Food Issue - Atlanta’s best bartenders speak up

A roundtable discussion about the city’s cocktail renaissance, plus their cocktail recipes

Miraculously, surprisingly, magnificently, Atlanta has become a cocktail town. It’s happened quickly, seemingly overnight. Three years ago a good drink was hard to find; six years ago it was impossible. But now great drinks exist everywhere in Atlanta. With a culture changing that quickly, questions arise. We decided to pose some of those questions — on the stigma of “fancy drinks,” ridiculous cocktail names, the nature of drinking in the South — to some of the folks in the trenches of our drinking culture. The truth is, Atlanta’s bartenders love talking about what they do, and the camaraderie between them is infectious. Here are the highlights from Brad Kaplan’s conversation with Greg Best (Holeman & Finch), Paul Calvert (Pura Vida), Navarro Carr (the Sound Table), Lara Creasy (JCT Kitchen, No. 246), Lindy Colburn (Quality Wine & Spirits), and Miles Macquarrie (Leon’s Full Service).

Brad Kaplan: How do you think about the challenge of naming the drinks you come up with?

Navarro Carr: When naming drinks, we take inspiration from a book we read, or music, or something in our life, and we personalize the cocktail. But a lot of times people come in and love the name, but the drink is not for them. It’s a challenge — making sure they understand what the drink is.

Lindy Colburn: I’m terrible with names.

Miles Macquarrie: I’m horrible with it, too, I usually get help from staff members, or my wife.

Carr: Your wife’s doing a great job.

Paul Calvert: I’ve overheard guests say they’re not going to order a cocktail called “The Socialist” because they don’t care for Obama ... it’s not a vote, it’s a drink.

Greg Best: I’ll tell you a name that really got people up in arms was “The Mussolini.” I gotta tell you, man, I was trying to take the name back, but some Italian people did not find humor in that at all! So that was pretty bad.

Lindy Colburn: On the distributor side, I see a lot of horrible liquor names, like a peanut butter-flavored vodka called NutLiquor. Ya know, really?

Kaplan: Are there certain spirits you don’t want in your bar?

Best: You can tell when the people behind a spirit are doing it because of passion and love for their craft as opposed to the people who are doing something as a novelty or to make X amount of dollars as quickly as they can. Generally, my rule of thumb is why would I try to work with them seriously if they don’t take their product seriously, or if the product is just meant to be a revenue driver.

Macquarrie: I doubt any of us have Midori behind the bar.

Kaplan: So, for Atlanta’s drinking crowd, what makes for a good cocktail menu?

Carr: The drinking crowd in Atlanta is all across the board. You have your ultra-educated drinkers, and you have people that may not know anything on the menu. The main thing is customer service and breaking down the wall to make customers feel welcome. At the Sound Table we don’t have a lot of the things that some folks expect — I don’t have Apple Pucker. Nothing against Apple Pucker, I just don’t have it. So it’s the play of bartender to customer and suggesting things in a way to help them find something else they may like.

Calvert: I continue to be amazed at how much Mezcal is sold, both at Sound Table and here at Pura Vida.

Best: A lot of people order a drink because they see someone next to them drinking it, ask if it tastes good, and say, “I’m going to have one of those.”

Creasy: It makes a big difference how you write your menu, if you’re only putting things on it that us bartenders want to drink then you’re not going to get very far with the other thousand people you see during the week. But if you’re writing your menu in a way that isn’t intimidating ... I always put something in a drink that’s going to hook people even if they don’t know what the other three things are. You know, if it’s seasonal produce or a spirit they’re comfortable with or even the way you name it.

Kaplan: As a bartender, how do you think about the issue of overindulgence and your role in preventing problems?

Best: That is probably the hardest part about bartending for me personally. Heads nod around the table. I have had very, very heated exchanges even with people I know very well and love dearly, and it’s like an intervention. It helps to see those signs before it gets to that level, because in that situation, being reactionary is damn near impossible. It is really the quintessential responsibility of a bartender, to be aware of where their guest is at. There are so many subtle ways of helping someone out — forgetting to make that drink for another hour, or saying, “Hey, how bout something to eat first and we’ll talk about drinks in a little bit.” A lot of times if it’s subtle and respectful people will get the hint. But if you get to the point where they turn belligerent, it’s the hardest thing in the world to deal with.

Macquarrie: Yeah, I think the hardest part of being the person that’s cut off is that it’s embarrassing, so a lot of times we’ll walk around the bar and do it quietly, so no one else notices. And that works well for us.

Best: It’s a bit like shepherding, especially when you’re deep in the weeds, keeping that awareness ...

Carr: We are shepherds!

