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Drinking the 2016 Atlanta Food and Wine Festival

Drinking the 2016 Atlanta Food and Wine Festival

FOMO-OSAD was in full effect this past weekend at the AFWF. That would be “fear of missing out -on some amazing drinks” at the “Atlanta Food and Wine Festival.” For those not familiar with the event, the highlights usually come in the numerous learning seminars on Friday and Saturday, where industry savants share wisdom on all manner of topics related to food and drink. The cool thing is, they don’t limit the topics purely to the American South – so things like sotol and raicilla and West Indies rhum agricole easily find their way in to the sessions.

I did my best to hop around in order to squeeze in as much goodness as possible, but I also know I missed quite a bit. That said, here are the 10 most excellent spirits I tasted during the event – spanning Mexico, Kentucky, and South Carolina, with a touch of Alabama thrown in for good measure:

Clayton Szczech mezcal sotol

I first met Clayton Szczech (that’s Spanish for “educated gringo,” I think) of Experience Tequila during judging for the IWSC Spirits of the Americas competition. To say he knows his stuff is putting it very mildly, and I’m always eager to see what rarities he might have in his bag. This time, it was a trio of artisanal spirits from Mexico – a bacanora, a sotol, and a raicilla, all of which are variations on mezcal, and all of which will play havoc with your spellcheck. Sotol Clande, Marques de Sonora Bacanora, and Don Chalio Raicilla are not likely to be found in the states at all, but they are a good reminder that exploring lesser known Mexican agave spirits is a worthy endeavor. Clayton was nice enough to provide details on each on his tasting mats (below), and I just love all the detail on the Sotol Clande bottle seen above (Grinding………. Axe; Oven………Underground Conical). Without fail, these were nuanced, far-too-drinkable spirits – the Clande sotol being earthy and green, reminiscent of desert brush; the bacanora being incredibly complex, with hints of caramel and white pepper; the raicilla full of intricate spice notes. Love it.

Mezcal

The awesome folks at High Wire Distilling hosted a party in conjunction with BevCon Charleston, at which Atlanta bartender extraordinaire Jerry Slater was pouring a drink including High Wire’s wonderful Southern Amaro. The cocktail was great (of course), but I must admit to enjoying sipping the amaro all by itself even more. Made with regional ingredients like Charleston black tea, foraged yaupon holly, Dancy tangerine, and mint, this amaro is spicy and deep, yet still bright.

High Wire Amaro

I ponied up $100 to attend the “master class” led by chef Sean Brock and featuring Drew Kulsveen of Willett Whiskey fame and Preston Van Winkle of, well, Van Winkle fame. The topic was rare bourbon and rare country ham, so you know it was going to be good – and the $100 entry fee ended up being a bargain. The bourbon lineup included Willett’s new four year old bourbon – bottle 223 of 235 bottles from 4 year old Willett Family Estate Barrel 651, 111 proof –  and one of the rare 23 year old bourbons they’ve been safeguarding for the past eight years. This was bottle 80 of a mere 81 bottles filled from Willett Family Estate “Barrel B60” – that means this 23 year old bourbon had yielded about 70% of its nectar to the angels over the years, since a new bourbon barrel holds about 266 bottles worth. Yes, it was heavenly stuff, especially at the 132 proof barrel strength. And Willett seekers beware, Drew said there are only TEN barrels left of this ultra-aged stock they purchased eight years ago. As for the four year old, this is Willett-distilled, and our bottle came from just the eighth barrel released thus far (all only sold at Willett’s gift shop in Kentucky). It’s impressive for a younger spirit, with a cherry cola profile and a cinnamon-amaro finish.

Willet Single Barrel Bourbon

If you know anything about Sean Brock, you know he loves Pappy Van Winkle and the Stitzel-Weller lineage. Preston Van Winkle poured us the 10 year old Old Rip Van Winkle, the 12 year old Van Winkle Special Reserve Lot B, and the 15 year old Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve. These are all wonderful bourbons, and having them all side by side was a good reminder that the seldom seen Lot B remains a knockout bourbon that doesn’t command quite the same stratospheric fanaticism of its older brethren. It’s exactly what a bourbon should be, without the fireworks of its older brothers. The 15 year old? Still one of my favorite bourbons of all time.

