Happy Hour with Kellie Thorn

Empire State South's bar manager talks cocktails, the state of female bartenders in Atlanta, and more

Since opening in 2010, Empire State South has been an accolade magnet. If ESS does it, there's a good chance it's won a "best of" award for it. Bar manager Kellie Thorn's cocktails are no exception. Thorn has been behind the bar thinking up intriguing, seasonally inspired cocktails at ESS since it opened. But her dedication to bartending goes beyond her duties at the restaurant.

Thorn has personally racked up her own string of accomplishments in 2013. She was a regional finalist in the USBG Nation's Most Imaginative Bartender competition and a finalist in the G'Vine Gin's Gin Connoisseur Program, which led her to compete on an international level in Cognac, France. Not bad for someone who started bartending under far less glamorous conditions.

"I began my career behind the bar a little over a decade ago in college dance clubs and a pizza restaurant that doubled as a punk rock venue in Alabama," Thorn says. "I've popped countless PBRs and made more Surfer on Acid shots than I care to recount."

How did you end up at ESS?

Around six years ago, I started to really focus on building a career in food and beverage. I worked at Tap as their lead bartender for a few years, and that's when I did the BarSmarts Advanced program. That course, coupled with experiencing Eric Simpkins' impressive bar program at neighboring Trois, sparked my interest in collecting old cocktail books and trying to execute the classic recipes. The general mangager of Tap was leaving to open ESS, and she asked if I would be interested in interviewing for the bar manager position there. I guess we all know what my answer was!

What's your favorite place for a drink in Atlanta?

The Bookhouse Pub and the Righteous Room are two of my favorite post-work haunts in Atlanta. Leon's Full Service and the Brick Store Pub always make me feel like family, and though I can't get to them enough, Kimball House and Paper Plane never cease to delight.

You get one artist to listen to behind the bar this week. Only one. Who is it?

Wow, music is an integral part of the bar experience, so this one is hard. This week, the Stooges. I always love raucous, high-energy rock and punk on busy nights — the Misfits, Buzzcocks, Stooges. It keeps me moving.

Vodka or gin?

Gin. More flavor, more character, more possibilities.

Bourbon or rye?

Rye because it's a little more mixable, and I dig those spice notes.

Roller derby or wrestling?

Roller Derby. I'm crazy for roller skating. Badass chicks are awesome, too.

Who — dead or alive — would you most like to meet and make a drink for?

Hmmm. Dorothy Parker is definitely one. Tom Waits is another.

When you hear the following words what do you think of?

Winter: Scarves, Scotch, decorating the Christmas tree with my little boy.

Mixologist: A term that does not best describe what I do.

Moonshine: My uncle Wayne's remedy for a teething baby.

Hangover: Occupational hazard.

North Georgia: Apples, moonshine, my family's farm, red clay.

What are your thoughts on the state of female bartenders in Atlanta these days?

I look around right now and see Shanna Mayo and Kathryn Di Menichi at Leon's Full Service, Melissa Hayes of Holeman & Finch, Tiffanie Barriere at One Flew South, and Arianne Fielder of Article 14 all running amazing bar programs in this city. Atlanta has a strong female representation, and I'm so proud to be in the company of so many badass ladies. There certainly weren't this many women running programs a few years ago, and it makes me optimistic that more women will start stepping up into leadership roles.

What's next for you and Empire State South?

A kind of mission statement chef/partner Hugh Acheson has is, "If you don't want to make it better than it was yesterday, you should go work somewhere else." You aren't allowed to be complacent, and Hugh cultivates an environment that encourages creativity and learning. I'm still learning and evolving every day here, and I've recently stepped into a beverage director-type role beyond just ESS — I'll be working on the new projects we're opening, and consulting on some other things. It's all very exciting.

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