Macquarrie: Especially when you have responsibility for the other staff. Are those guests being taken care of? Is that guy over there who’s had four Sazeracs, is he still doing OK? The whole night you’re in charge of that.

Calvert: I think that’s a part of running the bar, taking care of people, making sure people are being safe. That’s a part of creating an atmosphere, creating a night for people, a home.

Kaplan: You guys are essentially shepherds of a social mood and social interactions. How much are you thinking about that: the mood vs. making drinks?

Best: Constantly!

Calvert: I think about that more than I think about making drinks.

Best: I will stop making a drink just to go tweak the music one hair.

Macquarrie: Or adjust the lights when it becomes time.

Calvert: Every bartender should do that, and those are my favorite bars, not necessarily the bars that make fancy drinks.

Kaplan: A lot of people have latched on to the term “mixologist,” but a lot of folks hate it, too. What do you prefer to be called?

Colburn: I personally don’t have a problem with the term mixologist. I think there needs to be a distinction — there are a lot of great mixologists in town that make beautiful drinks, know a ton about the spirits, but they’re terrible bartenders! You sit at their bar at lunch, they don’t give you a napkin, there’s no glass of water ...

Macquarrie: But then you have good bartenders being called mixologists.

Calvert: And that’s the thing. I hate it when people don’t want to look at the drink menu or go to your bar because they think it’s too fancy. That’s why I don’t like the word mixologist, I’d rather just be a bartender who tries to do everything well.

Carr: I like the word bartender as well, I don’t think we need any more division. I don’t want to alienate or put up a wall between what I do and what someone does who works at a bar that just does beer and shots.

Calvert: We drink beer and do shots, too!

Carr: We do.

Calvert: Too much, actually. I think I’ve been drunk with all of you.

Kaplan: Do you take comfort in just making really simple drinks sometimes?

Colburn: You can curse that person ordering vodka and soda all you want and wish they’d be more adventurous.

Best: Oh, not me! I bless them.

Colburn: But at the end of the day that vodka soda has a great margin.

Best: And takes 30 seconds to make!

Kaplan: So, where do you draw the line on bartender snobbery?

Best: Armbands! I will never, ever wear armbands.

Colburn: That whole getup, the whole “I’m-trying-to-look-like-Jerry-Thomas-did” with my suspenders and my waxed mustache and my fedora. That whole costume is so silly. I don’t like the mustache. Calvert pretends to be insulted. But yours isn’t waxed!

Calvert: It’s just part of my face! I agree with Lindy, but if the bartender is that, let them be that. Sometimes it feels right, maybe it’s because of the entire room or because clearly he wears bowties when he’s not at work.

Best: There’s like three of them that wear bowties when not at work, but it’s costume, it’s theater. Remember when chefs used to wear the lime-green jackets and the pepper pants? That stuff happens!

Macquarrie: I think it should just fit the space, fit the establishment.

Kaplan: What defines “Southern” drinking in Atlanta right now?

Best: This is something I’ve put a lot of thought into since I took root here in Atlanta, but I rapidly realized it’s more the art of drinking here, the social structure of drinking with people. It’s the reason you can go to parts of Savannah and they’re still serving Chatham Artillery Punch. Drinking is so rooted into the communal aesthetic, it’s about how you serve a drink and being among, and with, the group. That has informed how I run my bar, how to make guests instantly feel like they’ve known you forever and you’ve been drinking over the same table many times. That definitely distinguishes Atlanta’s upswing in cocktails.

Colburn: I think it has a lot to do with ingredients, too, though. The people who have led the charge in Atlanta with cocktails came out of chef-driven places and at some point had a chef invite them into the kitchen and ask what they could do with ingredients behind the bar. There’s a respect for what’s going in the glass here, a lot more than there is in other markets.

Best: We were fortunate enough through the stars aligning that at the same time restaurants were finding their cultural identity and exploring the agricultural connections to our region was the same time that the bar scene was coming together, in parallel.

Calvert: When I was bartending in Boston, if there was a regional ingredient, it felt forced, but now I just expect to see Southern ingredients on people’s menus.

Kaplan: It seems like cocktails are more at the forefront for a lot of recently opened restaurants. How are chefs and bartenders working together?

Best: There’s more congruency than there’s ever been; you see chefs consulting with the bartenders, just a lot more play than I’ve seen before. It’s really exciting to me that chefs are as interested in cocktails as they are, because as we all know, up until two years ago, chefs used to drink nothing but vodka and cranberry, in giant cups, and it was really not much cranberry!

Creasy: Pretty much any chef in the city acknowledges that if they want the restaurant taken seriously, they have to have a decent cocktail program.

Macquarrie: I think that shows a growth in general. Three years ago Decatur was beer, beer, beer, but now ... at Leon’s, and Iberian Pig, and Cakes & Ale, people are guzzling the hard stuff.

