Meet Your Mixologist: Katie Loeb, Philadelphia’s Cocktail Queen

By Rebecca Rhoades

In Philadelphia, a city known for its blue-collar roots, craft beers may be king. But when it comes to more creative libations, there’s only one queen, and her name is Katie Loeb. A sommelier, master mixologist, “spiritual advisor” and the self-proclaimed “Mama Bear” of Philly’s cocktail scene, Loeb is best known for her “farm-to-bar” approach, using farm-fresh ingredients to create her own mixers and ingredients from scratch. Her taste-tempting tipples have shaped the drink menus of some of the city’s best eateries and bars, including Iron Chef Jose Garces’ first restaurant, Amada; Chick’s Café & Wine Bar; Oyster House; Tapestry; and Han Dynasty.

In 2008, Loeb received a Best of Philly award from Philadelphia magazine for her inventive concoctions. This past September, her berry-thyme Barenberry Mule with ginger beer and rye whiskey bested more than 400 submissions from across the country to take the Grand Prize in Bärenjäger’s third annual Cocktail Competition. And just a few months earlier, in July, she released her first book, Shake, Stir, Pour: Fresh Homegrown Cocktails. “Katie’s willingness to break from tradition, to pour a different spirit into a cocktail or to add an unusual flavor note to a well-loved recipe, is what makes her drinks special,” writes Garces in the book’s foreward.

We caught up with Loeb as she celebrated the opening of her latest venture Emmanuelle, a French-inspired cocktail hideaway in Philly’s trendy Northern Liberties neighborhood.

What is your approach to creating cocktails?
Katie Loeb: I prefer cocktails to taste fresh, organic and well-balanced. Making my own ingredients means I can control what’s going in the glass, so no artificial colors or flavors and no high-fructose corn syrup. I also like to play with flavor combinations that I’ve enjoyed in foods or in other drinks in the past. I make a really delicious Mexican hot cocoa with an ancho chile-canela syrup and mezcal that is just the thing on a cold day to warm you up. Chocolate with a little spice is delicious!

What other ingredients do you like to use?
I like to use seasonal herbs and spices, either fresh or dried. Lavender in the spring; mint in summer; dessert spices like cinnamon, clove and allspice in the fall and winter. Also seasonal fruits. Apples and pears just taste autumnal. I make a mixed-herb syrup that is delicious with just about everything. It’s two parts mint to one part each basil and cilantro. Blanch the herbs in simple syrup, cool slightly, and buzz up in the blender to expose maximum surface area. Cool overnight and strain. Mix an ounce or so of the mixed-herb syrup with an equal amount of fresh lemon or lime juice to balance it and two ounces of the spirit of your choosing, then fill with a carbonated mixer of your choosing. Gin-lime-tonic, tequila-lime-ginger ale, vodka-lemon-club soda, bourbon-lemon-bitter lemon. It works with almost anything because it just tastes fresh and green. It also works as a sweetener for iced tea or lemonade.

How do you continue to develop diverse cocktail menus that complement a broad range of cuisines but still retain the distinctive “Katie Loeb” touch?
I approach the “theme” of the cocktails first, and then I see what flavors I can create on my own or I use recipes I had created previously that fit. For Han Dynasty, I wanted to bring back a retro Chinese restaurant cocktail menu with all of those fun tiki drinks, so I tested various recipes and then went about making my own grenadine, orgeat syrup and ginger beer to use in the drinks. For Emmanuelle, I sought out recipes with a French connection, so to speak, such as Old School New Orleans cocktails and lots of champagne-based variations of Kir Royales utilizing all those lovely fruity liqueurs. I have an original drink on the menu, Leonora’s Sling, that uses Rouge Vermouth de Chambéry and Yellow Chartreuse, two very French ingredients. They are combined with blanco tequila, a fennel essence I cook myself, fresh lemon and a splash of club soda. It’s a very savory and delicious drink that tastes very different from anything most folks have ever tried before.

Out of all the cocktails you’ve created, what’s your favorite?
That’s sort of like asking me to name my favorite child! I love many of my creations. One that I hold near and dear to my heart is the Front Stoop Lemonade, made with my fresh lemon cordial, Thai basil syrup and Philadelphia-distilled Bluecoat gin. It was a winner at the Bluecoat Battle of the Bartenders a few years ago. It’s sort of like a herbal gin lemonade, so it’s quite accessible for folks who swear they hate gin. It’s a good “gateway” gin cocktail. I call it Front Stoop because we don’t have front porches in Philadelphia, just stoops.

Do you have a favorite spirit that you like to work with?
I like virtually all spirits. I like working with gin because it brings such delicious botanical elements to the drink, and there are so many different flavor profiles. Rye whiskey is fun to play with because it has a certain spiciness that makes the final drink interesting. Quality vermouths and other aperitif wines also bring interesting botanical elements and varying levels of sweetness or dryness to a cocktail. Vodka is probably my least favorite only because it doesn’t really bring anything to the party. It’s like tofu in spirit form.

How’s the cocktail scene in Philadelphia?
We have such an unbelievably vibrant cocktail scene here. The Philadelphia cocktail bartending community is very small and very close. We all encourage each other and try to share our knowledge amongst ourselves through the local chapter of the Bartenders Guild or just by visiting each other and tasting new creations with each other. We all are each other’s best and most honest critics.

What are your favorite cocktail bars in Philadelphia?
You can find me on the other side of the bar most frequently at Southwark, Lemon Hill and Franklin Mortgage and Investment. But that doesn’t stop me from frequenting other places. I love to see what other folks are doing.

Tell us a little about your book.
I was incredibly fortunate in that I was approached to do the book. I had been writing about wine and spirits for a few years, so I had a little experience, but a 2,500-word article and a 160-page book are quite different beasts, I must say. In the end it was a great excuse to organize my files in a more sensible way, talk about some things I know a little something about and do some very specific recipe development. I’m incredibly proud of the end result. I think my book is particularly helpful and different because of the step-by-step photos of many of the techniques. Hopefully it will make the process less intimidating for someone who has never really thought about cooking for the bar.

What’s next for you?
Well, Emmanuelle just opened about a week ago, and I’m enjoying working with all those really interesting French spirits and aperitifs. In my fantasy life, I would love to do a TV program where I’d visit wineries, breweries and distilleries and educate people in a fun and interesting way. I’d like to be the Julia Child of cocktails, taking the intimidation out of what seems to be a complicated subject but one that really is just fascinating and learnable if approached in the right way.