The Love List



All-Girl Army: Atlanta's Baddest Women Behind the Stick

AUG15, BOOZEJess Graves
Madison Burch, Mercedes O'Brien, Kellie Thorn, and Shanna Mayo shake a Ramos gin fizz, infamous for being  the  most annoying drink in the world to make, at Empire State South in Midtown Atlanta.

Madison Burch, Mercedes O'Brien, Kellie Thorn, and Shanna Mayo shake a Ramos gin fizz, infamous for being the most annoying drink in the world to make, at Empire State South in Midtown Atlanta.

Words: Katie Lambert | Photos: Caroline Fontenot

How four of Atlanta's leading female bartenders - Mercedes O'Brien, Kellie Thorn, Shanna Mayo and Madison Burch - continue to crush it in a male-dominated industry.  

The powerhouses defining and refining Atlanta's cocktail culture aren't sporting ironic waxed mustaches or a cheeky bow tie - one is, however wearing safety shorts under her dress.

The names of the ladies slinging drinks in the city of Atlanta may not be as readily on the tongue as those of the boldface cocktail bros - but we think that's about to change. If there were a credo for this crew, it would be to work your ass off and never apologize for ordering a White Russian. 

These women are competition champs, charity event mainstays, industry heavy-hitters and nationally respected talents — their skill above reproach. But after the same conversation four times in four different bars, the message is consistent: the mark of a good bartender lies less in her shake than in her service. Technique can be taught. But passion for hospitality? That's just something you either have or you don't. 

Kellie Thorn

Hugh Acheson's Beverage Director

When I walk into Empire State South, Kellie Thorn is on a ladder in a dress. She's been with Empire State South since day one, sharing Chef Hugh Acheson's passion for local farming and the agriculture scene. Now, with Empire as her home base, she also helps guide the beverage programs at Hugh's other joints, The Florence in Savannah and The Five & Ten in Athens, GA. 

  • Got her start: "In high volume bars, punk rock clubs, restaurants — you name it. I was a moth to the flame for bartending."
  • Started from the bottom now we where?: "When we opened, it was blasphemy that we didn’t have their usual flavored vodka on our back bar. Now, people come in and ask us what mezcal or absinthe cocktails we have on the menu." 
  • Favorite cocktail she's created recently: A cocktail on Empire's menu right now, the Naïve Melody, is a mix of gin, eucalyptus, vanilla, absinthe and lemon. Kellie calls it a love song to being young. "Eucalyptus has such a strong sense memory for me — it's a nostalgic aroma and flavor." 
  • On getting inspired: "Travel. When you travel somewhere, you walk away with a piece of it. And you leave a piece of yourself there."
  • If she's out on the town, she's drinking: An Afternoon Delight at Kimball House or The Sultan at Last Word, a sophisticated take on a dirty martini
  • Advice to a young bartender: "Just be lovely. I can teach you technique, I can educate you on spirits, but I can't teach you how to be a lovely person." That and "Don’t be drunk while you're bartending. It's not your party, it's theirs."
  • Thoughts on the cocktail scene: "We should discourage pretension. The last thing we want to do is make people feel stupid and shut out of our world. After Prohibition, we lost our cocktail culture, and it's taken us a very long time to get it back. We're reviving it, but now we have to sustain it. Don't be an asshole."
  • On stepping up your game: "I didn’t know how to properly stir a cocktail until 6 years into bartending. I practiced with a glass of water in front of my stories. My shake is always changing. There’s always room for education"
  • Visit Kellie if…: There's a drink you're too embarrassed to order. "I don't believe in shame-ordering. I make a really good espresso martini, I'm damn proud of it, and you can totally order that here." Or, if you want to talk cognac — she's a certified Cognac Educator.

