‘Slow Drinks’ James Beard Nomination Underscores Sustainability Approach to Seasonal Craft Beverages


Danny and Katie Childs’ handbook on ‘botanical sodas, seasonal cocktails, homemade wines and more’ has inspired a consultancy based on applying slow food principles to beverages.

By Matt Skoufalos | April 30, 2024

Slow Drinks has evolved into a family business for Danny and Katie Childs and their kids. Credit: Katie Childs.

Like the concepts behind the Slow Food movement — sustainability, organic growth, a return to local and seasonal rhythms — Danny Childs’ Slow Drinks concept was built with quiet resolve over years.

Slow Food began in Italy as a rejection of fast-food culture, and spawned an international movement that reached the United States nearly a quarter-century ago.

Childs began Slow Drinks as an offshoot of the same principles, after years of field work in Central and South America, followed by working farmland in South Jersey, and eventually pioneering a back-to-the-roots bar program at Farm and Fisherman Tavern in Cherry Hill.

As that program grew, so did his writing on the philosophy behind it, from a beverage column in Edible Jersey to a book, Slow Drinks, Childs produced with accompanying photographs from his wife, Katie.

On Tuesday, the Childses learned that their work, the sum of years of research, field work, and practical market testing, was nominated for a singular distinction: a James Beard Media Award.

The morning of emotional release that followed that news was proportional to the scope of the groundwork they’d laid getting to that point.

“We were sitting on the couch basically crying all morning,” Danny said, “thinking how long this was the side hustle, or the thing just trying to get noticed. Just trying to grow, and you get these people along the way who believe in it and help you get to the next place.”

Since the release of Slow Drinks, the Childses have continued to build out its concepts into a family business. In addition to parenting two young children and marketing their work, the couple is also exporting the applied concepts of ethnobotany and the Slow Food movement to restaurateurs and mixologists who want to build sustainable, seasonal bar programs around it.

“Writing and researching and recipe-testing and photographing the book is the first mountain to climb,” Danny said. “Watching it grow from this little pet project of ours into seeing the books all over the world, seeing people incorporate fermented sodas into their bar programs and their houses, has been absolutely surreal.”

Danny Childs doing field research in South America. Credit: Danny Childs.

In addition to consulting, for which Danny is traveling across the country, Slow Drinks turns on a formal educational component.

From classes and workshops to foraging tours, he is sharing the accumulated knowledge that went into the book with people eager to adopt its principles.

At Rodale Institute in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, widely regarded as the birthplace of regenerative organic agriculture, Danny will be “teaching farmers to be preservationists; how to create value-added products with the things they grow to increase shelf life and diversify income.”

At Drexel University, which offers a first-of-its-kind bachelor’s degree in culinary arts and sciences, he’s tapped to teach a class this winter tentatively entitled “The Botany of Beverages.” Danny also is slated to lead two scholarship cohorts on cocktails in New Orleans, Louisiana, and Turin, Italy, teaching two groups of 15 bartenders each about incorporating Slow Food principles into their craft.

“That is what we talked about,” Danny said: “Slow Drinks as a movement; slow drinks attached to Slow Food. They’re seeing the benefit, and leaning into it.”

Even more rewarding, he believes the Slow Drinks concepts aren’t just being embraced for their novelty, but rather, as a new offshoot of bartending with its own approaches, styles, and intentions.

“Trends are ephemeral by their nature, but the goal of this has always been to have staying power, and a branch of the cocktail family tree,” Danny said. “I make tropical drinks, I make modern classics, I make slow drinks.

“This is a type and a way of making beverages, and it’s been so cool to see it spread,” he said. “To be able to go to these places and make a lasting impact is pinch-myself moments.”

The excitement of the James Beard Award nomination came at an already emotional time for the Childs household: just 48 hours earlier, Danny lost his stepfather, Mike Smithwick of Collingswood, to cancer.

Danny Childs and Mike Smithwick. Credit: Danny Childs.

Smithwick was “a huge supporter of whatever I wanted to put myself into,” Danny said.

Whether it was ethnobotany, farming, or sustainable cocktails, Smithwick “was super-stoked” to see his stepson following his passions.

His diagnosis came about a year before the Slow Drinks book was released, but Smithwick was there to see it through and enjoy the Childses’ finished work.

“I’m sad he didn’t get to see this moment, but at the same time, it feels like he was a huge part of it,” Danny said.

“It’s the confluence of highest of highs and lowest of lows,” he said.

“You feel some greater power almost a part of it.”

That same feeling of affirmation has accompanied Danny and Katie throughout many small moments of doubt in their efforts to bring the Slow Drinks project to life, staking their livelihoods on its success. Signing with publisher Hardie Grant, which made Slow Drinks its first project in the U.S. market, was among the most significant of these.

“All those doors closed for us to go through the right one with Hardie Grant,” Danny said. “They saw the vision; they took the leap.

“We never sold out; we always did what aligned with our values and principles,” he said. “It’s been so organic, and literally slow, in a meaningful way. It’s wild to see it come to fruition the way that it should. It’s ripened in its own time.”

The opportunity of a signature food and beverage writing award is not only good for book sales — which the couple expects to eclipse 10,000 copies in its first year — but also for the future of the Slow Drinks concept.

“I feel like it’s the first book of its kind,” Danny said. “It’s a handbook, and a way for people to follow this roadmap for what’s grown here in Southern Jersey and Philadelphia. It has that power that every bartender and drink-maker can have it on their bookshelf. I hope the Beard Committee sees that.”

Slow Drinks is available at all major booksellers, but the Childses encourage supporting small, local retailers that carry it, including Inkwood Books in Haddonfield, Occasionette in Collingswood, and Sweet Amalia Market and Kitchen in Newfield.

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