It starts with a lime wedge and a handful of fresh basil — as fresh as you can get, Jenna Petersiel tells me. She drops one ice cube into a shiny silver shaker, followed by the bundled herbs and sliced citrus, and then muddles it all down. She works into the stems and skin, diffusing oils, color, and flavor. The Basil Lime Martini is the most popular drink at the Chilmark Tavern, and whether Jenna reaches for the vodka, gin, or sparkling water is up to you.
Chilmark is a dry town — although dry is a strong word. “‘Remember to BYOB,’” Jenna said as she prepped behind the bar. “I must say it 1,000 times a week.”
The Chilmark Tavern is in its 10th season, and Jenna’s been running the show for eight. “Owning a bar in a dry town certainly has its challenges,” Jenna said. “But I love it. I have so much fun making drinks.” Her mocktail menu reflects that.
From coolers and margaritas to martinis and painkillers, there’s nothing boring about being a boozeless up-Island bar. Each item “tastes perfect alone,” the menu mindfully notes, or can be enjoyed with a few suggested cordials — you just have to bring them yourself.
“People walk through the door with giant picnic baskets or coolers,” Jenna said. “They’ll say, ‘I have booze. What am I supposed to do with it?’”
If it’s wine, Jenna says, guests keep it at the table. If it’s hard liquor, it’s labeled and put behind the bar.
“It can get pretty crazy on a busy night,” Jenna said. “At a normal bar, if someone wants a Tito’s martini, you reach for the nearest bottle of Tito’s. Here, we have to find the vodka that’s specific to a certain table … It took us a while to get it down.”
Jenna also gets her fair share of customers completely thrown by the BYOB bar. “Tons of people come in here surprised and really frustrated,” she said. “It’s a foreign concept to a lot of people.”
But generally speaking, the ratio is about 50-50, as far as people who choose to drink-drink, and people who don’t. In just the past month, Jenna’s seen a spike in the “sober curious.”
“Have you heard about ‘sober curious’?” It’s essentially a new trend where people aren’t drinking,” Jenna said.
“Sober Curious” is a book written by Ruby Warrington, published in December 2018. The book explores life without alcohol. “We yoga. We juice. We meditate. We self-care. And yet, come the end of a long workday, the start of a weekend, an awkward social situation, we drink,” Warrington writes. The book introduces ‘gray area drinking,’ with more people testing the nonbinding waters of simply choosing not to drink. The trend caught on across New York City, where boozeless bars are opening citywide, reminding young people they can go out, meet people, and have a good time over a $15 mocktail. As far as rising trends go, maybe it’s fair to say the Chilmark Tavern beat us all to it.
Jenna loves experimenting with recipes: “Sometimes I’ll wake up at 5 am and think, ‘What am I going to make today?’” Her menu is mainly inspired by what’s in season, although there are a few staples like the Basil Lime Martini, Mojito, and Lime Ricky that are always on the menu. Jenna also works in a seasonal “shrub” — a drinking vinegar. She gave me a taste of her most recent batch of citrus blackberry shrub. It was deliciously fresh and fruity, but bitter, with a hydrating kick. Jenna’s favorite drink on the menu right now is the Hibiscus Jalapeño Margarita. It’s steeped in hibiscus tea and mixed with homemade jalapeño syrup, lemon, and mixes well with tequila. It’s served with hibiscus salt on the rim that Jenna sometimes makes herself. “You take salt, infuse a little hibiscus tea, and then dry it out,” Jenna said. “I might put a little lime zest in the next batch.”
While Jenna’s primary role is running the restaurant, she’s often behind the bar; she conceptualized the entire drink program. “In my next life, I’m just going to be a bartender,” she laughed. She grew up around restaurants — both her parents were in the food manufacturing and restaurant industry. Her parents actually opened the Chilmark Tavern prior to Jenna’s taking over. “I’m basically self-taught,” she said. “I’ve just observed my whole life.”
From a business perspective, yes, Jenna wishes she could serve beer and wine at the Chilmark Tavern. But at the same time, she understands and respects the up-Island community, and ultimately embraces all the ironies. “Cheers, from the wettest dry town in America,” she said.
Basil Lime Martini
1 handful fresh basil
1 lime wedge
1 oz. vodka or sparkling water
½ oz. lime juice
½ oz. simple syrup
Combine basil and lime wedge in a shaker with one ice cube. Muddle until the oils are broken down. Pour vodka or sparkling water, lime juice, and simple syrup into the shaker. Shake it up. Serve in a martini glass (or regular glass), and garnish with basil and a lime wedge.