It started with my complete lack of decisiveness. “Gin,” I said. “I’d like something with gin. Make me whatever you’d like.”
After that short exchange, Jeff Goggans, bartender at Sweetgrass, got to work making me one of the most delicious drinks I’d ever had. Absolute freedom in the right hands can reap great rewards for a parched Memphian looking for a good cocktail.
The resulting golden glassful was an old-school cocktail called “Bee’s Knees.” It’s a delicate balance of gin, honey, and lemon juice, and it is refreshingly delicious and bright. Rarely have I ever put such faith in someone to craft me something on a whim without them knowing what I might like. But this time at least, it was a fine investment!
This was my introduction to an intoxicating romance with the New Wave of Memphis cocktails. Across the city, men and women behind the bar are transforming what is in our glasses and what we’ve come to expect in that glass. The word “cocktail” has come to mean something completely different than what it used to mean in Memphis, even just five years ago.
Lisa Gradinger and Deni Reilly of The Majestic Grille downtown, for example, try to keep it simple. “I like to look back at traditional drinks and update them with a twist,” says Reilly. “The Mamie Taylor is just such a drink.” Named after a turn-of-the-century (nineteenth, that is) vaudeville and Broadway actress, comedienne, and singer, Mamie Taylor (think Carol Burnett meeting opera diva) the cocktail was the star of posh dining rooms and supper clubs up until Prohibition. Gradinger and Reilly’s penchant for Prohibition-era cocktails is one that’s shared by many contemporary cocktail enthusiasts.
“It’s the perfect transition from light midsummer drinks to the heartier, dark liquors of the fall,” says Gradinger. “It’s two ounces of blended Scotch (preferably The Famous Grouse or Johnnie Walker Black), freshly squeezed juice from half a medium lime, topped with ice and finished with Barritts Bermuda Stone Ginger Beer and a lime wedge.” This penchant for looking back towards those old-school drinks stems from the desire to modernize them in fresh and different ways. “The Moscow Mule [from the 1950s, and purportedly Oprah Winfrey’s favorite cocktail] is based directly on the Mamie Taylor,” Reilly says.
While it’s never been difficult to get a decent Manhattan or martini here, a uniquely handcrafted cocktail used to take some searching. And more often than not, that search led to disappointment.
Just in the past few years more and more creativity and attention to detail has risen behind the bar. Thankfully, restaurants and bars are now emphasizing unique libations that set them apart from those simply offering the cloying cosmopolitan.
Some of our very own creations are even getting national attention. Brandon Aguirre, who keeps patrons well-pleased at Sweetgrass Next Door, was selected to represent Memphis in “The Most Inspired Bartender” competition, held recently in Nashville and sponsored by GQ magazine and Bombay Sapphire. Aguirre called his special potion the “Basilito,“ emphasizing one of this unique cocktail’s key ingredients.
“Inspiration for the Basilito,” he explains, “like a lot of what I do, comes from the creativity and accessibility of the kitchen and experimentation. I am very fortunate to have access to the best ingredients available that are often locally and/or organically grown,” echoing a sentiment shared by most chefs in Memphis, as witnessed by what they are putting on the plate.
Aguirre’s concoction earned Basilito a third place in the GQ competition, and it’s a refreshing mix of gin, basil, and “Andy” pepper infused with simple syrup, club soda with crushed ice, and garnished with a fresh basil leaf. The crushed ice not only cools down the slightly spicy drink, but it also dilutes it just enough to balance out the fire and herbaceous notes.
Without a properly stocked bar, our local cocktailians’ creativity would have its limits. Thankfully, local distributors have responded to the groundswell of this movement by bringing in an arsenal of boutique spirits for bar chefs to arm themselves with. A bevy of new liquors, such as Hayman’s Old Tom Gin, Rothman & Winter Creme de Violette, and Corsair Wry Moon are being transformed into toast-worthy new concoctions in some of the best bars in Memphis.
Mixologists across the city are rediscovering and falling in love with one of the most vital components of a composed drink: bitters. A simple cocktail can be transformed into something exquisite with just a few dashes of a high-quality bitters. The recent Memphis launch of Fee Brothers, a highly regarded bitters producer from upstate New York, has bartenders and amateur drink lovers alike salivating over their mint, rhubarb, and even black walnut bitters.
“There is something magical about evolution,” says Emily Brown, one of Midtown’s best-known mixologists, and currently tending bar at Acre Restaurant. “Bitters were crafted to be only used for medicinal purposes. Fee Brothers bitters add something to cocktails that you normally just can’t create behind a bar. The flavors are bold but not intrusive.” Thank goodness someone decided to put them in cocktails.
Brown showcases them well in one of her most recent creations, the “Caribe.” “It’s two ounces Cruzan, silver rum, two dashes Fee Brothers orange bitters, two dashes Fee Brothers grapefruit bitters, a half-ounce of Fee Brothers or Taylor’s Velvet falernum [a sweet syrup with flavors of almond and ginger], a splash of soda and a squeezed lime. What I wanted to accomplish with this was to take a poolside drink and elevate it.”
With a vast array of handcrafted artisan liquors to work with, the possibilities are now limitless for what to expect when bellying up to a bar in Memphis. This city’s bartenders have an overwhelming amount of talent, and they are now well armed. Let’s take advantage.