Old Rip Van Winkle Pappy

Number 10 on my list? Another one you’re not going to find in a store – which is really the great thing about a festival like the Atlanta Food and Wine Festival. This was a “Ham Fat Whisky” from chef David Bancroft of restaurant Acre in Auburn, Alabama. I’m pretty sure it was plain old Maker’s Mark with some 2 year old ham fat thrown in, from that 2 year old Alabama prosciutto in the background, but really it was the combination of 2 year old ham, ham fat whisky, and the remarkable Poirier’s pure cane syrup that proved to be one of the best bites/sips of the festival. Awesome stuff – sweet, salty, fatty, powerful stuff.

Pork Fat Whiskey

There was plenty more – especially all the wonderful cocktails from Nick Detrich of Cane & Table, Paul Calvert of Ticonderoga Club, Todd Thrasher of Restaurant Eve, Kellie Thorn of Empire State South, Miles Macquarrie of Kimball House, and the gentlemen from Cure in New Orleans. Plus too much to even remember in the festival’s tasting tents. And I just know that I missed out on just as much amazing stuff – like David Wondrich making Chatham Artillery Punch. Dang. Anyway, in case you’re hungry, here are two more of my favorite pork porn photos from Sean Brock’s session, with a lagniappe of pork cracklin from New Orleans chef Isaac Toups thrown in for good measure:

IMG_0391

Sean Brock Ham

Cracklins

 

Drink Local: Atlanta Distilleries

Drink Local: Atlanta Distilleries

This week, I wrote a roundup for Creative Loafing of the four Atlanta distilleries now operating. Between Old Fourth Distillery, ASW Distillery, Independent Distilling Company in Decatur, and Lazy Guy Distilling up in Kennesaw, you can now stock a bar with Atlanta-made bourbon, vodka, gin, rum, corn whiskey, and more. Pretty amazing considering we had exactly NONE of that just a couple years ago. DRINK LOCAL, y’all!

I’d encourage fans of spirits and cocktails to visit all four of these distilleries, as all are up to interesting things, and their stills are all absolutely gorgeous (and all different). Below are some of my favorite outtakes, to give you a feel for the beauty in the stills. Also, be sure to check out Thirsty South’s full list of Georgia distilleries (not just Atlanta) and what they are producing.

Do check out the Creative Loafing roundup for more info, or comment below with any questions.

Old Fourth Distillery:
Old Fourth Distillery
Old Fourth Distillery


ASW Distillery:
ASW DistilleryASW Distillery


Independent Distilling Company:
Independent Distilling Decatur
Independent Distilling Decatur Independent Distilling Decatur
Independent Distilling Decatur


Lazy Guy Distilling:
Lazy Guy Distilling
Lazy Guy Distilling
Lazy Guy Distilling

Atlanta Restaurants: In Praise of Being Bold

Atlanta Restaurants: In Praise of Being Bold

Ticonderoga Club
Ticonderoga Club

There is something magical happening right now on the Atlanta restaurant scene. I’m not talking about the impressive numbers of new restaurants opening up on a seemingly weekly basis – though the numbers are indeed impressive. And I’m not talking about the big names coming to town – though names like Jonathan Waxman or Sean Brock are also noteworthy. I’m talking about restaurants that are bent on being bold. Being personal. Doing things differently. Crafting experiences with deeply human personalities that go beyond the surface-level sheen that so many of Atlanta’s restaurants of late have relied on.

So let’s pause now to celebrate the bold – those pioneers who may shape the very definition of restaurant dining in this city for years to come. Specifically, let’s celebrate three particular pioneering restaurants who are doing their thing in distinctly personal ways: the brand new Staplehouse, the barely open Ticonderoga Club, and tiny little Dish Dive, which opened just under a year ago. But before we dig in to why these three warrant celebration, it’s worth a quick detour to talk about how the stage was set for their arrival.

