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Wolf Tree brings ‘cocktail culture’ to White River Junction

  • Max Overstrom-Coleman, owner of Wolf Tree, works behind the bar mixing cocktails in the new bar in White River Junction, Vt., on Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Emily Klesitz, left, and her partner Heather Francis, both of Manchester, N.H., have a drink at Wolf Tree in White River Junction, Vt., on Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Francis is a student at Vermont Law School in South Royalton, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Max Overstrom-Coleman, owner of Wolf Tree, a new craft cocktail bar in White River Junction, Vt., adds ice to one of his cocktails on Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 2/4/2020 6:49:52 PM
Modified: 2/4/2020 6:49:45 PM

To pass through the frosted glass door of Wolf Tree cocktail bar in White River Junction and take a seat at the marble-top counter is to enter a carefully tended atmosphere.

The rattle of cocktail shakers mingles with the tambourine beat of Motown tunes, and a whiff of citrus contrasts with the dark tones of polished wood and malt whiskey as bartenders pour drinks over fat chunks of ice and serve them atop black napkins monogrammed in gold.

“I want to bring cocktail hour back to this part of Vermont,” said owner Max Overstrom-Coleman, sitting at a corner table in the back of the small bar on a recent Thursday evening, as an after-work crowd that skewed toward graying and well-dressed began to fill the bar stools. “Cocktail culture is the culture of humanity.”

That vision is built around a menu of imaginative cocktails with names like Knife Fight, Artichoke Spritz and Lady Slipper and prices in the $12 range. But Overstrom-Coleman is also happy to twist the cap off a Bud Light. In bringing Wolf Tree to life, he’s trying to create a place that impresses without intimidating, that feels refined without smacking of snobbery.

A Manhattan native whose mother was a professional baker, Overstrom-Coleman, 40, came to cocktails via a typical route, bartending his way through college and grad school. When he came to the Upper Valley about a decade ago to pursue his doctorate in ecology and evolutionary biology, he began working at Carpenter & Main in Norwich — and slowly, a profession that many view as a short-term gig got into his blood.

About six years ago, Overstrom-Coleman decided to take a year away from academia and began working at area distilleries, including Vermont Spirits Distillery Co. in Quechee. He grew intrigued by the history and chemistry of spirits and instead of returning to school decided to embrace bartending as a lifestyle, traveling internationally to learn about craft cocktails and applying his knowledge to his work at Carpenter & Main.

Last year, Overstrom-Coleman leased a space on Currier Street from the owner of the salon next door, which used to occupy both portions of the first floor. He put in new wiring and plumbing, added a bathroom and a small kitchen and redesigned the 700-square-foot space.

Salvaged pendant lights hang from a tin ceiling. An old Singer sewing machine table from Vermont Glove in Randolph holds bottles of wine and glasses. On a slate gray wall opposite the bar hang three enormous prints, enlarged from designs on old English plates. They depict “wolf trees,” large trees that dominate the landscape.

Overstrom-Coleman, who lives in Thetford with his wife, Rachael Weber, said he chose the name because it encompasses his passion for science, his love for Vermont and his desire to bring the community together.

In the past, wolf trees served as shade for travelers. “They ended up being this hub of community interactions,” he said. “It’s also sort of an homage to Vermont’s agrarian past.”

In the three months since it opened, Wolf Tree has become a hub of sorts. Without advertising or even a sign out front, the bar fills up on weeknights and “Friday night is a madhouse,” Overstrom-Coleman said.

Sarah Fletcher, of Hanover, who knew Overstrom-Coleman from Carpenter & Main, came in with a group of friends the week the bar opened. She said she loves the Brooklyn vibe and the bartenders’ knowledgeable, accommodating manner. Last Thursday night she brought her sister, Karen Lubell, of Norwich, to try the craft cocktails.

“I’m very happy this place is here. There’s no place like this around here,” said Fletcher, sipping a Farmer’s Ruin, a blend of agave, green pepper, lime and pomegranate. A native Texan and volunteer at a horse therapy farm, she feels a connection to the cocktail.

“It’s got like a little Texas smoky thing going on,” she said.

Lubell, who’s not normally a cocktail drinker, was sipping a Brilliant Disguise, a mix of vodka, clove, lime, bitters and agave.

“It goes down easy. It’s just so smooth,” she said.

While the bar attracts plenty of cocktail aficionados, it also hosts a lot of people like Lubell, who have little experience with mixed drinks.

Those who want to stick with their Captain Morgan’s or Corona are welcome, Overstrom-Coleman said. In fact, he’s added some requested drinks for customers who know what they like and have no interest in experimenting.

When people do want to dip a toe into the world of craft cocktails, the bartenders act as consultants, asking them what they normally drink and then trying to get a sense of their palate.

“The algorithm that yields the drink that you’re excited about is as varied as humans,” Overstrom-Coleman said.

As people grow comfortable discussing cocktails and trying new things, “That becomes a really exciting exploration around the world,” he said.

That journey often entails missteps. Not every drink Overstrom-Coleman suggests is a hit. He can usually tell when a customer doesn’t like something, even if the customer is reluctant to admit it, and will offer him or her something different.

Overstrom-Coleman also wants people to know what’s in their drinks. He uses as many local ingredients as possible, including fruits and berries from his own property. The food menu — which is limited to light appetizers — also features local cheeses and cured meats, as well as deviled eggs from Overstrom-Coleman’s own chickens.

Of course, many cocktail staples can’t be sourced locally. Overstrom-Coleman tries to make up for that in creative ways. For example, he gives 20 to 50 pounds of peeled oranges to Juel Modern Apothecary Cafe after using the peels in his cocktails.

Overstrom-Coleman also is extending the concept of sustainability to his staffing practices, a concept he thinks is rare in the food industry. His full-time employees work four days per week, and he’s collaborating with Open Door Integrative Wellness to provide them resources and services.

“Frequently, bartending is thought of as this transient profession,” Overstrom-Coleman said. “I have no desire for this to be that kind of place.”

Nor does he have a desire to expand. The bar is intentionally small, to encourage conversation and convey a feeling of coziness.

“This works, in my mind, because of its intimacy,” he said.

Sarah Earle can be reached at searle@vnews.com or 603-727-3268.




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