James Beard Nominees Recall Their Most Memorable Cocktails

Scoring a James Beard Award nomination is an impressive accomplishment, to say the least. And although only one of the semi-finalists nominated for Outstanding Bar Program can take home the award, we wanted to celebrate all of the incredible bars that made the cut this year. So we asked the masterminds behind the country’s most prestigious watering holes to harken back to the most memorable cocktails they ever had. From tropical delights to simple classics, here are their hall-of-fame drinks.

Courtesy of Houston Eaves

Houston Eaves

The Esquire Tavern, San Antonio, TX

“The most memorable cocktail I've ever had would have to be a Batanga (tequila, Mexican Coke and fresh lime juice, served tall with a salted rim) made by Don Javier Delgado at La Capilla in Tequila, Mexico in 2012. The ritual of the cocktail's preparation and the warmth of his hospitality made for an experience I will never forget.”  

Meredith Perdue

Andrew Volk

Portland Hunt + Alpine Club, Portland, ME

“Often the most memorable drinks in my career aren't necessarily because of the ingredients or the technique, but the people and the experiences those drinks help facilitate. I met my now-wife while I was working behind the bar at Clyde Common in Portland, Oregon (another JBF semi-finalist!). I still remember the first Old Fashioned I made Briana. It wasn't anything other than a basic, straightforward drink (2 oz bourbon, 1 tsp rich simple syrup, 2 dashes bitters, stir with a big ice cube, orange twist and a cherry), but we started talking over that first drink. Eight years later, we’re married with a child—a second on the way—and a bar. One of the drinks that has been on the menu at Hunt + Alpine since the beginning? That same Old Fashioned I made for my wife when we met.”

Courtesy of Standby

Joe Robinson

Standby, Detroit, MI

“The most memorable cocktail I've ever had was the Bananas Justino from Booker & Dax. It's made with aged rum and silky smooth bananas—that's it. Two ingredients! Dave has come up with ways to bring flavors to your drink that otherwise wouldn't be obtainable without his techniques. After experiencing that drink, I went back home and immediately started looking for a centrifuge. I've owned two since then and use them daily at the bar. We have our own twist on the Bananas Justino called the Bare Necessities which is Old Forester 100 Proof Whiskey blended with bananas and clarified in the centrifuge. We add a touch of dark muscovado sugar and salt, and serve it over a big rock and wrap it in a banana leaf. It is sinful.”

Ryan Gannon

Cure, New Orleans, LA

“When I think about the most memorable cocktail I'd ever had, I instantly think about the first time I stepped into the old Milk & Honey. I had no idea what I was supposed to be drinking—I didn't know an Eastside from a Southside, and I'm pretty sure I felt underdressed. But the gent behind the bar was so quietly accommodating and hospitable, I was completely at ease. After a quick chat, he came back with a neat pour of Havana Club and a small piece of candied ginger. It wasn't a ‘cocktail’ per se, but it was exactly what I needed. I'll never forget it.”

Courtesy of Peder Schweigert

Peder Schweigert

Marvel Bar, Minneapolis, MN

“Every year around late March, my father and I harvest maple syrup. We alternate jobs, one hauling gallons of sap from taps all over the woods, the other cooking that sap down over a fire in our smoke-filled sugar shack. One of the treats that’s only available in the midst of that process is the par-cooked sap, ladled out from the kettle before it’s reduced to syrup. When I’m on cooking duty, I make black tea with the sap, dose it with American whiskey and sip it out of a coffee mug while I stoke the fire.”

Courtesy of Chris Hannah

Chris Hannah

Arnaud’s French 75 Bar, New Orleans, LA

“One of the most memorable cocktails I had was my first Bayou Bash (Southern Comfort, fruit juice and red wine) from Miss Flo at The Court of Two Sisters restaurant in the French Quarter. It was her 40th year working and bartending at the restaurant. She was the first person of color to be allowed to work as front of house staff there. She won Best Cocktail in New Orleans at a cocktail contest in the French Quarter several times and was revered as New Orleans' Best Bartender. She enjoyed playfully reminding me that I have yet to win. It was a true pleasure to see her behind the bar several times before she passed away in 2010.”

Courtesy of Chesapeake & Maine

Sam Calagione

Chesapeake & Maine, Rehoboth Beach, DE

“Right now, I’m raising a glass to toast Chesapeake & Maine for being recognized by the James Beard Foundation for having one of the most innovative bar programs in the United States, after only one year in business! So what’s in the glass? My new favorite cocktail called the Gray and Gusty. It’s made with our Dogfish Distilling Company's Barrel Honey Rum, grapefruit and lime. Once this glass in finished, I’ll toast C&M with a second round.”

Thaddeus Vogler

Bar Agricole, San Francisco, CA

“The most memorable drink for me was in 1989 when the maitre d’ at the French restaurant where I worked as a busboy in college served me a Pink Gin at his home. This is basically just gin and Angostura bitters, chilled and served up. I was 19 and this guy was very sophisticated. His collection was the first I ever saw of vintage cocktail books, and he shook his drinks in an old cobbler shaker with two hands like a Cuban bartender. I had never experienced bitter flavors like this before, and the aromatic intensity of the botanical gin coupled with the Angostura was something I’d never encountered either. It was a real game-changer for me.”