Nor is she alone in this thinking. “We want people to be more interested in what they're drinking,” notes The Flying Squirrel’s Owen Miller. “People are asking questions about the cocktails and we gladly let them know what we are putting in them, what work it takes to make them. People want to know if they are paying good money that there is some kind of time and effort being put into that cocktail.”
Miller believes that one of the great strengths Chattanooga has to offer to drinkers is the environment itself. “This such a seasonal area,” he explains. “We have so many different options, with seasonal fruits and vegetables, and we try to incorporate that into our drinks. We spend a lot of time on the prep for our cocktails. We fresh-squeeze all of our juices, make our own mixes, and really try to be as local as possible. Our fruits and a lot of our berries are local—anything we can get our hands on.”
Josh Baldwin, who oversees the very busy bar at The Social in Warehouse Row, believes the movement is taking things back to what bartending used to be, before it was made so easy for everybody, with flavored liquors and premixes.
“Now you're taking the fresh ingredients, you're taking the liquor, and you're mixing them together to create new tastes,” he says. “We are treating drinks like we treat food in the kitchen and what we are finding here is that people are now trusting us as bartenders. They'll come in and say, 'Make us something delicious,' which gives us room to create and try something new.”
Baldwin, who came to the city just a few short years ago, has already seen major changes in how Chattanoogans drink and how they perceive the bar scene. “Chattanooga was a beer town. When we opened three years ago, it was really hard to get people to try our cocktails. It was just through constantly reiterating what we were trying to do, to say 'Trust us, if you don't like it, we'll take it back, but we're betting you'll like it' that people started to change and move beyond beer.”
Which is not to say that people are only concerned with the personality and knowledge of their favorite bartender, though that is an undeniable element of cocktail culture. What has really changed has been both the variety of quality spirits now available and how traditional spirits are being perceived.
“I believe there's more emphasis on the bartender being able to produce a drink that will absolutely make you tell your friends about it when you get home,” says Stamper. “Alcohol has largely followed gender roles, which is incredibly unfortunate, because there are a lot of women who in the past could have been enjoying a nice rye. Bourbon, for example, has unfortunately been typecast into this role where it's a drink that has to have hair on its chest, that makes you feel more like a man and it's just such a terrible misconception.”
Baldwin agrees, noting that while vodka is still the number-one spirit pretty much everyone you go, in Chattanooga you see a lot of bourbon drinkers. “It probably has something to do with the climate, being up higher in mountains and cooler than other areas around us, where the clearer spirits are more popular.”
Which brings us to the last aspect of cocktail culture: the mix. Not only do bartenders have a wider variety of quality spirits to work with and a more appreciative clientele willing to move away from previously defined perceptions, but they also have embraced the return of bitters, tinctures and infusions.