June 2009

Our Happiest Hour

Atlanta's star bartenders whet whistles with fresh, diverse cocktails
By Christiane Lauterbach

The first cocktail I ever drank, a Pimm’s Cup at Le Drugstore, then a fashionable new spot on Paris’s Champs Elysées, failed to convince me that mixing alcohol with other substances was a good thing. I promptly reverted to a regimen of aperitif, digestif, and wine, as did most of my compatriots at the time.

Holeman and Finch's "Blind Love"
What the French call “un Martini” is actually a brand of vermouth. It didn’t really prepare me for the martinis I encountered upon moving to the States, an incapacitating experience that left me rooted to my seat in the backyard of a New Jersey couple who must have wondered at my lack of social grace.

My path toward cocktail enlightenment started here in Atlanta with several well-made mint juleps, old fashioneds, and, yes, gin martinis with an inconsequential amount of vermouth. I went on a quest for the best Negroni (one-third gin, one-third Carpano Antica Formula vermouth, one-third Campari, and a few drops of orange oil squeezed from a fresh peel, as done at Sotto Sotto). I discovered the importance of ice in Japan, where bartenders pride themselves on making their own with purified water, carving it on demand into perfectly crystalline shards or glistening orbs—a trend that has finally made it to our best bars.

The reasons I am now more likely to order a cocktail rather than wine at the start of a meal have as much to do with the migration toward craft cocktails (aka culinary cocktails) as they do with a pet peeve of mine: bartenders who routinely slosh a few dregs of wine in a glass and complete the pour from another bottle.

Cynar Blood Orange, Top Flr
These days, it is unthinkable for a great restaurant not to have a list of creative cocktails. Greg Best of Holeman and Finch Public House rose to bartender stardom when he started making his own bitters and tonics and mixing magic elixirs behind the bar of Restaurant Eugene. He has had a profound influence on the local scene. Best is establishing a unique Southern style of mixology that relies on regional spirits and what he calls “the products of our beautiful agriculture.” His variation on the Brown Derby, for example, is made with small-batch bourbon from Kentucky, tupelo honey, and the juice of blood oranges grown in a Louisiana backyard. His sweet corn milk margarita and his bay leaf tea with clover honey and un-aged whiskey (a dead ringer for moonshine) could only have been born in the South.

It is never good for an artist to remain unchallenged, and the opening of Drinkshop in the W Atlanta-Downtown has raised the bar to dizzying heights for all aspiring cocktail masters. The star of the show is Eric Simpkins, who has worked with national mixologist stars and trains his colleagues in the fine art of making ice (round, hand-chipped, stalked, cracked), dry-shaking egg whites for mixing superlative fizzes, and talking to customers—the better to meet their unique cocktail needs. Exquisite technique and the best barware in the city make each sip unforgettable.

Known to me for its fresh, fruity Brazilian drinks, Midtown’s Beleza has recently set its sights on a broader palette of fine craft cocktails. Adam Fox is a wizard with the fashionable alcohols (Mata Hari absinthe, Canton ginger liqueur, St. Germain elderflower liqueur, sloe gin), dropper bottles, and spice extracts that are the marks of contemporary bartending distinction.

Female bartenders such as Stephanie Ruhe of The Mansion on Peachtree, who created the Lady Sapphire, have also come into their own. Lara Creasy, who left Shaun’s for JCT Kitchen and Bar, is a wonderful homegrown talent. Her cocktails are seasonal and intuitive, and even something as humdrum as punch reaches extraordinary new heights in her hands with, for example, the addition of a fresh touch of pineapple and cinnamon.

I am truly appreciative of the fact that relatively modest operations such as Leon’s Full Service and Top Flr have stellar bartenders—Miles Macquarrie and Adam Backmeyer, respectively—and a wonderfully quirky inventory of rye whiskeys (a huge trend at the moment) and items such as Cynar (an Italian bitter made with artichokes), Aperol (an aperitif related to Campari), and Crème de Mûre (a wild blackberry liqueur).

The point of drinking cocktails is not to shoot alcohol fast into your bloodstream. I enjoy a well-made drink the way I enjoy a successful dish, and so should you.

Photographs by Muzel Chen