Cocktails return to the basics, and enthusiasts are all too happy to sip classic flavors in a whole new way.
By Alia Akkam
Complex cocktails and spectacular showmanship have taken over bars in past years, but now flavored liquors and complicated processes are being eschewed for the old classics. Both bartenders and mixology enthusiasts are finding a balance between innovation and tradition. Even though names on cocktail lists may sound familiar, mixologists are showing off their creativity with clever substitutions and garden-fresh garnishes.
What is happening in the South is part of a much larger trend that revisits bartending’s classic combinations. Simplicity, according to bartenders, is far more important when creating quality cocktails than wanton novelty, and consumers agree. According to Robert Simonson, author of “The Old-Fashioned: The Story of the World’s First Classic Cocktail with Recipes and Lore,” “The history of bartending in America has always been a tug of war between innovation and back-to-basics traditionalism.
“There was a time in the 1870s when bartenders, excited by a plethora of new ingredients at their disposal—such as curacao and absinthe—were throwing all sorts of things into what had been fairly simple drinks. This eventually caused some drinkers to cry foul. I think the same cycle has happened over the past 10 years,” he explains.
Back to Basics
Randi Zeagler, bartender at the Georgian Room Lounge, has noticed the move toward the tried and true. Recently, she finds herself making everything from Old-Fashioneds to old-fashioned Flips for her guests. “Guests are tired of drinks that take 15 minutes to make,” she says. “They want something that tastes good and is well made, but they want it to have three ingredients.”
At the Georgian Room Lounge, playing with cocktails means serving sophisticated spins on the tried and true. The Negroni—traditionally equal parts gin, Campari and sweet vermouth—is especially popular. Zeagler thinks this might have something to do with the flexibility it affords, allowing patrons to sip different gin and amaro hybrids substituted in the drink.
“I’ll have regulars tell me they want a Negroni and to make it however I want,” she explains. “So I’ll use different gins, like Bluecoat or Nolet’s, and instead of Campari, I’ll use Aperol or Amaro Nonino.”
The Manhattan cocktail is another favorite. In the South, Woodford Reserve bourbon is often the spirit of choice instead of the original rye. “We’ll [use] bourbon as much as we can,” Zeagler says. In one version, the drink is also brightened with an infusion of lemon verbena, and another recipe melds rye with a savory sherry gastrique.
Jessica Zigman, head bartender at Tavola on Sea Island, has similar experience reinventing cocktails to reflect a region. Her bar is stocked with Italian spirits that pair exceptionally well with the restaurant’s Italian fare. If a customer orders a Negroni, she would serve it with Giulio Cocchi’s Barolo Chinato “to take it to the next level.”
In an Aperol Spritz, she might pair club soda and bitter orange with caramel-flavored Cappelletti Aperitivo Americano Rosso instead of the cocktail’s namesake liqueur. “There’s a huge drive for classic cocktails,” Zigman explains. “Everyone has their own take on what’s traditional, and we use those as the guidelines to create cocktails that are unique but all stem from the original,” she says.
These examples of clever substitution mirror Simonson’s thoughts on changes behind the bar. “Mixologists, excited over rediscovering their profession as a craft, [started] inventing new cocktails,” he says. “Since all the great combinations were created a century or more ago, this meant increasingly complicated mixtures, with six or seven ingredients, or drinks that depended on involved processes, like infusions, house-made bitters, shrubs and fat-washed spirits. This was novel for a while, but soon some drinkers—and truthfully, some bartenders, too—began to long for simpler times and simpler drinks.”
The Old-Fashioned is an example of a basic drink that’s finding a new groove. “It really began appearing on menus only in the last few years,” Simonson says of the cocktail. “Its template of spirits, water, bitters and sugar also allows bartenders to be creative without straying too far from the rulebook. You can play around with the sweetener, the bitters, even the spirit. It won’t be the Old-Fashioned, but will be a recognizable descendant.”
For the fall, Zeagler already has her eye on making an Old-Fashioned sweetened with her grandmother’s homemade fig jam. Her interest in using homemade products isn’t unusual among bartenders who want to be creative with the sources of their spirits.
The recent growth of craft distilleries has been especially noticeable in Georgia, where locally made spirits give Sea Island bartenders even more opportunities to reimagine classics that represent the region. Mark Allen, who founded Lazy Guy Distillery in Kennesaw, thinks the rise in micro-distilleries in the Peach State may have taken a cue from the success of its microbreweries, but ultimately, he says, “We believe people like to venture away from the mainstream rum, vodka, gin and whiskey labels.”
Bourbon is Lazy Guy’s prize spirit and an old-time favorite in mixed drinks, from the Boulevardier to the Scofflaw. “Classic cocktails are on the upswing in large part due to the craft distilling industry,” Allen says. “Craft focuses on those who look for something more than a label that’s been around since Prohibition. They look for a different, unique spirit.”
Zeagler’s John Daly Revisited cocktail, on the menu at Sea Island’s Oak Room, combines jasmine tea simple syrup with unsweetened iced tea, lemon juice, Texas-made Southern Son Vodka and Atlanta-brewed SweetWater 420 Extra Pale Ale. Zeagler calls it “the epitome of the South,” and shows that integrating locally made spirits into cocktails is just another way to add a new dimension to old classics.
Using Southern labels isn’t the only way that bartenders are keeping things local. Fresh herbs and indigenous ingredients also amplify the libations at Sea Island. Zeagler enjoys plucking English thyme and sweet basil from the Georgian Room’s garden and making rosewater out of fresh blooms for her drinks.
Tavola is currently adopting a garden-to-glass program, which sources ingredients and garnishes in cocktails from the patio garden. Because Italian food is a celebration of simple, fresh ingredients, the drinks also echo this sentiment. For instance, Zigman will be pairing gin with juiced ginger and fresh carrots, and bringing tequila, basil, grapefruit and rosemary-infused syrup together. “Tequila isn’t what you normally associate with Italy but, with the herbs, it becomes our interpretation,” she says.
The bar opens at the Georgian Room Lounge at 6 p.m. every day, but at 5:30 you’ll find Zeagler concocting an impromptu drink for the evening menu from farmers market finds. One recent creation was a pisco sour infused with lime zest simple syrup. “It tasted like a bright limeade,” she says. “Sometimes, when you’re trying to be overly creative, you lose focus on the important thing: the cocktail. … I like what you’re drinking to be fresh, balanced and unpretentious.”
Part of the craftsmanship of creating the perfect cocktail is the balance Zeagler mentions. There is an unmistakable marriage of old and new in what mixologists are serving. The recipes are time-tested favorites, but the interpretations are cutting-edge. Although stepping out to the patio to pick herbs follows the recent trend of using local and homegrown ingredients, cocktails were originally created through the very practice of backyard experimentation. According to John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, appreciating the recipes of the past while supporting local craft distilleries does Georgia proud: “That’s progress built on tradition.”