Drinks of Choice
Raising the bar on Southern cocktails
ver the past decade and a half, I have been a lucky witness to a drinking revolution. I was an early patron of Milk & Honey, the Manhattan bar where Sasha Petraske defined the modern speakeasy aesthetic of Jazz Age cocktails and hirsute bartenders.
Before he was a household name and his whiskey was the fetish of the elite, I sipped old-fashioneds with Julian Van Winkle and listened to him marvel at the kismet rediscovery of his family’s wheated bourbon.
Back when Chris McMillian, a founder of the Museum of the American Cocktail, was mallet-crushing ice blocks in a canvas bag in a New Orleans hotel lobby, I learned to embrace the slow and pleasant dilution of a proper julep. Not long after Hurricane
Katrina floodwaters receded, I hunkered in that city with Ted Breaux, who charted wormwood-bewitched absinthe’s path to legalization, to drink deep into his stock and dream green pixie dreams.
My seat at the bar has been privileged. But I have not been alone. Across the South and beyond, drinkers have gained fluency in single-barrel bourbons, barrel-rested gins, and solera-aged rums. Southerners now demand pedigreed booze and principled
mixers. Soda guns, coursing with anemic tonic water and cola treacle, are passé. House tonics and small-batch craft vermouths are the choice. A platoon of bitters, marshaled like soldiers for war, fronts the correct modern bar.
A potent pair at the ready.
DYLAN + JENI
Obscure amaros from obscure Italian provinces (and unobscure Southern cities) line the back mirror. (High Wire Distilling of Charleston, South Carolina, crafts a Lowcountry amaro, sourced from locally grown and foraged ingredients including black
tea, yaupon holly, and tangerine.) Elegant glassware, from Marie Antoinette coupes to fat-bottomed lowballs, await bartenders, now expert in fluid dynamics and vessel geometry.
While many of us merely drank during those formative years, others worked. In search of origins, historians plundered archives. After years of fakelore validation, when dupes like me believed the word cocktail derived from the French word for eggcup, the author David Wondrich discovered the likely origin of the term. (The story involves a horse, a ginger suppository, and a cocked tail.)
This resuscitation work proved inspiring. Digging in to apothecary manuals and saloon manifests, educated tenders paid homage to their forebears, restocked moribund bars with fabled bottles, exhumed lost recipes, and conjured new tastes that respect old ways. On the whiskey-tossed seas of the modern South, all ships rose.
Barriers that once separated restaurants and bars fell. Bars built menus that met the starch and salt needs of drinkers but didn’t verge into Applebee’s territory. (I’m looking at you, Kimball House Pommes Macaire potato logs.) Restaurants expended as much effort on cocktail lists as wine lists.
Fifteen years or so into the revolution, the idealized cocktail has reemerged as a fulcrum of Southern life, brimming with stiff rye and sweet vermouth, perfumed with a fairy share of absinthe. Served over a silicone-mold-frozen rectangle of ice, presented with a flourish by a bartender who, after years of bourbon and Cokes and servility, now claims her place in the hospitality firmament, the modern cocktail is a totem of craft and creativity, a passkey to everyday bliss, achievable nightly across the region.
Join me on a victory lap, run over the last eighteen months, in which I surveyed the state of drinking and came home with fifteen emblematic cocktails to celebrate and replicate, from a whiskey sour in my hometown of Oxford, Mississippi, to a mint julep goosed with pinecone liqueur in faraway Rome.
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Space-themed records, circuit boards, and snapshots from a refurbished photo booth adorn the bar at Satellite in Birmingham.
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Jayce McConnell gets to work behind the bar at Edmund’s Oast.
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One of Bourbon House’s whiskey cabinets.
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Moses Guidry at Filament with an extra-chilled glass.
Dylan + Jeni
Ramos Gin Fizz
Gin, egg white, cream, lemon juice, lime juice, simple syrup, orange flower water, and orange seltzer
Huey Long, the 1930s Louisiana political demagogue, drank gin fizzes. Dressed in a white suit, his hair combed into a mop of curls, he held forth on the egg-white-and-cream body that a proficient barman should achieve. Long would have loved Kimball House, a former train depot where the Ramos Gin Fizz—conceived in 1888 by Henrico C. Ramos at the Imperial Cabinet Saloon in New Orleans—reaches its platonic ideal.