Mercedes O'Brien

Cocktail Cart Conductor, Gunshow

The concept behind Gunshow is dim sum, and that means the bar comes to you on a cart, as well. The beauty of the cart, Mercedes says, is that you have to edit your cocktail menu while making sure it still speaks to what you want to do. She makes your drinks table side at Gunshow, guiding the beverage program there as well as at Chef Kevin Gillespie's newly-opened Revival in Decatur, Georgia. 

  • How far she'll go for good service: As a Chinese-food delivery girl, she once scaled a 16-foot fence to get someone their General Tso's
  • Favorite drink she's made: The Witch Doctor, a stirred cocktail with tiki roots: aged rhum agricole, coconut sweet vermouth, blood orange liqueur, Cynar
  • Bartender survival regimen: chiropractor, yoga, Danskos
  • What she drinks at home: bourbon, Negronis, wine
  • Memorable moment behind the cocktail cart: A bottle of velvet falernum falling off the cart and smashing on the floor in front of the entire restaurant. And then the replacement bottle doing the exact same thing. (Watch out for itty bitty ice cubes.) 
  • No. 1 inspiration: "Food. That’s just how my brain works. I'll eat a pastry with a really unique flavor combination and immediately wonder how I could do it with a cocktail."
  • What's underrated in Atlanta's cocktail scene: The kitschy and unrefined. "I love craft cocktails, but at the same time, I'm going to drink a white Russian and I'm not going to be embarrassed by it. Drink what you love, unabashedly." 
  • On being the gal in charge: "Stick to your guns. Do what you want to do and be unapologetic. Stand up for what you know you want."
  • What she's reading: Lucky Peach, Sugar & Rice, Cherry Bombe, Imbibe, Bon Appetit
  • Advice to a fellow bartender: Technique first, showmanship second. "That's a cool shake, but it's too long and too fast and you're going to dilute my drink."
  • Visit Mercedes if…: You want to talk cocktail lit and the science of the aperitif. 

Madison Burch

Beverage Director, Seven Lamps, GRAIN, Tavernpointe

A refugee from an early career in finance and then retail, Madison Burch is now beverage director for Seven Lamps, GRAIN, and Tavernpointe. You won't find her behind the bar these days, but you'll see her in all three restaurants doing boss lady stuff. The day we see her, she is running training and orientation all week at Tavernpointe and preparing to leave for The Cocktail Apprentice Program (CAP), as part of Tales of the Cocktail. She has 14 new voicemails on her phone when I see her, Red Bull in hand.

  • First service gig: Her first service job was at age 14 at a hole-in-the-wall Korean restaurant in North Carolina, waiting tables in traditional Korean dress
  • Big break: As a server at the recently shuttered Veni Vidi Vici, her boss informed her that the bartender had quit. When she asked who the replacement was, he said, "I'm looking at her." 
  • Most unlikely cocktail ingredient: Arugula, which she paired with a peppercorn-infused gin
  • First cocktail competition: "I forgot half my shakers. I knocked over a drink. I doubled the time limit. I asked if I could just go home at one point."
  • Don't discount: Mass market bottles. "Craft bartenders are hipsters at heart. Sometimes it's not about the juice in the bottle but the idea in their head." She adds, "Cointreau is really good." 
  • Looking for a new classic? Try: A James Joyce (Irish whiskey, sweet vermouth, triple sec, lime)
  • Visit Madison if…: You want to talk about pricing out cocktails. "The math is my favorite part. I love math." Or, if you want to figure out what to do with that bottle of sloe gin you've had on the shelf for a year. (It's her favorite spirit.)

Shanna Mayo 

Beverage Director, Victory Sandwich Bar

Shanna Mayo is wearing neon liquid eyeliner and doing inventory when I roll up to the patio at Victory Sandwich Bar's Inman Park location on a Monday afternoon. She worked with noted barman Miles Macquarrie for four years at Leon's Full Service, taking over the program after he departed for Kimball House. It wasn't her "most glittery offer," but she chose Victory Brands for her next step because, as she says, "They just get it." She's collaborating on a couple of cocktails on the menu for Little Trouble and "very excited" about a new hush-hush project with the Victory boys. 

