Cakes & Ale’s Jordan Smelt talks (re)building a beverage program

Cocktails, wine, and beer all get careful attention
The Café Olé, on Cakes & Ale's winter cocktail menu.

After almost four years of working at Holeman & Finch mostly as a general manager, Jordan Smelt left Buckhead to come to Cakes & Ale in Decatur, where he took over the beverage program last June. Since his arrival, Cakes’ offerings have both expanded and become more focused, giving visitors the option of simple old world wines, craft cocktails, or specialty beers to accompany their meal.

Taking the reins from chef Billy Allin, who was then running his own kitchen while also overseeing the beverage department, Smelt arrived with the intention of breaking things down to build them back up. He was no real outsider, however.

“Cakes & Ale was my favorite place to go before I worked here,” Smelt said. “When I was ready to have a beverage program of my own, I had a short list of places I wanted to work—Cakes & Ale was pretty much it.”

Smelt knew he wanted a comprehensive program that would match the quality of Allin’s food. “We always talked about it at Holeman, and it’s still true at Cakes, that one of the goals in a restaurant is the total absence of fear from a guest. What I mean is when you’re deciding to go somewhere and you think, ‘Well, their food is great but their cocktails aren’t so good.’ Or, ‘I like their wine program, but you can’t get a decent beer there.’ So we want the service to be excellent—the food will be spectacular, and you can get a great cocktail, bottle of wine, or beer. You don’t have to worry that if you order an Old Fashioned the bar will screw it up.”

In the wine department, Smelt increased his inventory by about thirty-five percent, with a concentration on wines from France and Italy. “I had an idea of what I wanted to do with wine before I got here, because I’d eaten here so much,” Smelt said. The man likes his Burgundy and Rhones from the north and south, along with multiple choices from our own West Coast. “We find producers who make clean, delicious flavors, not overblown.”

And if the wine list at Cakes appears jarring at first, it’s because Smelt has organized it differently than what many diners are accustomed to seeing. Smelt has selections listed according to region and place, as opposed to varietal. No groupings of “Syrah, Shiraz and Rhone blends” to be found here. “Just like barbecue from South Carolina is completely different in style than barbecue from Texas or Kansas City, Syrah from the Northern Rhone is completely different than Syrah from California or a Shiraz from Australia. Those wines have no business being anywhere near each other on a list!”

Cakes’ list is one page, with about 90 selections. Rather than trying to carry a wine style for every drinker, Smelt preferred to cull a list specifically to pair with Allin’s food. So the Jasnieres from France’s Loire Valley isn’t just there to spark curiosity. It’s there because the golden-hued white has a spicy, warming flavor that pairs beautifully with fresh mozzarella, and stands up to the richness of lamb gnocchi.

Helping to execute drinks, Smelt is joined by longstanding employee Melissa Davis and Evan Milliman, who also spent nearly four years at Holeman and is an “invaluable” drink maker, said Smelt. What makes this team so outstanding, he said, is that in addition to knowing their beverages, the team shares the philosophy that Allin’s food is “always the star of the show.” Their job then, is to execute consistently, and help guests navigate offerings to find what suits their interests best. Apparently, so far, so good.

“Jordan helped us expand our liquor program,” Davis said, who has been at Cakes for almost four years. “It encompasses very rare and small batch as well, as larger production, spirits. I’ve found that our customers actually feel more comfortable asking questions about our spirits and cocktails.”

And what about those cocktails—mysterious yet enticing, full of quasi-recognizable ingredients like chartreurse, demerara, and luxardo? According to Smelt, most customers don’t know what about seventy-five percent of the ingredients are on their cocktail menu. But to be able to create new cocktails while also producing classics, they had to add more spirits—more whiskeys, cordials, amaros, bitters. “We end up talking more about what guests like—sweet, tart, citrus,” Smelt said. “That’s why we’re able to get people to try gin for the first time in fifteen years, or others end up enjoying whiskey when they previously swore off dark liquors. They’re pleasantly surprised and we’ve built that trust.

This winter’s Café Ole cocktail is an example of how the team tests out flavors. Smelt noticed that tequila and white crème de cacao were blending well together, so he asked Milliman to see what he could conjure up. Smelt says Milliman fleshed out the drink in about fifteen minutes, with a touch of cracked espresso bean to even things out. With cocktails, that’s always what Smelt is on the search for: balance.

Milliman said that they have now reached a standard of uniformity in their drink making, and credits his and Smelt’s bartender upbringing under Greg Best and team in what he called “the house of Holeman.”

“I believe the entire drink program now matches the caliber of Billy’s food,” Milliman said, “and we couldn’t be happier.