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Daniel Liberson wades ankle-deep through a pathway of clovers looking for edible flora—the weirder, the better. The 220-acre nature reserve around him in Delaplane, Va., looks like a Grant Wood landscape with perfect blue skies, rolling hills cut by a stream, grasses that bend like waves in the wind, and butterflies fluttering.
In a wooded area, Liberson kneels down to pick some white violets, then he spots some ground ivy and hands me a few of their little green leaves to taste.
“It’s going to be pretty potent, I’m warning you about that now,” he says. “It’s got this basil kind of minty flavor to it, very herbaceous. It gets very bitter very quickly, so you’re going to want to eventually spit it out. But that first burst of flavor…”
Liberson passes by the giant leaves of mayapple plants—“they will super kill you”—and heads over to a spicebush, which really looks more like a tree. He uses his thumb to scrape back the skin of the branch, revealing the aromatic green flesh underneath.
“For me, it always smells like a combination of lemons and cayenne and allspice and birch,” he says. Later in summer, he’ll pick the spicebush’s little bright red berries, which also have a woody-lemon flavor.
Liberson will use all of these lesser known ingredients to produce his Lindera Farms Vinegar in a red barn nearby. The vinegars will then make their way into some of the very best restaurants and bars in the country: Minibar and Zaytinya in D.C., Per Se and Gramercy Tavern in New York, and McCrady’s and Husk in Charleston, S.C.
While vinegar production is as ancient as wine, Liberson is aiming to take it in a direction that no one has before. For the most part, other producers in the western world are making grape- or apple-based vinegars. Flavored vinegars often begin with a finished vinegar that’s then infused and sweetened. Liberson doesn’t do infusions. Rather, he ferments fruits, flowers, and other plants into alcohols, and then converts that into vinegar.
Every ingredient Liberson uses comes from Virginia. If he doesn’t forage it himself on the Bolling Branch nature reserve his parents restored from cattle farmland beginning in 2006, he gets it from small organic farms nearby. Since launching his business full-time in September, the 28-year-old is quickly building a name for himself in culinary circles for esoteric and complex vinegar flavors like mulberry, elderflower, wild chamomile, milkweed, black locust, bee balm, and matsutake mushroom. As far as Liberson is aware, many of these vinegar flavors have never been bottled and sold—or even made—before.
In the concrete-walled barn where Liberson produces his vinegars, the fermentation process begins in 100-liter maroon bins where a bacteria and yeast colony known as the “mother” forms on top of the liquid. Currently brewing are the beginnings of wild ginger and strawberry vinegars sweetened with honey from Golden Angels Apiary, a family-owned beekeeping operation in Singers Glen, Va. The concoctions are later transferred into stainless steel vats where they’re no longer exposed to oxygen, causing the yeast to consume the excess sugar and convert it into alcohol. In total, most of Liberson’s vinegars take six months to a year to develop, and he’s starting to work on a few that are aged longer.
Among the many flavors in progress is a ramp vinegar that Liberson has been thinking about for five years. He wagers it’s the largest batch of ramp vinegar ever made.
“When you smell it, it’s going to smell a little bit like kimchi, and when you try it, it’s going to be very buttery,” he says, offering a taste of the very young fermented liquid. “When it all comes together, you’re going to get a very savory, umami-driven kind of slightly spicy vinegar.”
What becomes evident after hanging out with Liberson for just a little bit is how much he’s shooting from the hip. While there’s no shortage of resources on how to make vinegar, there aren’t necessarily guides to making the best vinegars or how to make them out of some of the unusual ingredients he’s using.
He often won’t mention some of his experiments because he’s not actually sure how they will pan out. “The ramp is scary as hell to me,” he says. “Because the ramp could be amazing or it could be god awful, and I don’t see there being much of a middle ground. So this is either going to be a colossal waste of time and money and space, or it’s going to be the best thing I’ve ever done.”
Liberson knows how to sell stuff like this to top chefs, because he’s worked with them. He detoured from a political science track after graduating from Salisbury University in 2009 to cook in the kitchens of Bryan Voltaggio’s Volt in Frederick, Md. and John Shields’ former Chilhowie, Va. restaurant Town House, among others. Chefs like these instilled in Liberson the importance of sourcing local ingredients from small farms. But while it was easy enough to get mid-Atlantic beets or pork, other kitchen staples like soy sauce, vinegar, and fish sauce had to be imported from Europe or Asia. Why should chefs pickle locally foraged ramps in imported white wine vinegar, Liberson wondered. What if they could make a ramp vinegar? Not only would making their own vinegars allow the restaurants to better control the flavor and quality, but it could give them a bit of a competitive edge in the sea of farm-to-table restaurants.
