Food - Southern cocktail culture

A look at drinking trends in the South

The South and cocktails go together like sweet tea and lemonade. But, if last week’s Atlanta Food and Wine Festival is any indication, the South is also embracing cocktails that go way beyond easy inspirations like the Arnold Palmer. In fact, the opening toast of this festival was a cocktail that simply and deliciously managed to blend Old World elegance with Southern heritage — a flute of sparkling wine topped with a pour of floral Four Roses bourbon. A perfect drink to toast the festival; a perfect drink to capture the anchors and aspirations of drinking in Atlanta.

A quick look at Atlanta’s cocktail bars confirms that traditional Southern cocktails like the Sazerac or the Mint Julep are more popular than ever, basking in a revival of bourbon and rye pride. Less well-known concoctions like the Chatham Artillery Punch, a much-too-drinkable classic out of 1880’s-era Savannah, are also increasingly prominent. Just check out the list of punch bowls (serving four to six people each) at H. Harper Station, and it’s clear that the cocktails of yesteryear are inspirational in more ways than one.

At the Atlanta Food and Wine Festival, the featured cocktail at the “History of the Southern Cocktail” panel discussion was that very same Chatham Artillery Punch. This is a drink that gives a strong nod to the past, but it also goes down awfully easy, like a vibrant lemonade. “I’ve seen bad things happen from drinking this,” warned cocktail historian Dave Wondrich, but good things are happening as well due to drinks like this.

Of course, the South is looking well beyond its own borders for classic cocktail inspiration. Two of Atlanta’s preeminent bartenders, Paul Calvert of Pura Vida and Navarro Carr of the Sound Table, have become vocal supporters of the virtues of some fine spirits from south of the border — pisco, rhum agricole, and mezcal. While these three spirits are firmly rooted in their respective cultures (in Peru, the French Caribbean Islands, and Oaxaca, Mexico, respectively), they’re also highly suited to Southern palates seeking bold and adventurous flavors. Being true to a sense of place, actually, is what makes these drinks so intriguing. When you taste a good rhum agricole (made from freshly pressed sugar cane and specific to its place of origin where that sugar cane is growing), you taste the grassiness of the green fields from whence it came. When you sip a single village mezcal, you taste a tradition and a specific flavor profile unique to the fields of agave and remote distilleries in that area. And these spirits make some amazing cocktails.

Calvert and Carr demonstrated the cocktail versatility of these south-of-Southern gems during their cocktail seminar at the festival. If you like herbal and citrus notes, you should try a grassy rhum agricole daiquiri — no, not the frozen kind, but a simple mix of the rhum, lime, and sugar. Is smoky, dark, and bitter more your style? Go for a Mexican spin on the Italian classic cocktail called the Negroni, replacing the traditional gin with a good mezcal reposado, balanced out with good Italian vermouth (Cocchi Vermouth di Torino) and Aperol (a cousin of Campari).

Another area of cocktail magic in the midst of revival is the prominent use of fortified wines — drinks like vermouth, sherry, Madeira, or Barolo Chinato. Vermouth has long had a running role in the cocktail bar, but now, as more high quality and distinctive vermouths make their way to the American market, vermouth is being appreciated more for its star potential than its supporting role. In Atlanta, bartenders like Greg Best at Holeman & Finch and Lara Creasy at No. 246 and JCT Kitchen work wonders with a range of cocktails built around fortified wines (look for the name “Suppressor” on their cocktail lists, these drinks aim for a lower level of alcohol than some of their bracingly strong counterparts).

At the festival, this theme emerged most prominently in the cocktails of bartenders Neal Bodenheimer and Nick Detrich of New Orleans’ bars Cure and Bellocq. These two ambassadors of awesome displayed some incredible finesse with fortified wines during their cocktail seminar. The aforementioned Barolo chinato (a Barolo based fortified wine with quinine) found its way into a rich affair with rye, amaro, and orange peel that riffed on the Manhattan cocktail in a delightfully devious way. And a dessert-like fortified wine from Spain called Dulce Monastrell starred in a deep but refreshing concoction with just a touch of simple syrup, bitters, and fresh fruit. I’m seeking out a bottle of this stuff myself right now.

The evolution of our cocktail culture here in Atlanta, here in the South, is clearly taking a pace that looks backward and moves forward at the same time. Our bartenders can borrow from their forebears, as in the revival of punches and pre-Prohibition recipes. And they can also look abroad for ideas, whether in the form of an array of fortified wines or in the bottles of south of the border spirits that until recently were practically unseen here in Georgia. We may still drink sweet tea at lunchtime, but come late night, we get the benefit of bartenders who pursue their craft like an ever-evolving master class in delicious drinking. And we should thank them for lighting the way.

Brad Kaplan runs, dedicated to all things drinking well in the South, from cocktails to coffee.

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