It’s clear that the past few years of economic growth in Atlanta has given restaurateurs a boost of confidence to go out on a limb. Krog Street Market and Ponce City Market both have been major engines driving restaurant openings, and neither would be here had the local economy (and the commercial real estate scene specifically) not ramped up significantly. In parallel, as the number of new restaurant openings goes up and up, the need to stand out and carve out a niche becomes more and more important. At this point, we’re all slightly, reluctantly, somewhat over the whole modern-Southern-local-farm-to-table-mania that seemed to guide every other new restaurant in Atlanta over much of the past decade. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Miller Union, Cakes & Ale, Empire State South, Restaurant Eugene, and their great forebear – Bacchanalia – are all restaurants that have brilliantly harnessed that mania and thrilled Atlanta diners in the process. But after a while, especially as the number of high profile restaurants in town increases, we simply need more diverse perspectives to have a well rounded dining scene.

Getting back to the embrace of the bold and personal that’s now happening, you could point to One Eared Stag as a precursor, with its ever-quirky personality and fearless combinations of flavors that can’t be disassociated from chef Robert Phalen. Or the completely unique, late-night-only, industry-centric Octopus Bar in EAV. Or Zach and Cristina Meloy’s Better Half, which is among the more prominent chef-driven supper clubs to have made the move to a full-scale restaurant, yet still maintains the personal touch of its supper club incarnation. If I had to pinpoint one single restaurant, though, that signaled to Atlanta that it was OK to go bold, it would be the aptly named Gunshow.

Gunshow's Instagram
Gunshow’s Instagram

With Gunshow, open since 2013, Chef Kevin Gillespie and his crew took an intentionally polarizing stance on the dining experience – in a way that was meant to better connect the kitchen (the chefs) to the dining table (the patrons). One by one, the chefs cart out their creations to the dining room, explaining the dish, serving it up when they get the nod. This is not traditional dining, and, with its bare bones environment and totally unique pacing and delivery, Gunshow admittedly pisses some people off. And it also thrills a lot of people who are looking for a meal that gleefully messes with expectations (and delivers some stellar, intriguing food packed with personality in the process). And Gunshow is smart enough to know that it’s OK to piss some people off as long as you’re deeply connecting with others. Something is clearly working, as Gunshow remains one of the hardest-to-get reservations in town.

Which brings us back to three newer restaurants that, like Gunshow, are proudly waving their own particular brand of freak flag. The first of the bunch, Dish Dive, made its mark by being unrelentingly small and personal. Dish Dive equals chef Travis Carroll in the kitchen and Jeff Myers manning the house. 16 seats inside. BYOB. A super-concise menu. And you can’t help but feel that it’s Travis and Jeff’s (figural) house you’re dining in. It doesn’t get much more personal than that.To borrow a popular expression, Dish Dive gives no f*cks about what a restaurant is supposed to be. They know what they are supposed to be, and who they are trying to delight, and they do it with aplomb.

Dish Dive's Instagram
Dish Dive’s Instagram

Meanwhile, newcomer Staplehouse furthers this idea of boldly building the restaurant-diner relationship in a few notable ways. First, they are a restaurant in service of a non-profit – the Giving Kitchen. And, while not the first restaurant to have a social mission as its underpinning, Staplehouse is certainly the most high profile. This gives them a built-in aura of true goodwill that – for those informed diners who are in on the aura – inevitably shapes the experience of dining there. You know you are supporting a cause with each ticket you purchase (more on that in a bit) and every bite you take. Even more, you know you are supporting the people who are most invested in that cause with each ticket you purchase and every bite you take. If you’re familiar at all with Staplehouse’s story, you know that the restaurant’s story is also the story of Jen, of Kara, of chef Ryan Smith. You could even say Staplehouse’s story is that of the entire Atlanta restaurant community in all its tragedy and triumph. This is a story, a dining experience, that people want to invest in.

Staplehouse's Instagram
Staplehouse’s Instagram: “Anything long lasting or worthwhile takes time and complete surrender.”

