Where to find a craft cocktail made right 

A reason to drink more than you already do

During the last couple of weeks, I have had the privilege of watching some of Atlanta's best bartenders in action while exercising the height of their craft. Yes, it's true, we have our own secret lodge where we gather in dimly lit rooms to engage in arcane cocktail rituals the likes of which no layperson has ever observed. OK, that's a little over the top: The truth is that a local bartending competition has been going on, and it's brought many of us barfolk together in the same place for the first time. The experience has inspired me to write a column dedicated to and in celebration of these perpetrators of the sacred craft.

Just a short year ago, one could count Atlanta's cocktail-driven establishments on one hand. Sure, there were promising barkeeps popping up here and there, but like Ronin searching for an honorable family to hire their services, much shuffling took place and many of them departed our city in search of opportunities elsewhere. Still, plenty of these guys and gals decided to make it happen right here. For the record, I should mention that there is no training institution or culinary school classes to teach what these folks have learned, so trying to convince a restaurant to hire you is a leap of faith for both parties. Hats off to the restaurateurs who took that leap ... it was worth it.

We can all agree that part of what makes Atlanta so special is our myriad neighborhoods with their individual microcosms of culture and flavor. I can honestly say that whether you are in the Westside, Downtown, Buckhead, Decatur, Virginia-Highland, Inman Park, the Old Fourth Ward, Midtown, hell even Alpharetta, you can get a craft cocktail made right. These barkeeps don't just excel in making tasty drinks, either; they serve as Sherpas on your quest through the spirit world in general.

Now that our city has healthy, growing bar talent to support and brag about, let's cover some basic rules of engagement. The cocktail menu at a great bar or restaurant is a look into the personality of the bar staff working there. It's important to taste drinks from different places to be able to understand the stylistic differences as well as the strengths of each particular house. Remember that cocktail menus are just references or jumping off points. Don't feel limited by what's offered in print. One of the traits of a good barkeep is an ability to craft something to fit your mood or taste preference. Not recognizing items on a back bar is not a bad thing. Chances are the bartender is working hard to offer a different experience for his or her guests, so ask questions. Believe it or not, we like talking about booze! Get to know the barkeeps at the restaurants you love. Our community is still small, so they can most likely guide you to another great spot you may not be familiar with.

There are few individuals in our lives that can do what a good bartender can. We fill the role of an unlicensed and practicing shrink, attorney, physician, comedian and confidante. I am extremely proud to work among such stellar folks. Let's keep the demand alive and burning for our fellow dipsomaniacs behind the bar. Belly up, ATL!

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