Atlanta’s cocktail scene flies under the national radar, but the talent is here

New spaces, new faces, and “weird little bubbling pools” of creativity: These are intoxicating times to be an Atlanta barfly

Atlanta's cocktail scene

Photograph by Brinson + Banks

Have you ever come across a gem of a place and wondered how no one else has found out about it? That’s what the entire Atlanta bar scene is like. Atlanta may influence everything, but when it comes to the national cocktail conversation, it flies way under the radar. Is the talent here? Yes. Do many people know about it? No.

I asked three of Atlanta’s most notable cocktail voices to give their perspective on the current bar scene, tell us where they’re drinking, and pass the torch to the next generation of bartenders. First up: Ticonderoga Club co-owner Greg Best, who was part of the team (led by chef Linton Hopkins) behind Holeman & Finch Public House, which has been credited with ushering craft cocktails into Atlanta. It could also be credited with the format of some of the city’s best bar programs: If you find great cocktails in Atlanta, you’re pretty much assured to find great food as well. This hybrid model is largely due to the city’s complex liquor laws, which require 50 percent food sales for most establishments. But when Holeman opened in Buckhead in 2008, it set a new standard for what a drinking place should look like.

In the intervening years, though, the scene settled into a kind of rut—same old spaces, same kinds of cocktails on every menu. That’s changing, Best says: “I think there has been a really significant, necessary kind of break in what the culture had become, which was a lot of step and repeat. There are these weird little bubbling pools that I don’t think anyone’s paying attention to yet that are starting to create weird expressions of what a bar can be here. And that’s really exciting to me.”

New Paradigms
Parlor and Little Spirit are two of the new “houses” Best has his eye on. Parlor is an intimate Black-owned cocktail bar in Castleberry Hill; Little Spirit, which opened in Inman Park in 2018, is one of the only places in the city you can stroll into at one in the morning for a great cocktail. Both serve food, but they depart from the hybrid model pioneered by Holeman by focusing on the booze and on cultivating a more communal atmosphere. Best also admires the thoughtful, beautiful cocktails at Reynoldstown neo-diner Wonderkid, and the Summerhill Thai restaurant Talat Market, whose food has attracted tons of praise, but whose bar program—which makes use of Southeast Asian ingredients like pandan, fresh coconut cream, and lemongrass—is just as laudable.

“The young people that are now picking up the reins and starting to go at it are a completely different psyche,” says Best. “They have been influenced by completely different factors.” In some places, that means a bar that’s “a little rough and ready,” he says. “But that’s okay because bar culture is a living, breathing thing, and it needs to change to stay relevant.”

The rough-and-readiness might be because Atlanta currently lacks a chapter of the United States Bartenders’ Guild—a staple in cities across the country that provides a central place for education and community in the industry. The lack of a chapter here means that some up-and-comers have to figure out how to make their own way. And those bartenders, while talented, are humble—a significant departure from what the Atlanta scene looked like at its origins. The lack of ego allows them the freedom to experiment and make some mistakes.

Hotel Bars on the Rise
Kellie Thorn, formerly the beverage director of Hugh Acheson’s restaurants and now a beverage consultant and spirits educator, is also paying attention to concepts outside the traditional restaurant framework, like “a secret bar in a food hall that celebrates the oft-maligned drinking culture of the ’70s and ’80s in a really unabashed and sexy way”—Jojo’s Beloved, the recently opened “speakeasy” in Colony Square.

“In addition, our hotel-bar scene is coming up fast,” Thorn continues. “For a long time, when I thought about the best hotel bar in Atlanta, I considered it to be Bar Margot, largely because of Tokiwa Sears and Thandi Walton”—two bartenders who’ve worked at the swanky Ford Fry restaurant inside the Four Seasons. “But right now, we are seeing a lot of thoughtful hotel programs being set up all over the city with major talent involved, and I’m here for it.”

Atlanta's cocktail scene
Veteran Atlanta bartender Thandi Walton landed recently at the Thompson Buckhead.

Photograph by Brinson + Banks

Walton, for instance, has moved to the Thompson Buckhead, where she oversees Dirty Rascal, a moody vintage Italian concept that leans heavily into amaro, and Tesserae, a members-only rooftop bar with an unparalleled view of the city. Right across the street, the Sylvan hotel serves classic cocktails in the Old Hollywood–inspired restaurant the Betty, and gin and tonics in the idyllic Willow Bar. Over in Poncey-Highland, the lobby bar at Hotel Clermont—refreshed and reopened in 2018—is worth grabbing a drink from before ducking into the Clermont Lounge for some late-night mischief.

Taking the Reins
On the surface, the job of bartender is straightforward: They’re the person who makes your drink. In reality, a great bartender is the consummate host and a multitasking wizard. They keep the tempo of the room steady and know how to balance a cocktail. Exceptional bartenders can do all of that and concoct their own stories through a glass. They’ve studied and absorbed enough history to know which rules to break.

“I tend to drink at bars of people that I know, and I usually know them because someone I know trained them,” says Tiffanie Barriere, the former beverage director of One Flew South, now a consultant and educator under the moniker the Drinking Coach. One stop on her circuit is Bon Ton, an industry favorite since it opened in 2017, where the bar manager is Baylee Hopings. A national finalist for the bar competition Speed Rack, Hopings serves a steady demeanor along with a great cocktail, Barriere says: “The food helps, but Baylee is consistent, and I just fuck with her so hard because of that.”

If great bartenders are storytellers, they can be performers, too—like Jarrett Holborough, of 12 Cocktail Bar in Ponce City Market, who’s also participated in national competitions. “There’s that showmanship that reminds me of what bartending was when I first got in,” Barriere says. “You had to be this personality. He represents Atlanta very well. It’s what we usually see in other cities, you know, that one person who’s gonna always compete and be the showboat. But he wins.”

Atlanta's cocktail scene
Tiffanie Barriere has her eye on Atlanta’s freshest crop of bartenders, including Caleb Grubb.

Photograph by Brinson + Banks

Another person on Barriere’s radar is Caleb Grubb, who’s leading the bar team at the new Rumi’s in Midtown. Given the concept and location of Rumi’s, the cocktails are more commercial than the sherry cobbler variations he’d make at 8Arm—but they’re still exceptionally crafted, with ingredients that complement and overlap with the Persian flavors of chef Ali Mesghali’s menu: pomegranate, rosewater, saffron. When Grubb was at 8Arm, Barriere asked him for a stirred, boozy rum cocktail; he concocted a dark rum and amaro mixture that left a lasting impression. “I want him in my bag,” says Barriere. “He made me one of the best drinks I’ve ever had. He listens. He’s adorable. There’s no ego. You wouldn’t even know he was a bartender. He’s like a dentist. He’s incredible.”

Atlanta's cocktail scene
At the new Rumi’s in Midtown, Grubb mixes drinks like the Shazdeh Garden—a vodka cocktail with lime, elderberry, mint, aquafaba, and black lemon bitters.

Photograph by Brinson + Banks

Atlanta's cocktail scene
The bourbon-based, citrus-scented Handsome Lion at Rumi’s

Photograph by Brinson + Banks

This article appears in our April 2022 issue.