Creative Loafing: Southern cocktail culture

The South and cocktails go together like sweet tea and lemonade. But, if last week’s Atlanta Food and Wine Festival is any indication, the South is also embracing cocktails that go way beyond easy inspirations like the Arnold Palmer. In fact, the opening toast of this festival was a cocktail that simply and deliciously managed to blend Old World elegance with Southern heritage — a flute of sparkling wine topped with a pour of floral Four Roses bourbon. A perfect drink to toast the festival; a perfect drink to capture the anchors and aspirations of drinking in Atlanta…

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Low Octane: Session Beers, Suppressor Cocktails, & Low Alcohol Wine

In the worlds of beer, wine AND cocktails, dialing back is the new amping up. Those pumped up, roided out monsters may still have their fans, but it’s amazing to see the similarities striking forth in the worlds of potent (and not quite so potent) potables when it comes to crafting drinks that deliver maximum enjoyment, which can often mean less-than-maximum ABV. In an eerie parallel, even Carrot Top himself is taking up this cause and has committed to a steroid-free life of balance in line with this whole movement. THAT is proof positive that this thing has legs!

Wine? Jon Bonné really pushed the conversation about paying attention to alcohol levels in wine with his piece in the San Francisco Chronicle almost a year ago, and has continued to keep the topic top of mind for readers and drinkers. Overblown 16% syrahs and cabs and zins are out; reeled-in pinots are in like Flynn (so says me). That’s not to say that wimpy or delicate are the end goal, but rather that flavor and balance can and do coexist in wines that are more in line with what wine looked like before the evil influences (and I mean EVIL!) pushed many winemakers to pump, pump, pump things up in the past two decades or so.

In beer, the term “session” is raging, both as a blowback to the ridiculously powerful craft beers that have dominated the scene for so many years now AND as a recognition that people simply like beers that allow them to have more than one and not be physically impaired for the night. It’s true. The 4% session beer that delivers on flavor and enjoyment seems to be the holy grail du jour, and I’m a seeker. Wild Heaven‘s recently released Let There Be Light is just another example of a craft brewer who had previously focused on beers that topped out at 8-10% ABV now turning towards the lighter end of the spectrum. Let There Be Light clocks in at 4.7% – not quite a “session beer” technically, but darn close, and a whole lot more hangover-friendly than their 10.5% Eschaton.

As for cocktails, Atlanta is ground zero for a movement that is all about lowering the octane level of craft cocktails, and Greg Best from Holeman & Finch is the maestro at the front of the orchestra of bartenders playing along. just wrote about the movement today (dang, they beat me to it! and nice job, too), but it’s one that has been bubbling up for the past few months and is now picking up steam. If you’re a fan of vermouth or Sherry or Madeira as a base for cocktails rather than the sidekick (and I am), this is something to get excited about. And if you’re simply a fan of carefully considered cocktails, the cause is equally compelling. The suppressor movement is on, and I bet it will take hold in great cocktail bars from New York to Portland and back again. Put a bird on it.

So what does this all mean? What is this crazy convergence in the worlds of wine and beer and cocktails and insane Las Vegas comedians? I have no idea. But I think it is a sign of good things to come. A sign that moderation and the middle ground may yet hold sway in this extremist world we live in. A sign that reason and virtue will prevail over bombast and boastfulness. Or, maybe, it’s just a sign that we can simply enjoy one more drink and feel good about it. Yeah… that.

The Eater Atlanta Cocktail HEAT MAP

Be sure to check out the hot-off-the-virtual-presses Eater Atlanta Cocktail Heat Map, penned by yours truly. It’s a selection of ten great places to grab a cocktail RIGHT NOW, this very instant, pronto, before they lose their impressive heads of steam. Alright, you can wait until next week, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

And, by they way, Eater Atlanta is a great place to stay on top of all that’s going on in the world of Atlanta dining, including the ever important topic of Sh!t People Steal. We kid you not.



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).  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 Terrapin and SweetWater. 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, Riesling 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.  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, 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.

Defending the $13 Cocktail

The folks at just released a great little video (the first of many in a series called “Behind the Drink”), filmed at San Francisco’s Bourbon & Branch, a fine place for a classic cocktail. The gist of it is – there is much to be appreciated when you enter a bar where the staff is truly dedicated to making excellent cocktails. It starts with the people, their time and effort in crafting something wonderful. Then there are the ingredients, the housemade syrups and bitters, the infused spirits, the freshly squeezed juices, and the presence of an array of spirits to be combined in endless concoctions. There’s the ice, no ordinary ice, but ice chosen for how it will interact with the drink, how it will hold its form and temperature, how it will make you, the drinker, feel. Overkill? No more than a restaurant choosing the right plates, the right ingredients, preparing every detail perfectly to deliver a fine dish. A well made cocktail is a thing to simply enjoy, but recognizing the effort behind it amplifies the appreciation.

To see a list of our favorite cocktail bars here in Atlanta, please visit the Thirsty Guide. A fine cocktail here tends to be a few dollars less than in San Francisco, all the more reason to go out for a drink!


Behind the Drink: The $13 Cocktail from on Vimeo.