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Atlanta's best bartenders speak up

A roundtable discussion about the city's cocktail renaissance, plus their cocktail recipes



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From left: Navarro Carr, Paul Calvert, Miles Macquarrie, Lara Creasy, Greg Best - JOEFF DAVIS
  • Joeff Davis
  • From left: Navarro Carr, Paul Calvert, Miles Macquarrie, Lara Creasy, Greg Best

Kaplan: So, where do you draw the line on bartender snobbery?

Best: Armbands! I will never, ever wear armbands.

Colburn: That whole getup, the whole "I'm-trying-to-look-like-Jerry-Thomas-did" with my suspenders and my waxed mustache and my fedora. That whole costume is so silly. I don't like the mustache. [Calvert pretends to be insulted.] But yours isn't waxed!

Calvert: It's just part of my face! I agree with Lindy, but if the bartender is that, let them be that. Sometimes it feels right, maybe it's because of the entire room or because clearly he wears bowties when he's not at work.

Best: There's like three of them [that wear bowties when not at work], but it's costume, it's theater. Remember when chefs used to wear the lime-green jackets and the pepper pants? That stuff happens!

Macquarrie: I think it should just fit the space, fit the establishment.

Kaplan: What defines "Southern" drinking in Atlanta right now?

Best: This is something I've put a lot of thought into since I took root here in Atlanta, but I rapidly realized it's more the art of drinking here, the social structure of drinking with people. It's the reason you can go to parts of Savannah and they're still serving Chatham Artillery Punch. Drinking is so rooted into the communal aesthetic, it's about how you serve a drink and being among, and with, the group. That has informed how I run my bar, how to make guests instantly feel like they've known you forever and you've been drinking over the same table many times. That definitely distinguishes Atlanta's upswing in cocktails.

Colburn: I think it has a lot to do with ingredients, too, though. The people who have led the charge in Atlanta with cocktails came out of chef-driven places and at some point had a chef invite them into the kitchen and ask what they could do with ingredients behind the bar. There's a respect for what's going in the glass here, a lot more than there is in other markets.

Best: We were fortunate enough through the stars aligning that at the same time restaurants were finding their cultural identity and exploring the agricultural connections to our region was the same time that the bar scene was coming together, in parallel.

Calvert: When I was bartending in Boston, if there was a regional ingredient, it felt forced, but now I just expect to see Southern ingredients on people's menus.

Kaplan: It seems like cocktails are more at the forefront for a lot of recently opened restaurants. How are chefs and bartenders working together?

Best: There's more congruency than there's ever been; you see chefs consulting with the bartenders, just a lot more play than I've seen before. It's really exciting to me that chefs are as interested in cocktails as they are, because as we all know, up until two years ago, chefs used to drink nothing but vodka and cranberry, in giant cups, and it was really not much cranberry!

Creasy: Pretty much any chef in the city acknowledges that if they want the restaurant taken seriously, they have to have a decent cocktail program.

Macquarrie: I think that shows a growth in general. Three years ago Decatur was beer, beer, beer, but now ... at Leon's, and Iberian Pig, and Cakes & Ale, people are guzzling the hard stuff.

Kaplan: What gives you pride in the Atlanta bartender community?

Calvert: What's really beautiful to me is places like the new Octane at the Jane. At night they have this little cocktail menu, and it's gorgeous. It's nice to know I can go there or so many other places now and get a Negroni made properly. You don't need to blow my mind with what you're doing, just a Manhattan made right. Aaron Drobek runs that bar, and he worked with Navarro and me at Sound Table. It's exciting to see our staffs, who are not going to work with us forever, to see where they go.

Macquarrie: There is a great sense of community in the Atlanta bartending scene. I've been behind the bar [looks around and points to everyone at the table one by one] with you, with you, with you, with you ...

Best: I've never sensed such a strength of community as what we have here in Atlanta. It is something to be celebrated.

Next: Cocktail recipes from Atlanta's best bartenders

More: Our picks for Atlanta's best cocktail bars

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