A good bartender knows how to make a ton of different drinks and is as efficient as they are polite. What separates a good bartender from a great bartender isn’t just being able to make a killer cocktail (although that is very important); it’s the uncanny ability to make you feel like this is your bar; and that you’ll go thirsty without one of their creations.
Charleston has a number of stellar bartenders who fit this description -- Megan Deschaine of 492, Jayce McConnell of Edmund’s Oast, Craig Nelson of Proof, Kyle DeGolyer of Poogan’s Smokehouse -- so picking one as bartender of the year in the Holy City is no easy task. After a lot of careful consideration (and more than a few cocktails), we feel like we finally found The One, and it’s Teddy Nixon.
TNix is the brain behind the beverages at Bar Mash, part of The Indigo Road restaurant group. Although he’s only been in Charleston since 2013, he’s already left his mark in a big way. He started his Charleston bartending career at Edmund’s Oast, training under Jayce McConnell before getting to be the bar lead at Bar Mash. Although he learned a lot throughout his 15 years in the food & beverage industry, Teddy is a mostly self-taught mixologist, a fact that’s surprising and impressive given his success.
Making the love child of a dive and a cocktail bar
When creating the vibe and menu for Bar Mash, Teddy wanted a low-key, divey feel, but with upscale drinks and food, and a strong emphasis on whiskey. Similar to the way he describes himself (“I like to be fancy, but I can also get a little weird”), Bar Mash is a place where you can get an artisan jello shot, a $12 cocktail, or an ice-cold Coors Banquet (Teddy’s favorite beer) on draught.
When hiring his bar staff for Mash, Teddy really wanted to avoid a common customer problem of a varied experience depending on who’s manning the bar.
“I played hockey growing up in Massachusetts, and to me, a bar staff is just like a hockey team,” he said. “Every person behind the bar fills a certain position so that it runs smoothly and consistently no matter who’s working that night.”
Battle of the bartenders
Teddy really knew he was doin’ it right after the Iron Mixology contest at the Charleston Wine + Food Festival.
The William Grant-sponsored event pitted 28 Charleston bartenders against each other, then narrowed down the competition over three rounds. In the same style as Chopped, the bartenders were presented with one secret ingredient, which they had to use to create a one-of-a-kind cocktail for the competition.
The first round’s secret ingredient was Drambuie Scotch, the second round was corn, and the final round required using coffee. In the final round, Teddy competed against local bartenders (and friends) Steven Huddleston of The Spectator, Sam Gabrielli of Proof, and Iouli Burroughs of Fish, before being named the 2016 Iron Mixologist, his crowning achievement to date.
Cocktail improv and atmosphere
Many bartenders find working the bar to be part of a routine, where the job is to dole out drinks as quickly as possible before turning to the next customer. Teddy, on the other hand, prefers to take his time.
“Ad-libbing is my favorite thing to do. I love when people come in and have no idea what they want. Just give me a couple of flavors and I get to mess around behind the bar.” After all, that’s where the best cocktails come from. For Teddy, “it’s a win-win; the customer get something unique that fits their needs and I get to play around with different flavors that I might not use otherwise.”
But being able to create the perfect cocktail for his customers is only one part of his job. The other is creating an atmosphere that people want to return to again and again. “Every night you’re trying to throw a party and make people have fun,” Teddy said. “You can teach someone how to make a good cocktail, but you can’t teach someone to make people want to hang out with them. You’ve either got that quality or you don’t.”
Part of that je ne sais quois may be the city itself. Teddy said he feels at home in the Holy City. “Charleston is the first time that I’ve found a niche.”
For Teddy and many others in the modern food & beverage industry, being a bartender or food-service professional is no longer just a side gig or something they do while waiting for something better to come along. If you take it seriously, you can make it a profession, especially in this city.
“This is my career and I love it,” Teddy said.
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With a history as a former 19th-century cotton mill and cigar factory, Downtown Charleston’s Bar Mash space alone makes you want to guzzle down some of the American whiskey and beer bar’s extensive bourbon collection. Bar Mash pays homage to its industrial past by keeping with a steampunk look, and while exposed dark piping and light-colored wooden tables give the illusion of spaciousness, the bocce court, shuffleboard area, and the perpetually steady stream of patrons inside betray the bar’s small size. As for bites, opt for small plates like pretzels, wings, or fried pickles.