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Happy Hour with Lindy Colburn

From bars with amateur boxing, to Brazilian cocktails, to behind the scenes, the vice president of Quality Wine & Spirits has seen it all

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Distributors are a vital link in the chain that starts at a distillery and ends with a cocktail in your glass. Without them, the fine bars and bottle shops of Atlanta would be booze broke. As VP of Spirits for Quality Wine & Spirits, one of Georgia's leading distributors, Lindy Colburn clearly wants to make sure that doesn't happen.

Like many folks who end up with a career in the world of spirits, Colburn started working in bars during college, where a commitment to quality cocktails was not often top of mind. At one of the bars where she worked in Gainesville, Fla., the big draw was amateur female boxing. Another had a beach club theme and insisted that bartenders stand on the bar to pour margarita shots directly into customers' mouths. Colburn quickly got canned for refusing, foreshadowing her future ability to design a proper cocktail menu.

Colburn's bartending career shot off in Atlanta in the early 2000s at places like MidCity Cuisine and then with Riccardo Ullio's now-defunct duo of Beleza and Cuerno. Colburn ran the bar programs for Ullio, tilting to drinks like a sparkling sangria with kumquat and seasonal citrus at the Spanish Cuerno, or exotic fruit juice-driven cocktails based on Brazilian flavors at Beleza. She was even an early adopter of using sous vide for infusing spirits and syrups. But life behind the bar led to other things. Now, Colburn is part of that vital link that helps supply bars and bottle shops around Georgia with the good stuff.

What prompted the move from behind the bar to behind behind the bar?

It was really a culmination of factors. We opened both Cuerno and Beleza in a seven-month time period. Anyone who's been on the opening team of a restaurant will understand what grueling work that was. The last time I had gone through the process, I wasn't a mother, but this time around my daughter was starting kindergarten, and it was really tough on both of us. One day she said to me, "You only have one day a week for the family." It gutted me, and I knew something had to give.

Around the same time, my rep from Quality asked if I'd ever thought about moving to the distribution side. Quality was interesting to me because Bill Yorks had started this beautiful little craft spirits portfolio that I was totally enamored with. It's a very delicate thing to go from a bar to a distributor, because no one wants to upset a great customer by stealing one of their people. I really struggled with the choice. I knew what was going on around the country in cocktails, and it was just getting started in Atlanta, so I worried that I was getting out too soon. My quality of life is better now, but there are times when I still really miss the camaraderie and energy of behind the bar.

What role does a job like yours play in helping to shape Atlanta's cocktail scene?

One of the most important things I do is seeking out new distilleries and products, and making sure they get into the right hands once they're in our market. I also help educate both our sales force and buyers and staff at bars on spirits and cocktails.

Manhattan or Old Fashioned?

Manhattan. It's my end-of-the-day cocktail. Typically with High West Double Rye and Cocchi Vermouth di Torino. Depending on where I'm at in the night, I might invert the ratio to 2 parts vermouth and 1 part rye. Paul Calvert claims that's called a "Bridge & Tunnel," but I have a feeling he made that up.

Vodka martini or gin martini?

Gin. I only drink vodka in Bloody Marys, or when I'm with my mom. She's a vodka tonic drinker. She has two every night and has as long as I can remember.

Wine or beer?

Wine. It's just more of an everyday drink for me. That said, there are certain places that I always drink beer — Brick Store, the Porter, on boats, at festivals, with barbecue.

Having been a bartender, what surprised you most about the distribution side of the business?

How low the margins are! As a buyer at a bottle shop or bar, you have this sense that all distributors have tons of money to throw around. I was shocked to learn how inaccurate that was. Another big surprise was how long it takes a product to get from point A to point B. You think, "Oh, it's just stored in New Jersey, we should be able to have it in a day or two." The reality is that it takes seven to 14 days to get something out of one warehouse and in to another.

What are some of your favorite new spirits now available?

I love so many things that came around this year! The Dolin Genepy, which is very green herbal, or Cappelletti Aperitivo, which is a bitter like Campari. They're both just plain delicious. Hayman's Royal Dock Gin is such a stellar value. And the whole Giffard line of liqueurs — their "banane du bresil" will change the way your feel about banana liqueurs. January will bring about the relaunch of the eau de vies and liqueurs from St. George and a rhum agricole from Guadalupe called Damoiseau. And at some point in 2014, after much pestering on my part, we should finally see the Hayman's Sloe Gin and hopefully their London Dry in the U.S. as well.

Are there things you sell that you have a hard time really getting behind?

I have a hard time with products that have been cooked up in a marketing meeting and aren't driven by a true desire to make the best spirit possible. One of my least favorite things to do is sit across the table from someone pitching me on something saying, "It's what women want to drink." Not this woman, or any of her friends.

What's the biggest liquor-related gripe you hear these days?

Hands down the biggest gripe I deal with on a daily basis is the lack of Black Maple Hill Bourbon. I hear it from my co-workers, from our buyers, from people I meet at parties that can't find it at their local store anymore. People want it because they can't have it.

When you hear the following words immediately comes to mind?

Mixologist: A polarizing term that I have no issue with.

Craft distillery: It's getting crowded.

Bitters: The bartender's spice rack.

Vodka soda: Why?

PBR: Tallboys.

Fernet: Bartenders' crack.

What was the last great drink you had?

The eggnog at Miller Union. It inspired me to make three batches of eggnog at home over Christmas that were largely consumed by me.

Interesting trends you see hitting Atlanta's bars in 2014?

I think we'll continue to see fortified wines gaining favor with bartenders, Madeira and sherry especially. And I don't think the thirst for all things bitter and herbal has been fully quenched — expect to see some lesser-known styles from various European countries enter the market. I also think that we will see a return to a more fun, less serious attitude behind the bar.

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