Food & Drink

The Atlanta Bartenders You Need to Know

Published On 11/03/2016 Published On 11/03/2016
Sean Gleason
Sean Gleason of Ponce City Market | Courtesy of Sean Gleason

Atlanta has many outstanding tenders of bar, and none of them make Blue MotherF*ckers... although there are many people who do, if that’s your thing (we’ve all been there). But assuming you’ve arrived at the point where you appreciate craft cocktails and the amazing individuals who don’t just serve drinks but serve guests, you should meet a few local bartenders who are moving cocktail art forward in major ways. We decided to list the individuals who deserve major recognition for the work they’ve done this year, in hopes that you avoid considering yet another glass of rose or sangria.

Sean Gleason

Biltong Bar

Address and Info

Ponce City Market

Everybody just expected there to be beef jerky and a few simple two-ingredient bevvies at best when Biltong first opened. Instead, a serious bar has emerged, led by Leon’s Full Service alum Sean Gleason. In addition to making deliciously boozy and completely unique drinks (bring back the “Dark Side”!!), Gleason directs drinks at sister restaurant Cape Dutch, and is down to talk tonic anytime if you have questions. He occasionally leads cocktail classes, and is particularly keen on showing you why Mai Tais are amazing, as well as show you how he learned to create them on a level that’ll make you realize you might be sexist for not yet gulping one (seriously, they’re outstanding).

What's your favorite drink to make?

Anything that includes fire.

What got you into bartending?

An academic interest in vice, combined with random chance.

What's something you love about this career?

I love the creative outlet, and I feel like I'm performing more of a public good than I would working in finance.

Courtesy of Greg Best & Paul Calvert

Greg Best & Paul Calvert (tie)

Ticonderoga Club

Address and Info

Krog Street Market

You can no longer separate the Ticonderoga Club partners now that they’ve bellied up to their own bar. Both have received major respect and notoriety through running incredible bar programs. Best can be credited with starting a citywide mixology movement at Holeman & Finch, while Calvert designed the original drinks of The Sound Table, breathed new liquid life into Pura Vida Tapas, then became bev director for Victory Brands, where he created cocktails that we all drank at Victory Sandwich Bar, Paper Plane (where he was a partner), and Little Trouble. In addition to all sorts of awards, they’ve also collaborated/consulted with Wild Heaven to create local beers (Emergency Drinking Beer and Wise Blood IPA). Both men should be at the top of any list as long as they choose to call themselves bartenders. This year they share a space in both our list and the real-life bar they run together at Krog.

What's your favorite drink to make?

Greg Best: The Sazerac is my favorite. Because I hold the drink so dear, everytime I make one it feels like putting on my favorite pair of boots. Seemingly simple, yet often difficult to find properly prepared. It's a great classic template.

What's something you love about bartending?

Paul Calvert: I've always loved playing the host at a party. So when I can help guide a guest through their entire experience at Ticonderoga Club and they love every stop along the way -- the cocktail before dinner, the wine or cider or sherry pairing with the meal, the glass of old rum or the digestive-style cocktail with dessert -- I get a great sense of accomplishment and of a job well done. It is now and has always been the people that keep me coming back to work.

What got you into bartending?

Greg: The usual chaos of the restaurant business first put me behind a bar. Someone hurt themselves, and I was thrown in to cover, etc. What kept me interested though were the nightly opportunities to meet new people and prepare things for them that might just add a level of excitement or joy to their evening.

What's your favorite drink right now?

Paul: That would be Evan Milliman's fantastic tequila and cognac sour -- "Get Happy." The name says it all.

What do you think about the bar scene in ATL?

Greg: I'm incredibly proud of the scene here in Atlanta. Our culture is a positive and collaborative one, creatively speaking, and we all really get along outside of our bars as well. This breeds a healthy environment for everyone. Especially for our guests who have an even level of familiarity with the various barkeeps across the city.

Courtesy of Miles Macquarrie

Miles Macquarrie

Kimball House

Address and Info

Decatur

The oysters at Kimball House are hard to beat. Still, there are people who don’t eat oysters (shame on them) but swear by the cocktail program Miles Mac made in the old train depot. He’s a three-time James Beard semifinalist who spent time at Holeman & Finch and ran booze operations at Leon’s Full Service before becoming a partner at Kimball House, where everything looks scientific but tastes like flowing art, thanks to the house-made bitters and tinctures used throughout the cocktail menu, whether you’re indulging in the Swiss/French/Californian absinthe program or having a classic G&T, Sazerac, or fancy sour cherry bourbon julep. Hell, the dude even has his own amaro based on the flavor of Coca-Cola.

What's your favorite drink to make?

I like making drinks. I don't know that I have a favorite to make, but I do love making drinks with really nice spirits that most wouldn't dare put in a cocktail. Daiquiris with V.E.P. (note: that’s Vieillissement Exceptionnellement Prolongé, ahem) Chartreuse. Sure, why not?

