When I first heard that Sara Justice had joined Holeman & Finch as head bartender back in February, it was her recent stint at New York's famed PDT cocktail bar that was heralded at the top of her list of credentials. But when I sat down and talked to her, it became clear that this self-described country bumpkin's upbringing in Pennsylvania Dutch Country was every bit as important. After all, it's not too far a leap from the scrapple of her youth to the Southern "parts" that populate the Holeman & Finch menu.
So, how'd you find your way behind the bar?
I've worked in restaurants since I was a little kid, but it wasn't until I moved to Atlanta and started at Leon's Full Service a bit over three years ago that I really started to think about the bar. I trained under Miles [Macquarrie, now at Kimball House] and just fell in love with bartending. After that, my partner, who's also from Pennsylvania, and I decided to move back to Philadelphia. I worked at a great bar there, then really wanted to experience the bar scene in New York, where I spent a year with Jim Meehan and the crew at PDT.
What was it like working at PDT?
Jim is an amazing guy, and he expects a lot out of you and trusts you to do it — but he lets you know if you're doing it wrong. So it was a great learning experience. A lot of his drinks take more nuance, layering of flavors, so it's not smashing people over the head with something.
How would you compare Atlanta's cocktail scene with what's going on in New York?
I feel like Atlanta is pretty in line with New York now that we have so many bars dedicated to craft cocktails. But there's also plenty of room for experimentation here on what it means to be a cocktail bar versus the more defined styles you see in New York where they've been entrenched longer. It's exciting; people in Atlanta are open to taking risks and doing new things.
Scrapple. What comes to mind when you hear that word?
THE most delicious food in the world. Meat is so important to Pennsylvania Dutch food and culture — it's unheard of to not have meat with your meal. And we had great scrapple growing up — typically pork, heart, liver, mixed with buckwheat, and cornmeal. I didn't think it was unusual, it's just what we ate.
You get to listen to one artist behind the bar this week — who is it?
Roky Erickson. Not a lot of people know his music, but it sounds familiar, and when I play it everyone seems to get really excited. It's really good bar music. I actually have a drink on the list right now named after one of his songs — "Don't Shake Me Lucifer."
What's the last great thing you had to drink?
On Sundays, which is usually my day off, I've been going to Octane Grant Park. I usually just get coffee, but they have this drink called the Ameri-cola, which is cane sugar Coca-Cola, a touch of vanilla, and espresso on top — you drink it and the different elements emerge with each sip. The espresso brings out the herbal aspects of the Coke, which is just fantastic.
Favorite places that make Atlanta great?
I'm kinda in love with Kimball House — they're doing something true to Atlanta, but also adventurous and different. Paper Plane is awesome. Most of all I'm excited to go back to my favorite tattoo artist, Danielle, at Only You. I actually avoided getting any tattoos while I was away because I feel like no one else can match her.
How do you hope to keep Holeman & Finch true to its roots but also express a bit of your own personality behind the bar?
I've been coming at it from the angle of understanding the story of what Holeman & Finch is, which is so strongly driven by Southern food and [owner/chef] Linton's heritage. That needs to be the foundation for the cocktail program, but we then have the freedom to try things that fit with that. There are cool things we're doing with the kitchen like using the buttermilk from our house-churned butter in a drink we're calling the Milchfrau Flip. Milchfrau is German for milkmaid, and it's kind of an homage to my Pennsylvania Dutch background — but with bourbon and Cognac and a bit of Madeira! It's got a fresh, lemony, almost grassy flavor from the buttermilk, which starts with cream from Southern Swiss Dairy nearby.
What's ahead for the cocktail list at Holeman & Finch?
We're now doing block ice, hand carved for Old Fashioneds, and I'd love to try out some punches for summer. I also have a running wish to make a drink that tastes like soft pretzel — we'll see if I can make that work!
I'm very happy for Kathy's success, and I wish her the best for a prosperous…
Calavino is forced friendly. Her girlfriend is snobby. Their food is meh.