At the same time, Shields helped turn Liberson into a foraging geek, introducing him to flavors and ingredients in his own backyard that other chefs weren’t really using. As a cook, Liberson says he was always trying to make food that nobody else was making and source from places where nobody else was sourcing. That same drive now applies to his vinegars.
Liberson started trying to put together “vinegar programs” for some of the restaurants where he worked as a line cook, but the circumstances and timing weren’t initially right. And while Liberson says he developed a decent palate and creative instinct, he wasn’t the best line cook. Instead, he took some time to work in the front-of-house at restaurants including Bourbon Steak, Blue Duck Tavern, and Rose’s Luxury. That’s when his vinegar experiments became more serious. Liberson began selling his line of vinegars part-time about two years ago before going full-time last fall. The operation is just him for now, although his mom helps out on the business end.
Lindera Farms has a growing list of more than 60 restaurants and bars looking to take advantage of vinegars like these. Chef Tim Ma started using Lindera’s vinegars a few months ago, and now they’re embedded all over his menu at Arlington’s Water & Wall. He uses a matsutake mushroom vinegar with a “really nice earthy punch to it” to finish a fermented black bean clam special, and he hits sautéed ramps and spinach with a spicebush vinegar for a quail dish. Ma also uses the elderflower or honey vinegars to pickle golden raisin or maitake mushroom garnishes. “It’s super unique. I never use vinegars to finish, so this is a new thing for me,” Ma says. “It’s kind of like a finishing oil.”
Ma even gave the elderflower vinegar to his bartender to experiment with. But at $18 a bottle wholesale for chefs, the stuff isn’t cheap. “I was like, ‘If I start seeing my vinegars disappear off the shelves, I’m going to stick my fist up your ass,’” Ma told the bartender. So the bartender created a whiskey drink with St. Germain and vinegar named “Chef’s Fist” on the menu. The name was soon watered down to “A Fistful of Elderflower.”
The vinegars have quickly spread to a number of local bars, including Daikaya, 2 Birds 1 Stone, the Partisan, and Iron Gate.
“He’s starting a vinegar revolution in D.C. that I don’t think people are paying attention to,” says bar owner Derek Brown, who uses Lindera Farms at Eat the Rich and Southern Efficiency. “You’re starting to see his product pop up everywhere.”
Brown, Southern Efficiency bar manager JP Fetherston, and a bartender from Columbia Room visited Lindera Farms last year and were immediately converted. Previously, they hadn’t really used much vinegar in cocktails. But now, you’ll find one or two cocktails with Lindera’s vinegar at any given time across Brown’s bars. Currently, Southern Efficiency is featuring a drink called Don’t Write Mine Yet with Green Hat’s summer seasonal gin, vermouth, Strega Italian herbal liqueur, and elderflower vinegar. “The vinegar just adds this nice little bite, this little tart undertone to it,” Fetherston says.
Lindera is helping bars like Brown’s explore what cocktails start looking like if they only use local product. Fetherston says citrus—a very not local ingredient—can be somewhat of a crutch for bartenders. And although vinegar isn’t a perfect substitute for lemon juice, it does offer an alternate way to introduce acid to cocktail.
“We’re trying to focus on local foods and local farms and sourcing everything from people that we can see and meet and go visit in our kitchens,” Fetherston says. “So why wouldn’t we do that behind the bar?”
Liberson lives for the praise of his industry comrades. Yes, he sells his products to the general public at retail locations like Salt & Sundry, Glen’s Garden Market, Red Apron Butcher, and others. (Bottles retail for $22 to $26.) But it’s the restaurant kitchen staff he really wants to impress. “I really liked cooking, but only for other chefs and cooks… I wanted their approval. Because they would never just come back to you and say, ‘Wow that’s really good’ like my family or my friends would,” Liberson says. “Cooks and chefs would sit there and just rip stuff apart.”
Perhaps because he was once also a cook, Liberson can be just as critical and self-deprecating about himself.
“I’m just a nerd who grows stuff in barrels,” he says, “and sometimes it tastes good.”
Top photo by Jessica Sidman; bottom photo by Darrow Montgomery