Atlanta's best bartenders speak up 

A roundtable discussion about the city's cocktail renaissance, plus their cocktail recipes

Miraculously, surprisingly, magnificently, Atlanta has become a cocktail town. It's happened quickly, seemingly overnight. Three years ago a good drink was hard to find; six years ago it was impossible. But now great drinks exist everywhere in Atlanta. With a culture changing that quickly, questions arise. We decided to pose some of those questions — on the stigma of "fancy drinks," ridiculous cocktail names, the nature of drinking in the South — to some of the folks in the trenches of our drinking culture. The truth is, Atlanta's bartenders love talking about what they do, and the camaraderie between them is infectious. Here are the highlights from Brad Kaplan's conversation with Greg Best (Holeman & Finch), Paul Calvert (Pura Vida), Navarro Carr (the Sound Table), Lara Creasy (JCT Kitchen, No. 246), Lindy Colburn (Quality Wine & Spirits), and Miles Macquarrie (Leon's Full Service).

click to enlarge Paul Calvert - JOEFF DAVIS

Brad Kaplan: How do you think about the challenge of naming the drinks you come up with?

Navarro Carr: When naming drinks, we take inspiration from a book we read, or music, or something in our life, and we personalize the cocktail. But a lot of times people come in and love the name, but the drink is not for them. It's a challenge — making sure they understand what the drink is.

Lindy Colburn: I'm terrible with names.

Miles Macquarrie: I'm horrible with it, too, I usually get help from staff members, or my wife.

Carr: Your wife's doing a great job.

Paul Calvert: I've overheard guests say they're not going to order a cocktail called "The Socialist" because they don't care for Obama ... it's not a vote, it's a drink.

Greg Best: I'll tell you a name that really got people up in arms was "The Mussolini." I gotta tell you, man, I was trying to take the name back, but some Italian people did not find humor in that at all! So that was pretty bad.

Lindy Colburn: On the distributor side, I see a lot of horrible liquor names, like a peanut butter-flavored vodka called NutLiquor. Ya know, really?

Kaplan: Are there certain spirits you don't want in your bar?

Best: You can tell when the people behind a spirit are doing it because of passion and love for their craft as opposed to the people who are doing something as a novelty or to make X amount of dollars as quickly as they can. Generally, my rule of thumb is why would I try to work with them seriously if they don't take their product seriously, or if the product is just meant to be a revenue driver.

Macquarrie: I doubt any of us have Midori behind the bar.

Kaplan: So, for Atlanta's drinking crowd, what makes for a good cocktail menu?

Carr: The drinking crowd in Atlanta is all across the board. You have your ultra-educated drinkers, and you have people that may not know anything on the menu. The main thing is customer service and breaking down the wall to make customers feel welcome. [At the Sound Table] we don't have a lot of the things that some folks expect — I don't have Apple Pucker. Nothing against Apple Pucker, I just don't have it. So it's the play of bartender to customer and suggesting things in a way to help them find something else they may like.

Calvert: I continue to be amazed at how much Mezcal is sold, both at Sound Table and here at Pura Vida.

Best: A lot of people order a drink because they see someone next to them drinking it, ask if it tastes good, and say, "I'm going to have one of those."

Creasy: It makes a big difference how you write your menu, if you're only putting things on it that us bartenders want to drink then you're not going to get very far with the other thousand people you see during the week. But if you're writing your menu in a way that isn't intimidating ... I always put something in a drink that's going to hook people even if they don't know what the other three things are. You know, if it's seasonal produce or a spirit they're comfortable with or even the way you name it.

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