by Lesley Jacobs Solmonson, Drinks Editor
Like so many important moments, the modern American cocktail revolution began in New York City and, in the early 2000s, exploded with unexpected ferocity in the following years. Not only did bartenders start making drinks using classic techniques and fresh ingredients, but customers started seeking out such expertise. As the decade progressed, the allure of a well-made cocktail found its way into every major city in the U.S., but it was still hit or miss when you went to a bar in a less populous market. In 2017, all that has changed. Chain restaurants tout their cocktail menus, BevMo! sells ten varieties of vermouth, and bartenders are rock stars. While making a superb cocktail will always be an art form, there are more bartenders aspiring to and achieving this goal.
Cities across the country from Portland to Denver and Chicago to Miami now have cocktail bars to spare,but there are still a number of places that don't necessarily get the notice they deserve. These locales -- Louisville, Nashville, Phoenix, and San Antonio -- have flourishing cocktail cultures with a clear imprint of place. Both Phoenix and San Antonio play host to popular Cocktail Week festivities, while Nashville and Louisville have enough great booze to overshadow the music and the ponies, respectively. Read on about these dynamic markets from bar folk who champion them.
As ground zero for bourbon culture, Louisville already has a huge historical imprint when it comes to alcohol. It's also home to Churchill Downs -- Kentucky Derby, anyone? -- as well as the Muhammad Ali Center and, of course, stunning countryside. With the Bourbon Trail beckoning, people don't necessarily think of drinking cocktails here. Still, Dave Kaplan and Alex Day, two of the principals in Proprietors LLC (Death & Company, The Normandie Club and others) think this small city really does have it all. And, while they aren't telling, Kaplan admitted that he and the team are "incredibly excited to be working towards a future that involves a lot of time in Kentucky!"
Supportive and open source
Considering that Proprietors runs bars on both the east and west coasts, it's fascinating to see what the draw is. Part of it is obvious as Louisville is bourbon's home with all the history and camaraderie that engenders. More importantly, Kaplan sees a unique synergy of culture and manufacturing. "It's hard not to feel the draw that Kentucky has when you're passionate about spirits and cocktails," he says, pointing out that the level of culture has ensured that Louisville places in the yearly "Top 20" Travel & Leisure ranking.
"There is an active city center, great museums, a thriving music scene, and, what drew us in most, it's a city where there is active American-made production. Vendome, one of the finest copper still manufacturers in the world, is right in downtown. Kelvin Cooperage is a second generation cooperage with an incredible production facility that cranks out hundreds of new American oak barrels a day. Louisville Slugger needs no explanation; and of course a lot of booze!" And did we know, he points out, that Louisville makes 90% of the world's disco balls?
Kaplan also cites the supportive, open source atmosphere. "As an outsider looking in," notes Kaplan, "I would say the vibe is easy going, but there is a strong entrepreneurial spirit there. Everyone knows the names of the families that have changed or shaped the town, most notably the Browns [of Brown-Forman]. People know the success stories and seem ready to take the jump to start something of their own." Indeed, one of the newer arrivals, Copper & Kings Distillery was opened by Joe Heron, a South African by birth who finds the welcoming spirit of Louisville the perfect place to make American brandy. And, reflecting that supportive element, he sources local bourbon barrels to age his spirits.
Bars to Know: The Silver Dollar, The Pearl, Nachbar, Haymarket Whiskey Bar
When you say Nashville, it is impossible not to think about twangy voices and strumming guitars. As the birthplace of country music, Nashville has a flourishing arts scene that includes scores of Equity theaters, dance companies, literary and art organizations, as well as a city opera and over ten choral groups. And while music -- let's just say the artistic temperament in general -- and booze are happy bedfellows, Nashville doesn't necessarily come to mind as a cocktail-minded town.
In January of 2016, Leilani Vella, USA Head of Market for Sipsmith, supervised the three week long Sipsmith Showdown Cocktail Competition in Nashville. This event, as well as other visits, allowed Vella to see the bar community in action. "It's as though the rich musical culture as poured into the city's cocktails," she says. "Bartenders in Nashville are inspired and motivated through curiosity and passion, making for an exiting and innovative bar culture."