Point two on Staplehouse – did you notice that they are not taking reservations, but rather selling “tickets”? They’re the first restaurant in Atlanta to adopt the Tock ticketing system used by many of the country’s leading restaurants. You could argue that this is a business-minded step away from the personal trust inherent in the typical reservation approach, but really, this path of selling tickets just reinforces the commitment from the diner to the restaurant – when you buy that ticket, you have given them your cash, and you are in on the cause before you even step foot through the door.

Smartly, Staplehouse realized that the ticketed seats inside the restaurant couldn’t be the only way to engage with diners. They built an outdoor patio, with its own little kitchen, ready for all comers with a menu that’s more affordable than the glorious (but admittedly pricey) tasting menu inside… but every bit as creative. And Staplehouse consciously avoided giving this outdoor patio a standalone name and identity (think Holeman & Finch for Restaurant Eugene, or Star Provisions for Bacchanalia), but rather embraced that Staplehouse itself needed to have more than one way to connect with diners. Simply put, Staplehouse is approaching the mission to deepen the restaurant-diner relationship in new ways, and bridging the casual/fine dining divide in the process.

Now for what may be the boldest restaurant of the bunch… Ticonderoga Club. If you haven’t (yet) heard much about this new spot from Greg Best, Regan Smith, Paul Calvert, David Bies, and Bart Sasso, that was intentional on their part. Ticonderoga Club is the result of a long-simmering stew of hush hush ideas that started way back in September 2013 (if not earlier) when Best and Smith left their founding roles behind the bar and front of house, respectively, at Holeman & Finch. Roughly a year later, Best and Smith confirmed that they would join the party at Krog Street Market, but still the details were few, from the name (which wasn’t revealed until one week before the place actually opened in October), to the very type of bar/restaurant it was going to be. Finally, now that Ticonderoga Club is open (although still awaiting signature on a liquor license as of this writing), the months of mystery are starting to make sense… Best/Smith/Calvert/Bies/Sasso weren’t just creating a bar and restaurant, they were creating an entire mythology.

Ticonderoga Club's Instagram
Ticonderoga Club’s Instagram

Mythology, you may ask? Let’s just say that the Ticonderoga Club crew’s attention to storytelling rivals that of Homer himself. And this is not storytelling for the heck of it… the mythology here is in service of forging a bond between an establishment and its patrons. In an extensive reveal published by the Bitter Southerner, titled The League of Extraordinary Hospitalitarians, we learn that the Ticonderoga Club is actually (nix that… mythically) the Atlanta chapter of a 249 year old organization. The mythology extends in a printed Ticonderoga Club Quarterly, packed with philosophy and silliness in equal measure. The Bitter Southerner’s Chuck Reece hit the nail on the head, though, with the raison d’être of this whole elaborate backstory – which is fostering a feeling of gleeful hospitality. That won’t come as any surprise to fans of Best, Smith, and Calvert, who are all known for their skills as hosts, conversationalists, and all-around-fine-folks.

Is Ticonderoga Club quirky as hell? You bet. But isn’t it nice to see folks go out on a limb and do something different, especially when, at the end of the day, you know that they’re doing something different on your behalf? Ticonderoga Club, Staplehouse, Dish Dive… they’re all pushing the hospitality envelope in their own clever, even magical, ways. They’re not the only intrepid trailblazers in town doing so, but their lead is one to take notice of and celebrate. If their bold steps lead to something great, we all win.

by Brad Kaplan, November 6, 2015

What do you get when you mix Georgia pecan nut milk and South Carolina coffee rum?

What do you get when you mix Georgia pecan nut milk and South Carolina coffee rum?

Treehouse Pecan Milk Rum

I wasn’t planning on having my day shot to hell. But then the nut milk delivery lady showed up. That’s right, I said nut milk. delivery. lady. She handed over the frosty glass jar of her sweet Georgia pecan nut milk, and was heading back to her car, when she turned and delivered the words that would indeed shoot my day (my life?) to hell – “if you’ve got any vodka, it’s great in a White Russian!” She said it so cheerfully. And why shouldn’t she? If any drink can be spoken of in cheerful terms, surely it is the White Russian. Especially one made with locally-made, hand-delivered, sweet Georgia pecan nut milk.