Kaplan: What gives you pride in the Atlanta bartender community?

Calvert: What’s really beautiful to me is places like the new Octane at the Jane. At night they have this little cocktail menu, and it’s gorgeous. It’s nice to know I can go there or so many other places now and get a Negroni made properly. You don’t need to blow my mind with what you’re doing, just a Manhattan made right. Aaron Drobek runs that bar, and he worked with Navarro and me at Sound Table. It’s exciting to see our staffs, who are not going to work with us forever, to see where they go.

Macquarrie: There is a great sense of community in the Atlanta bartending scene. I’ve been behind the bar looks around and points to everyone at the table one by one with you, with you, with you, with you ...

Best: I’ve never sensed such a strength of community as what we have here in Atlanta. It is something to be celebrated.

Next: Cocktail recipes from Atlanta’s best bartenders

More: Our picks for Atlanta’s best cocktail bars

“A Famous Man”

- Navarro Carr, the Sound Table
?This cocktail plays off the rich sweetness of a good aged rum with the earthy, bitter, herbal depth of a trio of Italian masterpieces.

• 2 ounces aged rum (such as Zaya 12 year old, Flor de Caña Grand Reserve, or Angostura 7 year old)
?• 1/2 ounce Fernet-Branca
?• 1/2 ounce Amaro Nonino
?• 1/8 ounce Luxardo Maraschino
Combine the ingredients in a mixing glass. Add ice. Stir. Strain into a coupe. Garnish with an orange twist.

“Fields of Gold”

- Lara Creasy, No. 246
?A decidedly autumnal play on the classic Bee’s Knees, with a floral twist from chamomile tea and dry vermouth.

• 2 ounces No. 209 gin
?• 1/2 ounce honey syrup (half honey, half water)
?• 1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice, strained
?• 1/2 ounce chamomile-infused dry vermouth (recipe below)

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Shake and strain into chilled martini glass. Garnish with a sprinkle of fennel pollen on surface.

Chamomile-infused vermouth: Infuse one chamomile tea bag into 375 milliliter of dry vermouth overnight. Remove tea bag and squeeze to remove excess infusion from bag before discarding. Keep refrigerated.

“The Southpaw”

- Paul Calvert, Pura Vida
?Madeira doesn’t make its way into many cocktails, but provides a subtle sweetness and balanced acidity to complement the rye.

• 1 1/2 ounces Rittenhouse Rye
?• 3/4 ounce Cynar
?• 3/4 ounce Sercial Madeira (such as the Rare Wine Co.’s Historic Series Madeira)
?• 1/2 ounce Cherry Heering

Combine ingredients in a mixing glass. Add ice. Stir. Strain into a chilled rocks glass over a single large ice cube. Garnish with a lemon twist.

“Rolling Blackout”

- Lindy Colburn, Quality Wine & Spirits
?This came about during the rye shortage last year (which is what happens when demand for an aged spirit shoots up). The Barolo Chinato adds impressive depth.

• 1 1/4 ounce Redemption High-Rye Bourbon
?• 1/4 ounce Paolucci CioCiaro
?• 1 ounce Cocchi Barolo Chinato
?• 4 drops orange flower water

Combine ingredients in a mixing glass. Add ice. Stir. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange twist.

“The Edgewood”

- Greg Best, Holeman & Finch Public House
?A “dry and elegant” drink that gains an acidic, citrusy edge from fresh grapefruit juice.

• 1 ounce white grapefruit juice
?• 1 ounce dry gin
?• 1/2 ounce Portal Moscatel
?• 1/2 ounce Cynar

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Add ice, shake, and double strain. Serve up. Garnish with a pinch of sea salt.

“Old Timer”

- Miles Macquarrie, Leon’s Full Service
?Sassafras sounds so nice, and used to be commonly seen around the South. This is a play on the Old Fashioned, with the sassafras providing an herbal base note.

• 2 ounces Buffalo Trace bourbon
?• 3/8 ounce honey syrup (recipe below)
?• 3/4 ounce sassafras tea (recipe below)
?• 2 dashes Angostura bitters

Stir all ingredients in a mixing glass with ice. Strain into an Old Fashioned glass over a large cube of ice. Garnish with a large swath of orange peel.

Honey syrup: Dissolve 3 parts honey in 1 part hot water. Leon’s uses Georgia wildflower honey.

Sassafras tea: Bring 1 cup of sassafras root bark and 4 cups water to a boil. Simmer for five minutes. Cut heat, cover, and let steep for an additional five minutes. Strain through a few layers of cheese cloth (or through a coffee filter).

More: Our picks for Atlanta’s best cocktail bars

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