Good people, good food, good music
According to Vella, Nashville's cocktail scene is thriving for good reason. "A city that celebrates its musicians," she says, "has a rich community, and the bar often serves as the meeting ground. As in music, bartending is a trade and tradition that must be learned from others. The intonations of the cocktail are passed down from mentors and coworkers and learned in experience. Bartenders and musicians have an inherent respect for their roots because they are reminded as how they practice their trade everyday."
The shared values of the musician and the bartender intertwine here. "Nashville is a place," says Vella, "where people are genuine and appreciate authenticity, values we hold very close to all that we do at Sipsmith. A friend once told me that life should be about good people, good food, and good music and these are in abundance in Nashville. The food scene has blossomed all around this burgeoning city and anyplace where people are enjoying creative farm-to-table food, there are people paying attention to how things are made, and, most importantly, exploring new experiences."
Bars to Know: Old Glory, The Green Hour, Treehouse Restaurant and Bar
While Phoenix is a convenient gateway to the Grand Canyon and Sedona's red rocks, this desert city has its own appeal. The sports-minded head to Camelback Mountain, families enjoy the superb Children's Museum, and nature lovers have the Desert Botanical Garden. Nearby Scottsdale is home to ritzy shopping and Phoenix food culture continues to evolve.
So, what leads a Scottish bartender who worked in London bars for six years to open his own spot in Phoenix? If you're Ross Simon, proprietor and head barman at Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlor, it was the opportunity not only to contribute but to help shape a burgeoning cocktail culture.
Never pretentious, never clique-y
Rather than set up shop in New York or San Francisco, which is where so many bartenders go, Simon wanted a more personal experience. "I wanted to do something very different and head to a market that had a tremendous capacity to develop," he notes. "And with some help from other equally passionate individuals, I managed to contribute to creating a culture of cocktails that wasn't in Arizona before. It helped push the consumer into demanding better tasting drinks via numerous methods with the intent to one day open my own gin joint."
Like all the other cities mentioned here, Phoenix has a true sense of community and the bartending folk support each other as a team. There is also a down-to-earth character that Simon feels is essential. "It feels very unpretentious out here," he says, "unlike some other markets that can definitely feel very cliquey. We just want to produce great tasting drinks while giving people a great night out from start to finish." With more and more bars within walking distance of one another, this sentiment seems to be materializing.
Bars to Know: Bitter & Twisted, Rum Bar at Breadfruit, Clever Koi, Under Tow, Crudo & Counter Intuitive
San Antonio, Texas
When most people think of San Antonio, the historic Alamo and romantic River Walk come to mind. The city is on the eastern edge of Texas Hill Country, home to great barbecue, small towns, and wildflower vistas. San Antonians have a vital food culture that combines European and Mexican influences, from paella to chili to the familiar Tex Mex. The city is home to several distilleries and microbreweries, while new cocktail venues continue to open.
Tex Mex, Hill Country, and 'Slam Antonio'
Jacob Grier, author of "Cocktails on Tap: The Art of Mixing Spirits and Beer" and a freelance writer/bartender/cocktail consultant, is a regular speaker at the San Antonio Cocktail Conference. That's reason enough for him to visit, but the bar culture keeps him coming back.
"For the past few years, one of the cities I've been most consistently excited to visit is San Antonio," says Grier. "While there top notch cocktails to be found all around, no one seems to take themselves too seriously. If you're friendly with your bartender, there's a good chance you'll find out why they call their city 'Slam Antonio.' Don't be surprised if you find yourself slamming daiquiris with them before the night is done."
Texas is no stranger to vital urban culture with cities like Dallas, Houston, and Austin already on the tourist radar. Quietly but mightily, San Antonio has joined the ranks of the cocktail elite in cowboy country.
Bars to Know: Esquire Tavern (downstairs is a quiet escape from River Walk), The Last Word, Juniper Tar, Paramour Bar, Hot Joy and Cured (restaurant/bars)