If you're not into cocktails, you might not know how much of a comeback classic ones are making or how artisanal ingredients like house-made syrups and cordials are now expected at high-end restaurant bars and hip speakeasies alike. Lucky for us, Birmingham is quickly catching on to this trend, especially with creative minds behind the bar like Steva Casey, bar manager at Veranda on Highland.
In the realm of cool-kid drinks, Steva Casey is a name to watch. Steva did a stint behind the bar at Little Savannah before moving to Veranda a year ago, and it's her interest in reviving classic drinks, combined with her creativity, that has made her one of the most well-known names in bartending in town. Like a lot of bartenders, Steva came to creating unique drinks through waiting tables. "I wanted to have more of an experience and be creative, and [bartending] was the best way for me to go about that," she says. For Steva, creating and mixing drinks is "a lot like creating a dish that a chef would do, where I want it to be a balance, and I want it to encompass all five tastes. I also try to make my menu a good mix of aperitifs, main dishes, after dinner drinks, and things that will pair. I make them seasonally, and I want it to complement the chef's menu."
She's on a sort of mission to revitalize pre-prohibition cocktails, putting her own spin on drinks with homemade syrups but also getting back to the basics of drinks like the original Old Fashioned. "One of my favorite things to introduce people to is a drink called the Bee's knees," Steva says. "It's two parts gin, one part honey syrup, one part lemon juice. It's perfect for this time of year, a little bit sweet, citrusy, it hits all those points." Steva says another one of the elements becoming hip in classic cocktails right now is the use of shrubs, or drinking vinegars. "It's a colonial practice," she says. Before refrigeration, colonials preserved fruit juices with the addition of vinegar, which kept the sugar in the fruit from spoiling. They would drink this shrub by mixing it with a little water. As far as cocktails go, "I think it's a way to add a fruit essence without adding a fruit juice. To be a little bit sweet and a little bit sour is hard at the same time," Steva says. "That's becoming a big trend in classic cocktails, especially because you see people behind the bar that are professionals. They're essentially chefs. They're making food, but it's liquor. You see people who are real artists." But she loves pouring someone a nice glass of sparkling rose to make their day better just as much as she enjoys mixing drinks. "My biggest job is not making drinks, it's being a good host, so I want to make you happy," she says.
Part of creating that atmosphere of happiness is due to how committed Steva is to celebrating the seasonal and local in what she creates. "The great thing about Birmingham and local restaurants is we strive to use local ingredients, and we strive to support our community, and our community, luckily, is home to some of the best farms in the world. It behooves us behind the bar to also utilize those things. I want to eat every blueberry that comes from Alabama, and I want to make every blueberry thing I can make. I really like to keep it seasonal and keep it fresh, so I have probably three or four shrubs right now and a couple of different syrups." For Restaurant Week, Steva plans to create a special cocktail menu to pair with Veranda's Restaurant Week menu. She says she enjoys Restaurant Week on a personal level because of the chance to be introduced to so many new restaurants. "I think we have a wealth of beautiful restaurants and bars and breweries at our fingertips that we often take for granted," Steva says. "I think we as a community are really close knit and supportive, and I really like that. I think there are people in this town that are doing great things, and I hope to be included in that lot, and I'm proud to be included in that lot." For me at least, that feeling of pride in having creative people like Steva working to make Birmingham better is mutual.