If you’ve been to a Jewish deli, you’ve probably experienced the magic of a pastrami sandwich washed down with Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray, a celery soda dating back to 1868. It’s a pairing so transcendent that it brought Danny Childs, bartender at the Farm and Fisherman Tavern in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, to a similarly mesmerizing mix: homemade celery soda and mezcal. The two bold ingredients come together with a little lime juice to form the restaurant’s Cel Rey, a cocktail that highlights the surprising, underrated pairing of savory flavors.
The herbaceous, almost salty celery soda harmonizes just as beautifully with smoky, vegetal mezcal and lime as it does with cured meats like pastrami and acidic pickles. “As soon as I tasted it, it was like clouds parted and the choirs of angels sang,” says Childs.
Of course, Childs’ background as an ethnobotanist and anthropologist leads him to all kinds of experimentation, and the Cel Rey was no exception. Rather than simply mix celery juice or celery syrup with seltzer for the soda component, Childs—whose book, Slow Drinks, featuring templates to stock your bar throughout the seasons with Slow Food–style preserves of garden staples and native plants, is set to come out next month—ferments his celery soda using a ginger “bug,” a wild starter culture commonly used to make ginger beer at home.
Don’t be intimidated by the DIY fermented soda, says Childs. “It’s really not that hard, and it’s infinitely adaptable.”
But if the prospect of developing a ginger bug and fermenting a bounty of fresh celery feels too daunting for your home bar, go ahead and buy some Dr. Brown’s. Like many commercial sodas, Cel-Ray is heavy on the sugar and only faintly flavored with celery seed, so you’ll want to augment this shortcut with a few dashes of celery bitters—and don’t skip the celery leaf garnish, whose aroma will assure your taste buds you’re getting the proper savory experience that blends so well with the smoky but subtle Rey Campero mezcal, Childs’ preferred base spirit for the drink.
Formerly a seasonal option on the Farm and Fisherman Tavern’s menu, the Cel Rey eventually won over enough patrons that it got upgraded to the F&F Classics section, and it’s not hard to see why. “It’s definitely a drink for a specific type of person, but it’s one of my favorites I’ve ever made,” Childs says. Now it’s one of mine, too.