A look into the state of craft cocktails in New Jersey at Jockey Hollow’s Vail Bar, as they reimagine the classics in their new spring menu.
It’s an overcast day in early February. Jon Coklyat sparks a flame to a stick of fresh cinnamon and sets it atop one of his brand new cocktails, the Space Viking. As the flame turns to smoke, a satisfyingly sweet aroma invades the entirety of Jockey Hollow’s 1920s-style Vail Bar. One sip of Cokylat’s latest creation—featuring notes of dill and lemon verbena—is all it takes to haul me into the season ahead. Moreover, I am instantly reminded of just how far cocktail culture in New Jersey has come.
The last decade or so has brought much-needed rejuvenation to the world of cocktails in the restaurant and bar scene. Whether it’s the use of modern technology and accessibility to fresh ingredients to make fun and contemporary drinks, or the revival of the classics and all of the variations that come along with it, it goes without saying that the state of cocktails is currently at an all-time high.
It is almost expected for a restaurant serving quality food to have drinks that match the level of talent. Bartenders and chefs work in tandem to make a memorable experience for the diner. If I am being presented with top-notch food on my plate, why shouldn’t the drink in my glass be of a similar level? Jockey Hollow Bar and Kitchen in Morristown, New Jersey has been displaying this to a soaring degree since renowned restaurateur Chris Cannon opened its doors five years ago.
Bar manager Jon Coklyat utilizes seasonality and extensive knowledge of the classics to his advantage when creating his cocktail list at Jockey Hollow. Recently, he finalized his menu for the spring season, and to no one’s surprise, the level these drinks can elevate your dining or drinking experience to surpass any of the past. Coklyat takes you on a journey through drink history with his riffs on classic cocktails but keeps you in the present by toying with a modern approach.
From the second you sit down at The Vail Bar located on the main floor of Jockey Hollow, you are transported to a 1920s lounge-style bar. Coklyat takes you away from reality for just a few hours, and you are bound to sip on something like nothing you’ve ever had before. Please, for your own sake, skip the expected martini or vodka soda when you come here—you’ll be doing yourself, and everyone, a huge favor.
The first cocktail of his highly anticipated spring list is deemed the Space Viking, and it is about as fun as it sounds. Displaying Avua Prata Cachaca as the main spirit, the cocktail also features Svol Swedish Aquavit, Velvet Falernum from Barbados, passionfruit, citrus and mint. A take on an old Tiki classic (The Saturn), this cocktail swaps out gin for Aquavit. “The Svol Swedish Aquavit was perfect for this drink because it has strong notes of dill and lemon verbena—they create a mellow springtime feel,” Coklyat told me. And if the sound of the drink isn’t a showstopper enough, Coklyat lights a stick of cinnamon on fire right before the drink comes to your table, filling the entirety of The Vail Bar with a congenial aroma.
Second on the list is a drink lower in alcohol, but still bold in taste for those who are looking for something fun and refreshing that they can maybe have several of. Heartbreaks and Agave Shakes is Coklyat’s answer to an easy-drinking cocktail that does anything but suffer in flavor. Spiced hibiscus-infused tequila, mezcal, Aperol, honey and citrus create the perfect combination for this route. “I wanted an accessible and lower ABV cocktail so I used cinnamon, clove, allspice and hibiscus to create a lightly alcoholic agua fresca,” Coklyat said. This drink is even more refreshing than it sounds, and the mezcal and Aperol while often thought of as overpowering spirits, actually sing a perfect harmony to the melody of the hibiscus-infused tequila.
Continuing the motif of “classic gone modern,” Coklyat decided to riff on one of the most well-known cocktails of all—The Sidecar. As he kept playing around with the drink, he finally settled on both a flavor profile and a name. The Pride of Hammonton is Coklyat’s marriage between The Sidecar, and some of the finest produce available during New Jersey’s spring season—blueberries. “It started off as a blueberry Sidecar, and it just kept going,” Coklyat described to me. “The name pays homage to Hammonton, New Jersey (aka the blueberry capital of the world).”
And while the finished product may not resemble a Sidecar much at all, the flavor and story make it one of the highlights. Brenne Single Malt Whiskey, Blue Curacao, blueberry, thyme, cinnamon and perhaps the most important ingredient of the entire drink—coconut-infused rye whiskey. The infusion process is what makes this drink so unique, placing it in a ballpark entirely of its own. Coklyat takes coconut oil and heats it to a liquid before pouring it into the whiskey, he then freezes it overnight and strains off the infused liquid the following day. The vigorous, electric blue color of this drink is one that catches the eye.
Speyside Teatime is, in my opinion, one of the most impressive cocktails I have had in recent memory. Drinking similarly to a cup of Chamomile tea, this drink doesn’t actually feature tea anywhere in the recipe. This was exactly what Coklyat had in mind when creating the beverage. Balvenie Carribean Cask Scotch Whiskey, Velvet Falernum, Sauternes, Benedictine and Acqua di Cedro (a lemon-scented liqueur from Italy) make up what Coklyat describes as his version of a “boozy Chamomile tea.” What was so mind-blowing about this was how closely it resembled that description—it left me confused, but wanting more. I wish I could say I was surprised, but at this point, it comes as expected from the bartending mastermind that is Jon Coklyat.
Jockey Hollow is finalizing the spring cocktail list with a whimsical drink labeled: “Doctor Doctor!” Headlining gin as the base spirit, the drink is elevated to astronomical levels by a carrot and turmeric syrup that produces a luminous orange hue. Close behind the orange and turmeric is a smidge of Mathilde Peche, lemon, and a much-needed mist of Laphroaig 10—which is high in smoke and peat flavors. This drink is both intensely flavored, and easy-drinking. A cheerful micro carrot finishes the drink as a garnish and offers a sophisticated yet juvenile feeling that is anything but uninvited.
Even after the cinnamon-scented smoke faded from the room, springtime stuck around for the few hours that I spent at the Vail Bar. Drink after drink I was reminded of the strides that the cocktail scene has taken in New Jersey, and how bartenders like Coklyat are providing us with security that it can only go up from here.
Photography by Peter Bonacci