Spike Your Beer

Bartenders are generating buzz with inventive cocktails for the craft brew age

Photo: Johnny Autry

When John Lee Hooker hollered out for “one Scotch, one bourbon, one beer,” in his 1966 recording of the classic Amos Wilburn song of that name, no one mistook his order for an inventory of what he wanted mixed into a drink. Nowadays, that order might need some clarifying. Beer-based cocktails—drinks that marry beer with spirits, which even otherwise serious people have taken to calling “beertails”—have been sneaking onto drink menus in an increasing number of bars around the South, thanks to the collision of the craft beer movement and the cocktail revival.

To some folks, of course, this tastes like sacrilege—to beer purists especially, who tend to abide by the same principle the late gastronome André Simon laid down for oysters: “A squeeze of lemon is said to be permissible, but it is the thin end of the edge of heresy.” For others of us, however, the best of these drinks taste strangely but defiantly delicious. “The new era of beer is all about intense flavors,” says Christian DeBenedetti, author of The Great American Ale Trail, “and in the hands of a good bartender those flavors can add some incredible new dimensions.”

We shouldn’t pretend this is a new development, though. People have been fortifying, adulterating, and generally messing with beer for as long as beer has been messing with us. Take the boilermaker. This is a shot of whiskey that’s dunked into a pint of beer, and, from my observation, is favored by drinkers flanked by companions slapping the bar while chanting the word chug. The new generation of beer-based cocktails shares some DNA with the boilermaker, it’s true, but only in the way that we humans share some DNA with monkeys. These drinks wear pants and do not throw their poo. They’re thoughtful and elegant, and, in the South, where the alliance between a whiskey shot and a bottle of beer is as tight as that between catfish and hush puppies, they make a kind of cockeyed sense.

For a beertail tour of the South, let’s start in Washington, D.C., and drink our way down. D.C. is the home of Barmini, a “cocktail lab” adjoining mad-scientist chef José Andrés’s acclaimed restaurant Minibar. It’s one of the most avant-garde cocktaileries in the nation, and beer cocktails get their own devoted section on the menu. The Distillers Brew, for instance, pairs dark rum, lime, and ginger syrup with Hefeweizen, while the Mezcaleros Brew blends mezcal and honey syrup with a Belgian tripel beer. Moving southward to Richmond, Virginia, we find, at the beer-centric restaurant Saison, rye whiskey and Benedictine meeting pilsner in a drink called the Maid in the Shade. Down at the relative newcomer Warehouse, in Charleston, South Carolina, bourbon gets brightened with orange, gingersnap liqueur, and maple syrup before meeting a dark porter from the local Holy City Brewing. Then it’s over to Atlanta, the de facto capital of Southern beertails.

“It’s definitely a thing here,” says Nate Shuman, who was head barman at Proof & Provision, in the basement of the Georgian Terrace Hotel, before moving to Craft Izakaya earlier this year. Some of Atlanta’s highlights: the Black and Brown at King + Duke (rum, brown ale, lime, Velvet Falernum); the Crop Circle at TAP (spiced rum, Drambuie, and Harpoon’s UFO Pumpkin Ale); and Shuman’s own creation for Proof & Provision, the Southern 75.

The drink’s inspiration, as its name alludes, was the classic French 75 cocktail, which is a mixture of gin, lemon, sugar, and champagne. For a Dixiefied update, Shuman swapped bourbon for the gin, an obvious and warming substitution, and then, less obviously, “beer for the bubbles.” He auditioned Miller High Life for the role (“because it’s the champagne of beers”) but found that an IPA from the local SweetWater Brewing Company hit the proper note. The addition of beer to the bourbon, he says, “provides a grainy, earthy, and approachable flavor,” and the hops evoke some of the gin-derived botanical flavors you find in a French 75. What’s most surprising—and charming—about the drink is the subtle way the beer melds with the bourbon; they disappear into one another, yielding a flavor that’s neither beery nor bourbony but also not merely in-between. It’s as though a new element emerges, not unlike the way country music met blues and had a baby named rock ’n’ roll. “It’s an exciting way to play with ingredients,” Shuman says about beer cocktails, “and it feels like a natural progression.” It tastes that way, too.

Southern 75

Inventive new cocktails for the craft brew age


    • 6 oz. India Pale Ale (Proof & Provision uses SweetWater)

    • 2 oz. Four Roses bourbon

    • ¾ oz. fresh-squeezed lemon juice

    • ½ oz. demerara syrup (or simple syrup)


  1. Pour the beer into a chilled collins glass. In a cocktail shaker, combine the bourbon, lemon juice, and demerara syrup with ice, and shake vigorously. Strain the bourbon mixture into the beer and garnish with a lemon twist.

Cocktail recipe from Nate Shuman formerly of Proof & Provision in Atlanta, Georgia