To understand the labor that goes into a proper cocktail, order a pony of lager as an aperitif and watch bartender David Chapman or Jason Harris work Boston shakers like castanets. Thirty minutes, a quick rest in the freezer, and a few more flourishes later, the drink arrives, a white velvet froth pluming over the highball lip into a high fade and the aroma wafting like a camellia in spring bloom.
Angostura bitters, egg white, cream, lime juice, grenadine, and soda
Not all cocktails need to pack alcohol wallops. Suppressors, a term that gained purchase in Atlanta in the early years of this decade, describes an emergent category of low-proof drinks, built on fortified wines and bitters instead of whiskeys and gins.
The jolt here arrives on the shoulders of Angostura, that omnipresent bottle of bitters sheathed in an oversize white wrapper. One and a half ounces doesn’t sound like a lot, until you consider that most recipes call for dashes. Shaken with cream and egg white, served in this elegant shotgun bar perched at the rear of a garage, this pale mauve conceit is a replenishing quaff that buoys instead of bombs.
Kimball House’s towering Ramos Gin Fizz.
Andrew Thomas Lee
Rum al Pastor
Aged rum, demerara syrup, lime juice, cilantro, bitters, and charred pineapple
As bartenders moved away from bottled mixes and canned juices, the term bar chef briefly gained traction among food and beverage writers. But that fey phrase, which implied that bartenders were merely aspirational chefs without the poofy hats, never suited.
Today, bartenders take pride in their profession and their title. At Edmund’s Oast, Jayce McConnell does more than pair drinks with food. He crafts drinks that conjure foods, including those pineapple-marinated and cilantro-confettied pork tacos, born of Lebanese immigration to Mexico, now translated by seemingly every taqueria in the South.
Bourbon, ginger liqueur, bitters-soaked lemon, grapefruit juice, sweet vermouth, and nutmeg
This is my family drink. To be exact, this is a drink named after my family dog, who was named for Lurleen Wallace, the wife of the Alabama politician George Wallace and the first woman to govern that state. Bitter like Wallace politics, sweet like the love of a mutt, the Lurleen straddles the sour-sweet divide and offers a lesson in becoming a regular.
In conversation with the tenders at Snackbar, where Chef Vishwesh Bhatt serves drinking food like peanut-tossed fried okra chaat, I told them that I liked my whiskey cocktails sour. Blair, my wife, showed phone pictures of our pup. A drink appeared. Soon it earned a place on the bar’s roster. Such are the fruits of claiming a stool at your local.
Reviving the art of the hotel bar
There was a time when hotel bars were the ne plus ultra of sophisticated quaffing, only to become overshadowed by speakeasies and neighborhood cocktail lounges. Now, from roof to lobby, a new wave of hotels with high style, well-thought-out menus, and impeccable service are taking back the night, as these fine establishments demonstrate.
Bottled in Bond
Two bourbons, two vermouths, and two bitters, served with almonds, dark chocolates, and bourbon-marinated cherries
Served in a stately decanter, jutting from an ice bucket like a bottle of fine champagne, this is a drawing-room cocktail for four mixed for a generation that wouldn’t know a drawing room from a restroom. Like many of the best drinks poured today, Bottled in Bond is based on a classic. Reworking the Manhattan, Julep proprietor Alba Huerta has built a luxurious drink with a boozy undertow.
Every detail is engineered to provide pleasure, including the ice, from a local supplier who freezes water gradually to yield blocks that are denser and slower to melt. The overall process sounds like a comedy skit, showcasing the pretentious lengths to which twenty-first-century Southerners go to rationalize their buzzes. Until you take a sip, follow with a bourbon-marinated cherry, and realize what happens when true craft is applied to a craft cocktail.
Rye, cognac, Herbsaint, Peychaud’s bitters, and demerara sugar
Proper Sazeracs, those anise-scented rye bombs, were once hard to find outside of New Orleans. Just as po’boys still taste best in the city of their birth, Sazeracs depended on the latitude of their makers. That changed after Hurricane Katrina, as New Orleans bartenders dispersed through the nation, and the craft cocktail movement inspired new-generation tenders.
