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.
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.
“Our cocktail list is pretty much built on our infusions,” explains Miller. “We infuse at least six different vodkas, four tequilas, and two gins. That was worrisome to us when we started, because we were getting these products and putting the time into them to use these infusions, but we are doing well.”
Over at Terra Mae, they boast of having eight different types of bitters that they make in-house and seven different tinctures. “The reality of bitters is that it's the ultimate finishing oil, that final little individual touch,” Stamper says. “It can literally take an average drink and add an element of complexity that will turn into a high-end cocktail.”
“I personally lean way towards the bitter side of things. I love it,” Kelton enthuses. “The bitters are playing a huge part in the way everyone's palates have developed, steering a little bit farther away from the sweeter spirits and sweeter cocktails and adding a bit more depth to them.”
Baldwin agrees, and adds another element: locality. “The resurgence of fresh ingredients, keeping it local, helps us out a great deal in selling these new cocktail creations.”
For now, all four agree that cocktail culture is still in its infancy here in Chattanooga. Each, for their own part and in their own way, feels they are still in the process of educating people about what cocktails are and can be, but all believe the future is very bright—and bigger and bolder things are still to come.
“The best part of cocktail culture is that it doesn't have to be anything,” says Stamper. “It can be whatever you want it to be.”