What got you into bartending?

Craft beer and a fun way to make a living.

What's your favorite drink to sip?

Sazerac, or a super-cold -- I mean very, very cold -- yet stirred, 3:1 dry Martini.

Courtesy of Kellie Thorn

Kellie Thorn

Empire State South

Address and Info

Midtown

She’s known locally as the lady who Hugh Acheson trusts to match his kitchen wit with boss-level bartending skill and taste. She’s an ATL native who’s becoming known internationally, thanks to being picked to craft holiday cocktails live on CNN and winning regional competitions to fly out to the actual city named Cognac. She can do to gin what Billy Dee Williams does to… wait, skip that, since it alludes to a relationship based on Colt 45. Anyway, Thorn is on your side, much like your liver. Let them become friends.

What got you into bartending?

I've been in hospitality for 16 years and bartending for 13 of those. Providing mindful service and curating guest experiences is what excites me about this industry. Bartending is all of that with the added bonus of flexing my creative and intellectual muscles.

What's your favorite drink to sip?

A well-made martini is a lovely thing. Also, Champagne.

What do you think about the bar scene in ATL?

I think it is vibrant and diverse. There are a lot of smart and passionate people in this city running thoughtful programs. Above all though, I think the bartenders in this city make hospitality the priority. Good drinks are getting easier to come by all the time, but exceptional and nuanced service is what really elevates an establishment.

Courtesy of Navarro Carr

Navarro Carr

The Sound Table

Address and Info

Old Fourth Ward

It says a lot about a bartender when he or she can sustain and elevate the cocktail and spirits program at a place with sky-high expectations. The Sound Table is that venue, due to the consistently captivating music and food menu, but it is NYC native and UGA grad Navarro Carr who has managed to steadily surprise guests who are sometimes too busy dancing to realize their drinks are damn good until the second or third sip. He may not be the smiliest dude in the bunch (I personally thought he hated me for years, which would have been fine), but you won’t get a bad drink from his hands. Maybe that’s due in part to his early tutelage from OG ATL bartender Eric Simpkins of The Lawrence, or maybe it’s just because he’s really good at what he does and doesn’t have to smile for your sloppy self. You’ll still suck the last drip out of your highball glass -- count on that.

What's your favorite drink to make?

The short answer is a drink called The Eulogy Cocktail, which has equal parts Batavia Arrack, Strega, velvet falernum, and fresh lime juice. The long answer is "the cocktail that best fits my guest at that moment."

What's something you love about mixing cocktails?  

The opportunity to meet amazing people and also the bond I have with fellow bartenders. We're family.

What do you think about the bar scene in ATL?

I think it's amazing and our city is underrated.

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Mike Jordan drinks. He knows a good drink when he drinks it. He’s on Twitter, drinking, at @michaelbjordan, and he posts drink pictures at @mikejordanatl on Instagram.

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1. Ticonderoga Club 99 Krog St NE, Atlanta, GA 30307

Though its name suggests otherwise, Ticonderoga Club is a full-service restaurant with a menu full of well-crafted fish, steak, and poultry dishes. The Krog Street Market spot has a colonial-meets-Southern charm, and standouts like the massive steak -- dubbed The Chuck Wagon -- fit right in with the traditional club vibe. You should definitely take advantage of the inventive cocktail menu and try the signature Ticonderoga Cup, a strong blend of rum, cognac, sherry, pineapple, lemon, and mint.

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2. Holeman & Finch Public House 2277 Peachtree Rd NE, Atlanta, GA 30309 (Buckhead)

Let's be honest: you're coming to this contemporary gastropub for the famous Holeman & Finch cheeseburger, which, you should know, is now permanently on the menu, day and night (it used to be a secret of which only the lucky few knew, exclusively served when the clock struck 10pm). One of the best in the country, it's a double patty on a house-made bun with melty cheese, pickles, onions, and a side of fries. They have other quality dishes like shrimp & grits and lamb sweetbreads, but seriously, order the burger.

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3. The Sound Table 483 Edgewood Ave SE, Atlanta, GA 30312 (Downtown)

The Sound Table in the Old Fourth Ward offers the three D’s to success: dinner, drinks, and dancing. Sharing plates offer international flavors in shrimp-chorizo tacos, tuna tataki, and Belgian-style frites, and they’ll put just enough swing in your step to jam to the live DJs on the daily lineup. Add a couple of drinks, like the classic ST Boulevard Zombie, with Wray & Nephew rum, Goslings rum, lime, grenadine, and orange curacao, or a Penultimate, with Cimarron Blanco tequila, lime, St. Germain, and maraschino liqueur, and get on your feet.

