Forget the vodka-water and Natty Light, Southerners know how to appreciate a proper drink. Lucky for us, the South holds claim to some of the brightest minds in the industry.
Dean of New Orleans mixology, and part founder of The Museum of the American Cocktail, Chris McMillian gave us a tip-of-the-‘berg run-down of 10 of the bartenders who are shaping the industry and putting our region’s cocktail scene on the map.
“The story for me today is not the uniqueness of the South’s drink culture right now but the proliferation,” he says. “There is so much great talent to choose from.”
We caught up with the 10 guys to find out what they’re serving up behind the bar. Is it happy hour yet?
1. Chris Hannah at French 75 in New Orleans, Louisiana
“Chris is one the greatest bartenders in our city, and in America. He has a real understanding of the history of cocktails, and he is really innovative,” Mc Millian says.
The drink: Boo Radley’s. Named after Boo Radley in To Kill A Mockingbird, Hannah serves this up to guests who are interested in trying something new, and in the mood for something like a Manhattan. “It’s modeled after a New Orleanian classic—The Creole Cocktail,” Hannah says. “Instead of rye whiskey as the base spirit, we’re using bourbon.”
2. Bobby Heugel at Anvil Bar & Refuge in Houston, Texas
“Bobby is a pioneer of the cocktail scene in Texas,” McMillian says. “Everything that came after followed the footprint he established.”
The Drink: The Brave—Anvil’s house cocktail made with Del Maguey mezcal, Averna Amaro, and Curaçao. “I worked on this cocktail for over a year until I was satisfied with it. Its room-temperature nature is distinct, but rooted in history. Scaffas, a similar style of drink has been documented in cocktail publications since the mid-1800s, “Huegel says. “This cocktail has a bold, rich quality, that makes it a perfect digestif.”
3. T. Cole Newton at Twelve Mile Limit in New Orleans, Louisiana
“Cole and 12 Mile are a great example of where the industry is headed. The spot is just a neighborhood bar, and Cole is serving up great craft cocktails in it,” McMillian says. “It’s nothing fancy, but it’s just what you’d want—to go to your favorite place and get a fantastic drink.”
The Drink: The Baudin with bourbon, honey, fresh lemon juice, and hot sauce. “It’s essentially a whiskey sour variation or perhaps a spin on the hot toddy that is more picante than caliente,” Newton says. “The effect is delicious and somehow primal. It tastes like a drink that should have always existed.”
4. Dean Hurst at SideBern’s in Tampa, Florida
“Dean is the president of Tampa’s chapter of the U.S. Bartender’s Guild, and he is helping put the city’s cocktail scene on the map,” McMillian says.
The Drink: The Switch Back. Influenced by the Corpse Reviver #2 and the Last Word, the drink has tequila, green chartreuse, Lillet Blanc, and fresh lime-juice. “Each ingredient has a presence in the finished cocktail, but the transitions are seamless,” Hurst says.
5. Derek Brown & Katie Nelson at The Passenger & The Columbia Room in Washington, D.C.
“Derek is leading the cocktail culture in the D.C. area, which is a huge burgeoning area with lots of talented people like Todd Thrasher at Restaurant Eve,” McMillian says. “ Derek is a very talented guy.”
The Drink: PX Sweet Tea. With black tea, P.X. Sherry, blackberries and mint. “We had a very simple idea. We love sweet tea and we love sherry. Therefore, let’s combine them.” Brown says. “I often coach people not to be afraid of simple, delicious combinations.”
6. Gary Crunkleton at The Crunkleton in Chapel Hill, North Carolina
“Gary established some great standards for the cocktail program at this private club (memberships are available at the door, and start at $5), and he is working to develop a standardized criteria by which bars can be evaluated and measured,” McMillian says.
The Drink: The Roycroft. With rye whiskey, green chartreuse, Bénédictine, and cherry heering Liquer.“I wanted to make something that would make Elbert Hubbard and the other Roycrofts proud,” Crunkleton says. “This drink has complexities and flavor as sagacious as any drink throughout the cocktail culture in America, in my humble opinion.”
7. Nelson Crutchfield from Commonwealth Restaurant & Sky Bar in Charlottesville, Virginia
“Each new generation wants to blaze a new trail,” McMillian says. “And I was so impressed by Nelson’s passion and aspiration when I met him.”
The Drink: The Tortoise and the Pear. Crutchfield’s take on the julep. “I always start my back-deck session with Juleps,” Crutchfield says. His trick for perfecting juleps? Use twice as much mint as you think you need, and press do not crush the mint with the syrup. “Crushing and tearing the drink makes it unpleasantly bitter.”
8. Neal Bodenheimer at Cure in New Orleans
“Neal learned his craft in the Manhattan cocktail scene, and when he came back to New Orleans after Katrina, he wanted to create a contemporary cocktail lounge,” McMillian says.
The Drink: A Thousand Blue Eyes, created by one of the Cure bar managers, Nick Dietrich. “It’s got everything I look for in a summer cocktail,” Bodenheimer says. “It’s refreshing. It doesn’t have too much alcohol because it’s mostly vermouth. And tt has great herbal and floral notes.”
9. Kirk Estopinal at Bellocq in New Orleans
“Kirk is at the forefront of what’s happening in the industry,” McMillian says. “At Bellocq Kirk and Neal [Bodenheimer] have created an interesting menu built around the cobbler—a 19th century style of drinks that helped popularize the use of ice in drinks.”
The Drink: The Modern Roffignac. One of Bellocq’s happy hour drinks madw with Tanqueray, Landy Vsop Cognac, and housemade raspberry syrup. “The mix of gin and brandy is a nod to the great debate over what spirit belongs in the French 75,” Estopinal says. “I wanted to show they aren’t mutually exclusive. They taste great together.”
10. The Patterson House in Nashville
“Some places are about the personalities and others are all about the ambiance,” McMillian says. “Tobey Maloney from the Violet Hour in Chicago helped create the concept, and he is one leading cocktail minds in the country.”
The Drink: Go Get ‘Em. A refreshing summer cocktail with Tanqueray gin, vermouth, and apricot liqueur. “The vermouth brings a rich depth to the palate, and the gin brings complexity and contrast through its botanical high notes,” says bartender James Hensley. “It’s dangerously easy to drink.”
What’s your favorite Southern bar?