All Hail the Henry – Toasting History at Riverhead’s Preston House & Hotel

The Henry cocktail Preston House & Hotel Riverhead
The Henry in all its glory, Photo: Oliver Peterson

There is an art to bringing past and present together, and a thrill to witnessing that merger. Inside Riverhead’s Preston House & Hotel, a 1905 home restored and transformed into a 20-room boutique getaway and 88-seat restaurant, Henry Preston watches over the intimate bar from an artist’s rendition of a vintage photograph gracing the wall. Beneath his gaze, art of a liquid medium is being created in his honor.

“The Henry.”

Henry Preston's portrait at The Preston House & Hotel in Riverhead
Henry Preston’s portrait hangs at The Preston House & Hotel bar, Photo: Eric Feil

Bartender Katie Maroldi proudly announces the cocktail she is about to make, a signature drink that raises a perpetual toast to the hotel and restaurant’s namesake, a Civil War veteran who came back home to the East End to become not only the first salaried sheriff of Suffolk County, but a town clerk, town constable, tax assessor, justice of the peace and indispensable part of local history. The inspiration for the drink was to pay homage to the classic American spirit embodied in the building and the man, and no spirit is more classically American than bourbon. But first things first. As with any premium libation, this is part art and part science being played out on the bar.

Into a shaker goes the ice, followed by the demerara, their house-made simple syrup derived from equal parts water and the toffee-tasting amber sugar, which is ideal for mixing with darker liquors. Then comes the blackberry shrub in its midnight blue-black splendor.

Henry mixers Preston Hotel
Henry mixers at the Preston Hotel, Photo: Eric Feil

A shrub, for the uninitiated, is essentially a syrup—dating back centuries and much beloved in colonial America—made from fruit (or its juice), sugar and vinegar, simmered down into a concoction that is not sweet but rather brings an acidic tang.   The blackberry-based shrub in The Henry is made fresh in-house, combining both red wine vinegar and balsamic vinegar with berries and sugar to arrive at a dramatic and dark elixir.

“Now the best part,” Maroldi says, selecting a bottle off the shelf behind her with reverence. “We put in our bourbon.”

The golden, almost burnt-sugar-hued whiskey is Hudson Baby Bourbon, 100% single-grain New York corn and aged in small American oak barrels. It holds the distinction of being the first legal pot-distilled whiskey produced in New York since Prohibition, and its place in history speaks to its place in this cocktail. Sipped on its own, you get hints of vanilla and caramel and corn, a bit of honey on the finish, all of which plays perfectly into The Henry’s profile.

A vigorous shake follows. Now, this is a moment to note that “shaken versus stirred” is not a distinction invoked by 007 simply to sound debonair. “The general rule of thumb is, if it’s clear, you shake it, and if it’s a brown or darker liquid, you stir it,” Maroldi says. “But the exception to that rule is if you’re using any shrubs.”

Henry shrub at The Preston Hotel
Photo: Eric Feil

She wields the mixologist’s maraca, uniting the bourbon and blackberry concoction. “You want to emulsify the two within each other,” says Restaurant General Manager Bryan Brady, looking on as the whole is shaken into something greater than the sum of its parts. “Since the shrub is a vinegar base, to incorporate it into the liquor you have to be more vigorous, and you don’t want it to have as long of a melt, as you might find in an Old Fashioned. That’s also the reason we go with the big cubes—less surface area, more drink.”

Those large ice cubes await in the glass, into which the mixture is now poured. “Last but not least,” Katie says, picking up a lemon, “a little zest, and that’s it.”

That aromatic touch of citrus disperses quickly as the glass is raised and tipped. There is the dark fruit of the berries, their tartness and that subtle sourness of the vinegar balancing the sweet demarara. Together with the almond and a touch of oak from the bourbon, it’s a cocktail for any season, light enough for late-summer sundown sipping but with warm hints to carry it well through fall and winter.

The Henry is a star on its own. But with an award-winning kitchen mere steps away, it begs the question of a pairing. A burger, a cheese plate and some nuts, the duck-thigh skewers—the acidity of the beverage nicely cuts through the fat in such dishes. But with a cocktail like this, it’s not so much the side-by-side relationship as it is making sure the weight on the plate matches the weight in the glass.

The Henry cocktail Preston House & Hotel Riverhead
The mighty Henry, Photo: Eric Feil

“The best answer,” Brady adds, as Maroldi joins in on cue, “is it goes with everything.”

We’ll drink to that.

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