The State of the Atlanta Sipping Scene

Thirsty South has been covering the Atlanta drinking scene for a year now, and we must say that the state of the Atlanta sipping scene is STRONG. Whether you care about coffee, beer, wine, or cocktails, the past year has seen many good things. Here’s our take on the latest and greatest, with as many bad puns as we can fit in.

Coffee Is Roasting Hot, Percolating Wildly, Brewing Beautifully

If you need proof of how good, serious coffee is taking hold of this city, just consider that this past week Octane opened up the latest addition to its expanding empire: a new shop in Grant Park (check out their awesome espresso machine), joining the flagship Octane on the Westside and the mini-Octane “Pocket Bar” at the Bank of America Plaza as beacons of light in the haze of not-receding-fast-enough Starbucks-induced coffee coma. Meanwhile, Steady Hand Pour House is rocking and rolling and settling in nicely over in Emory Village. Empire State South is kicking what has to be the best coffee-bar-inside-an-award-winning-restaurant this side of the Mississippi. And Jason Dominy over at Batdorf & Bronson Coffee Roasters is emerging as one of craft coffee’s leading evangelists, with “coffee ambushes” all over town converting unsuspecting onlookers into Clever Coffee Dripping devotees. All praise the bean. On the downside? Why can’t there be at least one great coffee bar in Buckhead? (Octane, here’s your neighborhood for store number four)

Beer Is Hoppin’ and Growling Ferociously

The beer scene, even more than coffee, has truly gone insane (in a good way) over the past year. No one would have guessed a year ago that fresh growler fills would be available all over Atlanta, from Whole Foods to Hop City to Ale Yeah! to The Beer Growler and what seems like another new place every other week or so. The Beer Growler got growlers going in Athens last December and Hop City led the charge here in Atlanta, and there’s no stopping the trend now. It seems inconceivable that Ale Yeah! wasn’t even around this time last year, but now Atlanta has multiple world class beer shops (Ale Yeah! and Hop City in particular) to join its world class beer bars (The Brickstore and The Porter in particular). Ā And places like Tower and Green’s have continued to step up with great selections of their own. Meanwhile, Atlanta’s bars and restaurants are putting more effort into their beer lists and supporting our local brewers more than ever. Speaking of… Jailhouse, Red Hare, O’Dempsey’s, Wild Heaven, Monday Night Brewing all hopped heavily onto the scene in the past year. Are you serious?!? This is crazy growth, and thankfully a lot of great beer is being churned out by these local upstarts who are standing proud next to stalwarts like TerrapinĀ andĀ SweetWater.Ā Wild Heaven probably made the biggest splash, and their Avondale Estates brewery will be a welcome addition once they get it up and running, but Jailhouse is showing that they can also play with the big boys and make some of Georgia’s most adventurous beers.

GA Wine Is Winning, Atlanta Wine Shops (& Lists) Are Bubbly & Sparkling

The past year has seen some of Georgia’s wineries continue to impress in competitions and tastings, gaining broader awareness for their quality. Yonah Mountain got some great press for kicking Napa butt in a blind tasting. Wolf Mountain and Frogtown picked up a bunch of gold medals in Los Angeles and from the Tasters Guild International competitions, among many others. Closer to home, on the retail front, exciting boutique wine shops seem to be sprouting up all over town. Perrine’s, Le Caveau and H&F Bottle Shop all opened up in the past year, and all offer passionate perspectives and impeccable selections. They are everything that Total Wine is not, thank goodness. On the wine list side of things, Empire State South (again!?) introduced one of Atlanta’s most exciting lists, full of impressive Burgundy, RieslingĀ and grower Champagne. Who could ask for anything more?

Cocktail Culture Is Strong, the Competition Is Stiff & Spirited

Getting a well made drink around town is easier than ever. Again, restaurants have shown that a bit of attention to their bar program can really pay off. And a spirited community of barkeeps (AKA mixologists) is stoking the collective talent and enthusiasm all around town. Ā H. Harper Station is our pick for the most noteworthy newcomer on the cocktail front, thanks to Jerry Slater and crew’s purposeful punch bowls and bourbon bravado. Barrel-aged cocktails hit the scene at Iberian Pig and Double Zero. And while Greg Best and team continue to set Holeman & Finch apart from the rest, Miller Union, Cakes & Ale,Ā Abattoir, Leon’s, 4th & Swift, The Sound Table and Pura Vida all continue to churn out serious stuff from behind the bar. It’s a great list, but we could probably name ten more right behind them. Oh, and best use of shochu in a cocktail? Miso Izakaya, hands down. The only regret? That Pappy Van Winkle is just too damn hard to keep in stock.