The Sazerac at the restaurant Filament, set in a retrofitted machine shop, showcases postmodern exuberance. Glasses get a chilling swirl of liquid nitrogen, followed by an atomizer spritz of Herbsaint. The strong stuff arrives batched in a stumpy bottle. It’s a foolproof execution, elevated by theatrical swagger, ready for adaptation in any latitude where thirsty people gather.
Julep’s Bottled in Bond comes ready for sharing.
DYLAN + JENI
This velveteen sipper, cranked from the sort of daiquiri machine employed by lowest-common-denominator French Quarter drunk depots, tastes like a milk shake that went on a holiday bender. Churned to a linen foam, the slurry also recalls the gentle milk punches that have long been standard morning beverages at family holiday gatherings in the home of proprietor Dickie Brennan.
That dichotomy best describes drinking hereabouts, where low and high culture clash and complement. Consumed in the mirrored front barroom at Bourbon House, while revelers parade the Quarter, such a drink rationalizes a splendid afternoon, marked by two refills, a flute of fries, and the creep of slanting sunshine across the arched windows that face Bourbon Street and frame the scrum.
The Jerry Thomas Speakeasy, accessed by a dark and dank cobblestoned street not far from the Piazza Navona, is a Roman homage to the nineteenth-century lion of the American cocktail, the man who literally wrote the book that has become a bible to modern-day drinkers of juleps, smashes, and shrubs.
Absent a sign, fronted by an owl-shaped brass knocker, adorned with peacock wallpaper, and enlivened by jazz, Jerry Thomas is not wholly a period piece. Order a mint julep and it comes laced with Pino Mugo, an Italian liqueur made with pinecone resin, crowned with sprigs of sugar-dusted mint, and served in a pewter cup bejeweled with ice and wrapped in a red napkin. That first stout sip will remind you that Southern whiskeys and Italian liqueurs marry well and travel far.
Bourbon House's frozen bourbon milk punch, topped with a swirl of nutmeg.
New Orleans, LA
Overproof dark rum, sweet vermouth, and Gran Classico
Know the ratio and you know the drink. Traditionally built with equal parts gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari, the Negroni traces to early-twentieth-century Italy. Stirred with overproof dark rum instead of gin, the Hardest Walk is a heady subversion of the norm, filigreed with the Italian drinking bitter Gran Classico.
That last ingredient is key. Born in the 1860s in Turin, Italy, Gran Classico is only recently available again in the American market. A more complex variation on Campari, it’s a great example of what happens when dedicated and knowledgeable proprietors like Neal Bodenheimer and Kirk Steinopal root through the world pantry to stock a bar with lost elaborations of excellence.
Rye, aged aquavit, honey, salt, and bitters
Codified, some say, at the Pendennis Club in Louisville, the old-fashioned at its simplest is made with nothing more than bourbon, sugar, and bitters. While the vanguard trend today is generally toward simplicity, some bartenders are so expert that they should be trusted with folderol.
Derek Brown is one of those tenders. In his capable hands, this new-fashioned drink relies on honey for sweetener, salt for savoriness, and aquavit for, well, oddity. It works. (So does the sherry-based Sazerac riff he calls a Shazerac.) Practicing feats of cocktail legerdemain, Brown convinces drinkers to take a chance on his uncommon palate.
Cathead honeysuckle vodka, Campari, simple syrup, and Tang
A beach drink, absent the beach and without the fruit, this frozen quaff is a reminder that, in this age of craft spirits and wild-foraged garnishes, we sometimes want cocktails that are merely good to drink, not necessarily good to think.
Developed by Steva Casey and spiraled from a slushie machine that looks as if it were liberated from a 7-Eleven, the Rocket Booster is a playful drink, served in a playful space crossed by ductwork painted to resemble black-and-white Saturn rocket boosters developed in Huntsville. Tang, which NASA stocked for John Glenn’s 1962 Mercury flight, renders the drink dusky and raspy. Owing to that orange hue, it’s also goofy, which is just what a beach drink requires, even when served far from the water.
Aged rum, Madeira, lemon juice, honey, salted orange cordial, and bitters
At Ticonderoga Club, the phone quacks instead of rings, plastic bats hang from the ceiling, lyre-playing squirrels fleck the red bathroom wallpaper, and the best seat in the house is a lone white leather captain’s chair, perched at the pole of the bar.
