Small pinch flake sea salt
3–4 ounces soda water
Combine the syrup, tea, yogurt, and salt in a cocktail shaker. Fill with ice, seal the shaker, and shake for 10 to 15 seconds, until well chilled. Double-strain into a Collins glass and top with soda water.
Makes 1 3/4 cups, enough for 9 drinks
1 cup blackberries
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine the blackberries, sugar, and water. Bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar and using the back of a wooden spoon to break up
the berries. Remove from the heat and let cool, then fine-strain
and discard the solids. Store the syrup in an airtight container
in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.
MAITAKE MUSHROOM TEA
Makes 2/3 cup, enough for 3 drinks
1 cup dehydrated maitake mushrooms
1 cup just-boiled water
In a medium, heatproof bowl, add the mushrooms and pour the
water over them; press the mushrooms to submerge. Let steep
for 15 minutes, then strain and discard the solids. Store the tea
in an airtight container in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 days.