In summary, it’s easy to see that the sipping scene is sizzling in Atlanta. The public is thirsty for excellence in all its forms, and thankfully we have purveyors, brewers, baristas and more ready to quench that thirst. We’ll drink to that.

What to pair with: Champagne

Random excellent pairing of the day. If/when you have a nice bottle of Champagne to drink, you can do a LOT worse than whipping up some Momofuku English Muffins with Benton’s bacon fat / bay leaf butter. Say what? The english muffin recipe is great on its own, but when you combine some good butter with some rendered Benton’s bacon fat and steep fresh bay leaves in it before whipping it up into a frenzy of porky, smoky, herbal goodness, you nearly reach muffin butter nirvana. Did you know there was such a place? All it takes to enter is a bottle of vintage Champagne. You’re welcome.

Momofuku English Muffins with Benton's Bacon Fat Bay Leaf Butter
Momofuku English Muffins with Benton's Bacon Fat Bay Leaf Butter

Coming Soon: OMG Rye and More…

Industry events are a great way to get a feel for what’s “hot” (at least from a marketer’s perspective), and, if yesterday’sĀ Quality Wine & SpiritsĀ “Holiday Show” is any indication, gin and rye are super hot. The “Holiday Show” is a showcase of the wines, spirits, and more that this great Georgia distributor carries (they are a distributor, so sell to liquor stores / bars / restaurants, not the public directly). The room was filled with wine from all over the world, and some of the very best artisan spirits available anywhere. It would be impossible to give a full account of all that was there, so I’ll try to share some of the highlights (and regrets of missing potential highlights) of what I tasted.

I walked in and was immediately greeted by two of my favorites – Eric Seed of Haus Alpenz, who has been instrumental in bringing some incredible vermouths and other rare spirits to the US (Dolin, Cocchi, Zucca, etc.); and David Perkins of High West Distillery in Utah, who has been doing some great things with rye and interesting whiskey blends.

I was really impressed with High West’s new (coming soon!) “Silver Whiskey OMG Pure Rye.” The OMG is actually a play on “Old MononGahela” – a river in western Pennsylvania which ran through the heart of America’s original whiskey country – and this unaged 100% rye (20 % malted, 80 % regular) is meant as a tribute to the old ways. What really hit me was the yeastiness on the nose, and I mean that in a very good way, that balanced out the spicy rye. Perkins made a point of sharing that there are three yeast strains that go into this, and also offered a taste of a test single yeast version as well that didn’t have the same complexity of the finished product. There’s a lot that goes into figuring out a whiskey like this, and the attention to the yeast blend is really interesting (to me at least!), especially given that an unaged whiskey doesn’t have the flavor of the barrel to fall back on. This is aĀ Wow. Highly recommended. I also got another chance to taste their 21 year old rye which has been out for a while, and it is simply spectacular.

Back to Haus Alpenz, I love their Cocchi Vermouth, Barolo Chinato, and Americano, but passed on those to try something new – the Rothman & Winter Peach Liqueur from Austria. This joins Rothman & Winter’s Creme de Violette as a knockout cocktail ingredient for those seeking something unusual, and the Peach will be much more crowd friendly (the Creme de Violette is extremely SUPER floral). Great intensity of flavor.

Sticking to the row of spirits producers, I got to try a LOT and also passed up the chance to try a lot more that I would have loved to sample. There was simply too much. Some of the things I tried that were very impressive:

Pur Likor Blossom
, Elderberry Liqueur, Germany: for all you St. Germain fans, finally a worthy alternative, very expressive

Neisson Rhum Agricole Vieux Reserve Speciale, Martinique: crazy good aged rhum, a treat to try this

St. George Terroir Gin and Dry Rye Gin, California: two stellar and unique gins, the former is like a hike in Northern California, gaining its “terroir” from using local botanicals, and the latter is an intriguing bridge between gin and rye, aggressively spiced with juniper and the rye’s peppery notes

Small’s American Dry Gin: a new entry from the folks behind the wonderful Ransom Old Tom Gin, this one has a great, crisp spice profile made with a bit of raspberry!

I regret not having tried the Bas Armagnacs from Marie Duffau and Dartigalongue (how often does one get to try those risk free??) as well as theĀ Chaffe Coeur Calvados (ditto).

On the wine side, I missed out on a lot, but just about all the wines from Jon David Headrick Selections were excellent, especially the Dosnon & Lepage Recolte Rose Champagne and the Claude Riffault Sancerre “Boucauds.” I somehow missed out on theĀ Hirsch Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and theĀ Domaine Serene Evenstad Reserve Pinot Noir; so it goes at a massive event like this.

