Ingredients Like Vetiver and Oud Wood Play a Starring Role at Understory

Understory's beverage director, Travis Owens, discusses how he uses aromatic ingredients to reinvent classic cocktails.

Erin Edwards
Columbus Monthly
The Old Fashioned with oud wood at Understory

As the new beverage director for Understory, the fetching cocktail lounge from the owners of Wolf’s Ridge Brewing, Travis Owens is reimagining classic cocktails by drawing inspiration from the venue’s forested surroundings. Using what he calls a “root-to-flower” approach to his alchemy, he employs somewhat obscure woods, roots, leaves and flowers in his creations. “Once we got into this venue, and you feel all of this nature around you, it started to make sense what we were going to do with a cocktail menu,” says the founder of bygone Curio. Here are three aromatic, woodsy ingredients Owens is using to reinvent the classics. 

Vetiver Root 

Featured in: Gin Martini 

Vetiver is a perennial bunchgrass hailing from India that’s often used to control erosion because of its long and sturdy root system. Owens was first introduced to vetiver at Tales of the Cocktail, the annual cocktail and spirits industry gathering, where he sampled Muyu Vetiver Gris, an award-winning liqueur not sold in the U.S. Naturally, Owens went about creating his own vetiver infusion, which he describes as having “cedarlike, fresh tea-tree oil” characteristics. “In stirred, boozier cocktails, it really adds another dimension to the drink,” he says. Roku Gin (Owens is partial to Japanese spirits) co-stars in this martini that comes garnished with a shiny kinome leaf. 

Understory's gimlet

Palo Santo 

Featured in: Gimlet 

You’re probably familiar with the aroma of this trendy, mystical, Peruvian wood, often burned as incense. To coax flavor from palo santo wood, Owens uses a vacuum infusion to force resin into either gin or high-proof grain alcohol. “It’s a pressure vac, so it’ll keep forcing liquid into all the pores and all of the resin out of the wood pretty quickly. It’s pretty much like an instant infusion,” he says. In Understory’s gimlet, “the palo santo comes together with the pineapple to form this tropical note,” he says. 

Beverage director Travis Owens behind the bar at Understory

Oud Wood 

Featured in: Old Fashioned

This expensive wood from Southeast Asia, also known as agarwood, is actually formed when tropical Aquilaria trees become infected with a type of mold. The resulting resin that forms is an aromatic accident often used in perfumes and colognes (see: Tom Ford’s Oud Wood). With a standard infusion technique, Owens uses high-proof grain alcohol to extract resin from the oud wood, which is then used to make a tincture and a spray with notes of sandalwood. “[The wood] doesn’t smell like anything by itself until you heat it up and coax the resin out of it,” he says. “[The scent is] almost like patchouli—some people hate it, some people don’t.” Oud wood will star in a new Old Fashioned at Understory that will likely be the bar’s most expensive libation to date at $19. In addition to the pricey wood, the cocktail will feature Shinobu 15, a mahogany-colored Japanese malt whisky that retails for around $180 (750 mL).