Drinks

Stirred by the South

Five cities that are doing cocktails right
Southern Cocktails
Illustration: Kim Graziano/Tasting Table

All month long, we're celebrating the people, places, dishes and traditions that make the South so special. Come take a seat at our table.

If Manhattan and San Francisco are the nerve centers of the American cocktail scene across the spine-like expanse of the United Sates, then Southern cities like New Orleans and Louisville are its heart and soul. Far from lagging behind the trend-setting coasts and the innovative culinary-inspired bar scenes of northern cities such as Chicago, much of what we consider trendy today never went out of style in the South.

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Wild Turkey master distiller Jimmy Russell recently told New Orleans bartender Abigail Gullo that American rye whiskey would have gone extinct in the 1980s and 90s if it were not for the good people of New Orleans drinking Sazeracs. You can go ahead and include the Ramos Gin Fizz, Brandy Milk Punch, and the Mint Julep, which bartender Chris McMillian preserved long enough for the metal julep cup to return to fashion, before the savage manner in which it's served at racetracks on Derby Day claimed its sanctity.

I'll always remember serving Gina and Linton Hopkins of Restaurant Eugene at the Pegu Club when it first opened in 2005. They were in town with a trio of their talented bartenders (Greg Best, Regan Smith, Andy Minchow) and chef Hopkins proudly declared he owned an early edition of Jerry Thomas's The Bartender's Guide, which inspired the cocktail program at Restaurant Eugene. Most chefs were actively opposed to serious cocktail programs in their restaurants at this time, so you can only imagine how surprised I was to hear him extolling the virtues of classic cocktails.

Thanks to paradigm-altering cocktail programs—Greg Best's at Restaurant Eugene in Atlanta, Neal Bodenheimer's at Cure in New Orleans, Brooks Reitz's at FIG in Charleston, Thomas Leggett's at The Roosevelt in Richmond and Larry Rice's at 732 Social (now closed) in Louisville—the mind and body of the American cocktail landscape are perfectly aligned today.

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The recognition of cocktails as a culinary art (as the bar's role in American restaurants shifted from waiting room to coveted real estate over the last decade) wouldn't have happened if the cultural vantage point of American cooking hadn't shifted to the South, where the cocktail always been welcome at a dinner party.

Here, I've profiled five individuals in five Southern cities that are paying cocktails proper attention (see the slideshow)—and where you should get a drink the next time you're in town.

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