I was happy to walk away after much swirling and spitting with at least a few things to seek out in the future, as well as an appreciation for all the hard work that goes on behind the scenes for these producers trying to get their products out into the hands and mouths of the people.

Photos of some of my favorites follow, including some great oysters and ridiculous TRUFFLE MAYO there to accompany the drinks. Thanks to Quality for the opportunity to taste:

Madeira’s Family Reunion

This post starts with the shaky premise that you, dear reader, are familiar with both Madeira (as in the wonderful old fortified wines produced in the Madeira Islands) and Madea (as in the crazy old African-American woman played by Tyler Perry in many a movie). There are more similarities than just the name – both can be outwardly sweet with an acidic backbone, both are known for getting better with age, both are… OK, who am I kidding? You’d have to pay me to watch a Madea movie, a lot, or at least ply me with a bottle or two of vintage Madeira.

Madea Goes To Jail
No, this is not Mannie Berk

My first real introduction to vintage Madeira came earlier this year at the Atlanta Food and Wine Festival, thanks to a tasting conducted by Mannie Berk of The Rare Wine Co., a leading player in keeping the flame of Madeira going. This particular tasting included some fabulous Madeira from 1968, 1922, 1912, 1875 – yes, you read that right. They were phenomenal, and got me hooked into learning more about this uncommon wine. I bought THE book on the subject (again, Mr. Berk is doing the good work, this history itself is fascinating), and set out to buy a few bottles that would help me continue to learn about (and enjoy) the various types of Madeira. A great way to get to know a bit about Madeira is the “Historic Series” from The Rare Wine Co. – non-vintage bottlings that “reflect the style and complexity of the great vintage wines” and also are named after the US ports that favored specific styles in the 1800’s. Madeira was very popular pre-Prohibition, especially in port cities with a direct trade link to Europe and the ships that stopped in Madeira to pick up casks of wine. Us Southerners get the Charleston Sercial and the Savannah Verdelho – Sercial and Verdelho are different varietals, both on the drier end of the Madeira spectrum. Northerners have the Boston Bual (on the sweeter side) and New York Malmsey (the sweet end of the spectrum). Ā The theory goes that the cold nights of the North favored sweeter Madeira, while the heat of the Low Country called for a drier wine.

Just this week, a bunch of bottles arrived on my doorstep, and I can not wait to give these a taste. I chose a range of ages, and a range of grape varietals, to try to get a good perspective on Madeira in all its glories. Ā Besides being a fabulously complex wine, a great wine to pair with food, and simply utterly intriguing, Madeira offers the added benefit of long life. Once you open a bottle, it will basically maintain its quality forever (at least, that is what I’ve read). So opening a special bottle can provide many opportunities for enjoyment over time. I’m looking forward to testing that theory out. More to come, I need to get back to my TV to watch some Tyler Perry…

Some nice vintage Madeira from The Rare Wine Co.
"Very Fine and Old"
The Charleston Sercial from The Rare Wine Co. Historic Series

Sangria in the Summer

A big party with lots of friends from the neighborhood is the perfect time to break out some sangria. Not too stuffy or serious. Enough fruit to keep the white zin crowd (and the vegans) happy. And visual appeal out the wazzoo. Don’t believe me? Check it:

This is a batch of white sangria jazzed up with vanilla seeds, some white cranberry/peach juice from the fine folks at Ocean Spray, and a secret ingredient – Dolin Blanc vermouth – which adds some really nice depth under the fruity sweetness. This was a bit improvised, but the idea for the the vanilla and white cranberry/peach combo came from an old Bon Apetit recipe. Here’s the Thirsty South version, perfect for peach season in the South:

White Sangria with Vanilla and Peach

1 bottle Riesling, preferably on the dry side
1 1/2 cups Ocean Spray white cranberry and peach
1/2 cup Dolin Blanc vermouth
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
2 fresh Georgia peaches, cut into wedges
1 lemon, sliced into rounds
1 orange, cut in half and sliced into rounds
a bunch of raspberries

Mix first 4 ingredients in a large pitcher. Scrape in seeds from vanilla bean; add bean and stir to blend. Add in peach and citrus. Cover and chill overnight. Add raspberries before serving, pour over ice.

Now, this batch of sangria went way too quickly, but there was plenty of sangria-infused fruit left in the pitcher. We happened to have a few bottles of Savida Sangria sitting around, and poured them into the pitcher to keep the party going. Savida is actually based in Atlanta, and they are among the best options out there if you’re looking for a ready-made sangria. They use good quality California wine and real fruit juice, and work well when you’re in a pinch for something quick. Salud!