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4. Victory Sandwich Bar Decatur 340 Church St, Decatur, GA 30030 (Decatur)

The Victory Sandwich Shop in Decatur is known for its small but mighty selection of tiny, affordable, and cleverly named sandwiches. The pressed squares’ flavor combinations range from the Tea Bird, with chicken, ghost pepper jack, tomato, lettuce, and sweet tea mayo, to the Okie Dokie, with Brie, confit tomato, artichoke, arugula, and pesto. If you’re looking to mix it up, salads and sides are also options. On the beverage side of things, get a brain freeze from a “world famous” Jack and Coke Slushie or sip on a spiked soda.

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5. Little Trouble 1170 Howell Mill Rd NW, Atlanta, GA 30318

Asian street food (think steamed buns, fried crab dumplings, and ramen) and inventive cocktails such as the T.R.L (vodka, raspberry, cucumber soda, and mint), and King Werewolf (white brandy, plum, lemon, and soda) come together at this retro joint.

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6. Wild Heaven Craft Beers 135 Maple St, Decatur, GA 30002 (Decatur)

With “Drink Here” and “To-Go” tours at Decatur’s Wild Heaven Craft Beers, you can stay for as long (or as short) as you’d like at this craft brewery. The entire brewery is sheltered under one impressively constructed wooden roof, whose exposed beams are popsicle-stick narrow. About a quarter of the industrial, bare-bones space is devoted to the tasting room, where you can sample Wild Heaven’s all-grain beers (they leave the adjunct sugars at the door), making for bigger flavors without excess alcohol. However, many of Wild Heaven’s beers are indeed elevated in the alcohol department, so when the barbecue vendor occasionally stops by the brewery, chances are you won’t be able to pass on snacks.

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7. Kimball House 303 E Howard Ave, Decatur, GA 30030 (Decatur)

Located on the former site of an old train depot on the south side of Decatur, Kimball House is a nationally lauded French restaurant and cocktail bar. Libations at this decidedly plush spot include modern, made to order reinventions of the classics, and a full service absinthe bar. High end fare like caviar, filet mignon and a raw bar are menu standouts -- but if you want the luxe experience without getting too spendy, stop in Monday through Friday from 5-7pm for $1 to $1.50 oysters.

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8. Leon's Full Service 131 E Ponce de Leon Ave, Decatur, GA 30030 (Decatur)

Housed in an old gas station, Leon’s Full Service in Decatur practices the principle of southern hospitality, performing the restaurant equivalent of “full service,” while fueling you up with New American fare, not gasoline. Try sharing plates, charcuterie boards, larger plates, and hand-cut pommes frites, served golden-fried and ready to be outfitted with the most decadent of dipping sauces, including mango-peppadew ketchup, peppercorn gravy, and goat cheese fondue. The outdoor patio has tiny overhead lights and pebbled pavement, making for a delightful place to snack with friends and family.

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9. Empire State South 999 Peachtree St NE, Atlanta, GA 30309 (Midtown)

Empire State South is Hugh Acheson’s ode to Southern food, and despite its office building locale (and Acheson's Canadian roots) serves plates authentic enough to be home-cooked. It's rare to find a restaurant that excels at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but Empire State South manages to do so. The morning line-up boasts standouts like peanut brittle porridge and smoked catfish on an everything bagel, while lunch forces a corporate crowd to think outside the box with jars of baba ganoush, pimento cheese with bacon marmalade, and catfish mousse. Acheson fuses Southern ingredients to a new level at dinner, where the small plates-heavy menu features out-there dishes like rabbit boudin and grilled octopus on kimchee rice. Okay, maybe you can't recreate these recipes at home.

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10. Biltong Bar Ponce City Market, 675 Ponce De Leon Ave NE ne152, Atlanta, GA 30308

Who knew a place that sells South African beef jerky could become a prime cocktail spot? Beverage director Sean Gleason, that's who. Try the Biltong Sour, made with Buffalo Trace bourbon, lemon, biltong fat, Fable Night Sky wine, and egg white. Or, ask him to make his favorite drink for you -- you’ll never look at Mai Tais with side-eye again.

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11. Cape Dutch 1782 Cheshire Bridge Rd NE, Atlanta, GA 30324

South Africa comes to Atlanta in the form of Cape Dutch, a posh meets rustic spot specializing in braai meats (South African open-flame BBQ). A go-to item on their flavorful menu is the Peri-Peri Burger, which features a tasty peri-peri sauce that's difficult to resist drizzling on whatever dish you order. Be sure to pair your choice with one of their global wine options, and top it off with the chocolate soup for dessert.

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12. The Lawrence 905 Juniper St NE, Atlanta, GA 30309 (Midtown)

The gang behind Sound Table and Top Flr has taken over the old Lupe space to open a minimalist, subway-tiled, primer-painted supper-house-meets-train-station. At The Lawrence, you'll find several creations made with house infusions (lavender mint tea vodka, cinnamon-chipotle-infused añejo tequila, lemongrass-infused rye) and other ass-kicking drinks like the Armagnac-mixed Brooklyn Social Scene.

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