Sip your way through Atlanta’s evolving cocktail scene

What defines Atlanta’s cocktail identity?

Where has it come from, and where is it going? We asked some of the city’s top bartenders how Atlanta’s cocktail scene has grown over the past decade and what makes it unique. Their answers can serve as a guide for your next bar-hopping adventure.

When Eric Simpkins, partner at the Lawrence, and Greg Best, partner at Ticonderoga Club, began slinging drinks in Atlanta nearly 15 years ago, the city was breaking up with the 1990s Buckhead bar scene. Flavored vodkas and puckery appletinis littered bar menus, but Simpkins and Best felt Atlanta’s imbibers were ready for change.

“There were a lot of after-shift meetings in those early days between myself and a handful of people like Eric,” Best said. “We all worked for different restaurants, but wanted to achieve something great for Atlanta.”

Simpkins believed Atlanta needed to integrate cocktails into the existing food and hospitality culture. “Watching people be surprised by how good a simple sour cocktail was, properly measured and executed with fresh ingredients, was inspiring,” he said.

Atlanta’s hospitable nature, coupled with the city’s restrictive liquor laws (a bar must sell food in order to serve alcohol), compelled bartenders to make their tipples part of the larger dining experience, these bar veterans believe.

This set of circumstances gave birth to one of Best’s favorite cocktails, Bufala Negra, a mix of bourbon, basil, brown sugar, balsamic and ginger beer created by H. Harper Station proprietor Jerry Slater in 2007. Best credits the drink in the rise of culinary cocktails in the city. Slater’s concoction since has been riffed by bartenders around the U.S., and you can still sip on it at H. Harper Station.

“There are a handful of cocktails still impacting our culture,” Best said. Among them is Miles Macquarrie’s gin-based Gutter Pop from his Leon’s Full Service days, which recalibrated the way Decatur drinks. Macquarrie’s drink is still on the menu at Leon’s and makes warm weather guest appearances at Kimball House, where Macquarrie is a partner and tends bar.

Meanwhile, Paul Calvert’s the Socialist, a rum Manhattan he created during his time at Sound Table in the Old Fourth Ward, induced club kids to drink spirit-forward, complex cocktails.

Simpkins said other cocktails have played a role in shaping Atlanta’s scene, including Best’s Nihilist sour (a Southern rattlesnake sour with peach schnapps and cardamom tincture) and Simpkins’ own sweet tea bourbon smash (bourbon infused with black tea and muddled lemon, mint and sugar), which he created for Livingston Restaurant & Bar. You can still enjoy Simpkins’ bourbon smash, dubbed the Livingston, at its namesake.

“Atlanta is still finding its footing,” Simpkins said. “Cocktails are no longer a fad. Good restaurants are leveling out and understand it’s a beverage program, not just a cocktail program with a beer and wine list at a trendy spot.”

In 2009, cocktailians saw the rise of bartenders like Calvert, now Best’s partner at Ticonderoga Club. Calvert quickly made a name for himself behind the bar at Sound Table for unapologetically mixing classics when it wasn’t the thing to do, building one of the city’s longest running and most creative cocktail programs.

“When I moved from Leon’s to help open Sound Table, I built a cocktail menu full of classics. There were 25 drinks on the menu,” Calvert said. “That was almost six years ago. Was it stupid to have that many drinks? I guess, but it worked, because they’re still doing it.”

Madison Burch continues the push for classically inspired cocktails on the menus at Grain, Seven Lamps and Tavernpointe. She believes Atlanta’s cocktail culture is still developing a firm voice, but credits her mentors and the “old guard” for laying a solid foundation on which subsequent generations of bartenders can build.

“We’re the melting pot of the South, which to me makes it very difficult to choose one cocktail or even one style that embodies the spirit of Atlanta. The city still has some growing to do before we get our own official cocktail,” she said.

For Burch’s generation, the fast growth Atlanta’s cocktail scene is experiencing is exciting.

“I think the newer kids are putting in a great effort to take Atlanta’s cocktails to the next level,” Burch said. She hopes Atlanta’s latest crop of drink slingers will find the balance between the tenacious risk-taking of the founders and the classic creativity of the “golden era,” while lending a fresh perspective to the city’s hospitality-driven cocktail scene.

Calvert doesn’t subscribe to the notion that Atlanta needs a culinary identity, nor does he feel one cocktail sums up the local drinking culture.

“The real spirit of Atlanta and its cocktails is the melding of cultures and experiences,” Calvert said. “My favorite thing about a cocktail is that it’s ephemeral. One drink can’t capture Atlanta. Our city’s cocktails, cuisine and culture guarantee there’s something for everyone here. Maybe that’s Atlanta’s true legacy: We’re the cocktail of the South.”

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