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September 19, 2013

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Cocktail culture pours forth in Chattanooga

IzzzChattanooga used to be known for having the largest per capita consumption of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, or possibly for its lounges that prided themselves on making the strongest drinks imaginable, or even for places where the bar was just an afterthought to the kitchen—but now there’s a whole lotta shakin’ going on. 

Ever heard of an Elderfasion Royale? Or a Moscow Mule? How about a Hanky Panky, a Grace Hall, A Rose For Emily or even a Bastard Out Of Carolina?  These are all part of a cultural revolution that slowly but surely has brought the cocktail back from its forgotten place in history—and at the same time, aided in a rebirth in the art of tending bar.

And just as surely as you can’t learn about baseball without going to a game, or swimming without getting into a pool, the best place to learn about this new movement is to head out and talk with the people who are making it happen.

With that in mind, we sat down with four local bartenders (don't call them “mixologists” since they do far more than just make drinks) and picked their brains about “cocktail culture”: what it means, how it's changing both bars and consumers, and why Chattanooga is such a good place for it to take root.  Justin Stamper of Terra Mae Appalachian Bistro, Laura Kelton of Easy Bistro, Owen Miller at The Flying Squirrel, and The Social's Josh Baldwin all took time to expand and expound on their favorite subjects: cocktails and tending a modern bar.

For Stamper, his introduction to cocktail culture all started with getting bumped from a flight. Four times.  Years ago, as a poor college student, he was trying to fly from Eugene, OR to Cincinnati, OH. But since he didn't have the money for a reserved ticket, he had to accept standby status and kept getting bumped. To the point where, instead of hanging around the Eugene airport, which is not exactly the most happening place in the Pacific Northwest, he wandered into town and looked for a place to get a drink.

“I found these cool little bars, with a seeping air of intrigue,” he reminisces, sitting in a quiet corner near the bar at Terra Mae. “One of the things that hooked me into the cocktail culture was the dedication, the attention to detail involved in making a drink.”

But for him it went beyond that. “It's not just product,” Stamper explains. “The product is, of course, incredibly important, but it's the little bits of detail that make all the difference between a good drink and a great drink. The experience of coming in and talking to someone who's very knowledgeable about the product, and who's willing to explain it and willing to tell you a bit of a background story creates a bond, even if it's fleeting, even if it's just that thirty to forty seconds you're sitting at the bar looking at and listening to the bartender.”

Easy Bistro's Laura Kelton agrees. “The new culture allows you to pay a lot more attention to detail and actually make a really great drink. It allows the craft and art of making drinks to shine through. There are a lot of things that take a little more time to make.”

Kelton feels that cocktail culture is bringing back the true art of bartending. Instead of just making well drinks or keeping pitchers of beer flowing to the adjoining restaurant, bartenders are truly once again masters of the bar.

“It's more than just building drinks and building flavor profiles. It's also taking care of people sitting at your bar, which we [as an industry] kind of got away from for a while,” she says. “It all comes down to tending the bar, making people happy, which is what I do,” says Kelton.

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September 19, 2013

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