By now, you're probably familiar with Jerry Slater. He arrived in Atlanta in 2008, straight from the bourbon-soaked streets of Louisville, where he ran the restaurants at the famed Seelbach Hotel. After helping to open the groundbreaking One Flew South with chefs Todd Richards and Duane Nutter in Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Slater traded planes for trains in 2010 by opening a restaurant/bar in the old railroad station off Memorial Drive — H. Harper Station. The name came from his maternal grandfather, Harold Harper, and the place quickly became known as a temple of brown spirits, classic cocktails, and plentiful punch bowls.
H. Harper Station is now three and a half years old. What changes in Atlanta cocktail drinking have you noticed over that time?
I see more trust for what we're doing now than when we opened, and less big-name liquor brand loyalty. People are more willing to try the artisan and rare spirits that we seek out. And more and more in Atlanta now, there's a return to tending bar, meaning taking care of guests rather than aiming for pyrotechnics with the cocktails.
Hawaiian Punch: Yea or nay?
Yeah. When I was 8.
One of your most popular cocktails is the Bufala Negra (it was the first drink I tried at H. Harper Station when it opened). Where did it come from and why do you think it works so well?
I created that drink while still in Louisville. Chef Richards and I were cooking at the James Beard House and Buffalo Trace was one of our sponsors, so that provided the inspiration for the name and main ingredient. It's got basil, which is in the mint family, so not really that unfamiliar to bourbon, and balsamic syrup, which is similar to a shrub preparation. We top that with house-made ginger beer, à la the "Presbyterian" cocktail or an Italian mint julep. It seems out there at first, but it's rooted in classic cocktails and traditional kitchen pairings. Since it was included in the 2008 Food & Wine cocktail book, I've seen it on menus in Brooklyn, Oakland, and as far away as Leicester, England.
What was your first experience with mixing drinks?
Professionally, it was making ice-cold Bombay Sapphire martinis with blue cheese-stuffed olives for the owner of a cigar shop. We would trade, and the shift lasted well into the night.
It's one of those "good problems to have" that bartenders tend to come up under certain programs — like yours — then move on to do their own thing. Julian Goglia at Pinewood Tippling Room mentioned you as a big influence in a previous Happy Hour. What are your thoughts on helping people learn the ropes behind the bar?
As a restaurateur, I take great joy seeing people who have spent time with me excel. My friend Julian at Pinewood is one, but I also got to turn over the bar at One Flew South to Tiffanie Barriere, and longtime H. Harper bartender Mercedes O'Brien is now heading up Gun Show's cocktail project, which is really exciting. I would like to think I had some influence, but maybe they're just really talented!
What's the last great thing you had to drink?
A bottle of Pierre Péters champagne just last night, with Gulf shrimp off the grill.
End of a shift — beer or wine?
Beer, but just one, I get too full.
Forced choice: vodka soda or Long Island iced tea?
How forced? Are there guns involved? LIT, I suppose
Favorite places that make Atlanta great?
Mi Barrio. Oakland Cemetery. The Beltline. Octane Coffee. Monday lunches at Victory Sandwich Bar plus Monday dinners at Paper Plane. My front porch in Reynoldstown.
What's ahead for you and H. Harper Station?
Our third anniversary party a few months back saw such a great outpouring of love, we were overwhelmed. It feels like we are on the right path and hitting a new plateau with chef Micah Gower [formerly of Empire State South] in the kitchen. Also, my wife-to-be, Krista Mason [who's a sommelier], and I have been working on a wine shop/to-go market concept, and then there is the one other thing I can't quite talk about yet ... you'll have to wait and see for that one.
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