A nautical subtheme informs the drinks, too. Created by Paul Calvert, this colonial-punch-inspired cocktail nods to a childhood on the water, which he shares with his Ticonderoga colleague Greg Best. The inclusion of Madeira, a wine that oxidizes and improves as it crosses the Atlantic in transit from the archipelago of the same name, amplifies the oceangoing refrain.
Satellite’s Rocket Booster, a frozen homage to Tang.
Gin & Herbs
Tonic begins with quinine, derived from cinchona bark, cut from the South American fever tree (so called because it has been used to treat malaria). That is to say: Tonic is not merely that bland fizzy water you buy in a squat foam-wrapped bottle.
The modern rebound of tonic most likely began when Brooks Reitz, proprietor of the Southern-based Jack Rudy Cocktail Co., began bottling his own potion in 2011. Swampy with lime and muddy with funk, the Hive tonic—a protean version of the Rudy, developed by Reitz when he worked for the 21c hotel group—reminds drinkers that highballs can be bracing, even challenging.
Gin, house-made ginger syrup, bitters, lime juice, and soda water
A couple of decades back, Southern cuisine withstood a molecular gastronomy phase. Chefs spun cotton candy from ham fat and wedded proteins with something called meat glue. Cocktails recently survived a similar moment, when bartenders trapped smoke beneath cloches and grinned smugly. Now comes a return to sanity, as the best practitioners refocus on classics and their variations.
Tucked in a warehouse and decorated with thrift-store swag, Bastion dials in the new lean aesthetic. Instead of a catalogue of splendors, the tenders here have curated broad categories. Best is the Buck, made with a bright ginger syrup, mixed with vodka, rum, or gin. Call for the gin and you get a kicking cousin to the Moscow Mule, a beast of pleasure, not burden.
Botanicals are hip. Just ask a lonely vodka drinker. After decades of decline, gins have blossomed on the scene. So have aromatic liqueurs, made from various flora to smell like something a monk might have foraged from a rain-forest understory.
Green Chartreuse—made from 130 botanicals, crafted since 1737 by real live French monks—gives this sprightly drink a verdant cast and taste. Enjoyed on a hotel rooftop overlooking a booming downtown, this study in green plays well with a bowl of guacamole, sparkling like jade in the late-day sun.
Illustrations: Valeriya Danilova
Opening Image: Dylan + Jeni
How to Taste Whiskey like a Pro
Jefferson’s Bourbon founder Trey Zoeller makes a living off his palate. A master blender, he practices the age-old art of mixing whiskeys into balanced, sought-after final products, which means he’s constantly sampling batches to separate the exceptional from the acceptable. Here are his top tips for cozying up with a new bourbon.
“Typically, I’m tasting out of a Glencairn,” Zoeller says. The tulip-shaped glass funnels aromas straight to the nose—enhancing not only scent but also flavor.
Before you take a sip, swirl the whiskey once. Look for thick, syrupy legs streaking down the sides of the glass. “That indicates weight,” Zoeller says. “When a whiskey has some weight on it, that’s when you know you’re getting into something good.”
Holding the glass about an inch from your nose, inhale with your mouth open, which helps the aromas of the bourbon get through the haze of vaporized alcohol. Then, slowly ease your nose into the glass.
“That first sip just slaps you in the face,” Zoeller says. “It’s like Tabasco.” Roll the second sip over your tongue and you’ll begin to pick up texture and flavors. By the third or fourth sip, you’ll get the full bouquet.
“A good bourbon goes down your throat nice and easy and lingers on your chest,” Zoeller says. “A little bit of burn isn’t the worst thing in the world, but I try to avoid that in my whiskeys.”
Good: vanilla, caramel, maple, leather, toffee, black cherry, honey, citrus. Not so good: grain, green wood, grassiness, overpowering sweet corn, overpowering wood. If it’s strong and spicy, it might be a high-rye bourbon—such as Four Roses Single Barrel or Old Grand-Dad. Soft and toasty? Famous high-wheat whiskeys include Maker’s Mark and Pappy Van Winkle.
ICE OR NO ICE?
There's no shame in ice for casual sipping, but when Zoeller really wants to “get to know” a bourbon, he drinks it neat. As for water, a splash can help open up a high-proof whiskey.