As I carried my pecan milk back into the house, I was already mentally checking my liquor cabinet. Hmm, vodka? Yes. I hardly touch the stuff, but I do make sure to always have a bottle on hand for guests. And I knew exactly where the fifth of Cathead vodka was in the cabinet, hidden behind a bevy of gins, collecting dust in the back corner. The only other thing I would need for a White Russian was Kahlua, and surely I… no… dear God… I don’t  have any Kahlua.

I went down to the liquor cabinet to check, and sure enough… no Kahlua. That led me into the rabbit hole of searching the internet for homemade Kahlua recipes, but frankly I didn’t have the patience. (One of the recipes included the step of steeping vanilla beans for THREE WEEKS! ARE YOU KIDDING ME? THREE WEEKS!? My nut milk would never last three weeks, never mind the fact that I would need to go buy some fresh vanilla beans to get it going, and if I’m doing that, I could just as easily have gone out and gotten the goshdarnt Kahlua in the first place).

Treehouse Pecan Milk RumLuckily, I discovered an old bottle in my liquor cabinet that eliminated the need for Kahlua. It was a Java Rum from Sea Island distillery on Wadmalaw Island, South Carolina. I had bought it on a visit to the distillery several years back, and was super impressed at the time (though apparently not impressed enough to drink much of the stuff, as the bottle was still nearly full). In any case, I twisted off the cap, took in a deep whiff, and knew right away that my lack of Kahlua was no problem at all. Better still, the Sea Island Java Rum even eliminates the need for vodka as well, since it clocks in at 70 proof (Kahlua is just 40 proof).

OK, so, coffee rum? Check. Nut milk? Check. Ice and glass? Check. That’s it. No recipe needed, just mix the two to taste and give it a swirl, then sip, and OH MY LORD this is good stuff. The subtle pecan notes in the creamy nut milk, which also has small amounts of honey and vanilla, works wonders with the chewy, dark-chocolatey, coffee-intense Java Rum. This is the kind of thing that I could drink gallons of over breakfast. Or after dinner. Or during any of the minutes that take place in the span of hours between breakfast and after dinner. In fact, if I were to open a chain of coffee shops that only offered this one drink, 24 hours a day, it would bring the Starbucks empire to its knees within weeks, even factoring in the seasonal bump for PUMPKIN SPICE!

So what do we call this drink? This heavenly blend of sweet Georgia pecan milk and South Carolina-bred coffee rum? You could riff on the White Russian and call it the White Southern. And that makes sense theoretically (it is white in color, and it is in fact Southern), but, um… no. I wouldn’t say the name sounds unintentionally racist, but it kinda sounds unintentionally racist.

That leads us to the inevitable Big Lebowski reference and the equally inevitable moniker – the Southern Dude. Perfect. You get your Big Lebowski/Dude/White Russian connection for the inspiration of the drink, and you get your Southern emphasis for the Georgia pecans and the South Carolina rum that make it unique. I need to get busy printing up t-shirts and bumper stickers and ironic trucker hats featuring the Southern Dude and plentiful references to nut milk.

Now, about my day being shot to hell… I may have had just one of these tasty beverages. Or I may have downed the entirety of those two bottles of nut milk and rum. Either way, I am now working diligently on my business plan to launch a chain of coffeeshops dedicated to spreading the joy that is the Southern Dude. It will come in sizes ranging from 4oz up to a gallon. And, like the nut milk company that inspired the drink, we’ll even deliver. But that’s the only drink we’ll offer. Except maybe a seasonal Southern Pumpkin Spice. Because how else are we really going to beat Starbucks?

Treehouse Pecan Milk Rum


Good news from the fine folks at Treehouse Milk, who produced the pecan milk discussed above: “We promise, everything tastes better with pecan milk. Pecans are high in vitamin E and manganese, which is good for your heart. They are packed with 19 vitamins and minerals, and come from a farm in South Georgia.” They also make almond, cashew, macadamia, and cacao almond milks; and they really will deliver right to your door (if you live in Atlanta, for a small fee – I highly recommend it). Also found at fine shops and coffee shops like the Mercantile, Savi Provisions, and Spiller Park.