  • Got her start: In high school as a server at the home of everyone's favorite purveyor of unlimited breadsticks, Olive Garden
  • When she fell in love with the industry: Instantly. "I come from a super-traditional Southern family and we're very hospitality focused. I get a lot of personal joy out of being able to provide that experience every day for somebody."
  • First bartending gig: "I was 20. I fibbed a little on my resume — I just had bar-backing experience. It was a high-volume college bar. We were six-deep at the bar every night and I was building 7, 8 highballs at once and making 4, 5 trays of shots and selling them all at the same time. I loved it."
  • Welcome to Atlanta: "When I first moved to Atlanta, I lived right next to Holeman & Finch. Those bartenders were my first friends in the city. I was still in school, so I was doing homework and eating dessert at the bar."
  • Guilty pleasure drink? "Piña colada. But I don't feel guilty about it."
  • First cocktail that got her buzz: The FML. "I wrote the cocktail around the acronym. Fernet, Miller's gin, lemon."
  • Looking for a new classic cocktail? Try: a Boulevardier (a Negroni, which Victory makes with bourbon or rye instead of gin)
  • Where she keeps her recipes: A pocket-size spiral notebook with homemade A-Z tabs. It's ripped, covered in spills, and (we say) full of creative genius.
  • What she's into right now: Alameda, California's St. George Spirits vodka line
  • Visit Shanna if … : You had a bad experience with tequila in Tijuana and want to learn to love it again. (She will serve as your spirits therapist.)

Siren Sip

By: Mercedes O'Brien, Gunshow + Revival



1.5 oz. Hayman’s Royal Dock gin (or any navy strength gin)

2 oz. cucumber juice

.75 oz. lime

.5 oz. basil syrup


Add all ingredients into mixing tin, add ice and shake until well chilled. Strain into Collins glass. Ice glass ⅔ of the way full, top with watermelon absinthe ice cube.

Cucumber juice:

Peel and de-seed cucumbers. Run through juicer or blend in blender and strain.

Basil syrup:

2 c. tightly packed fresh basil leaves

32 oz. water

64 oz. sugar

Have ready a pot of boiling water and bowl of ice water. Working in small batches, take basil and place in boiling water for 15 seconds, remove, and place in ice bath for 1 min before drying on a paper towel. Take 32 oz. of your blanching/ice water and combine with basil in blender until well incorporated. Filter water and combine with sugar. Blend mixture together with immersion blender until smooth.

Watermelon absinthe ice:

12 oz. fresh watermelon juice

3 oz. absinthe

3 oz. simple syrup

1.5 oz. lime juice

Add all ingredients together, stir, and disperse into ice cube trays. Top ice molds with your favorite fresh herb or edible flower. Freeze for 6 hours.

Photo: Caroline Fontenot

Photo: Caroline Fontenot

About the Author:

Katie Lambert is a freelance writer, editor and content strategist based in Atlanta. Sometimes, you'll find her behind the bar herself at H.Harper Station. She likes gin, Southern Gothic, and photos of foraged foods. 

Stop Ordering Your Martini Like an Asshole

BOOZE, AUG15Jess Graves
All the makings of a perfect gin martini.

All the makings of a perfect gin martini.

Words: Jeff Banks | Photos: Caroline Fontenot

Barman Jeff Banks, of Atlanta's hip brasserie The Luminary, breaks down how to order a proper martini – and sound like you know what you're doing. Bond, James Bond.

Before we dive into ordering one, it is important to understand what constitutes a martini and what does not. A lemon drop, for example is not a martini. Neither is an espresso-tini, cucumber-tini, choco-tini, apple-tini or any other flavor with a “tini” added on to the end. A proper martini is a 2:1 ratio of gin (or vodka) to vermouth. It is stirred or shaken over ice and served in a stemmed glass garnished with a twist of lemon, olives or an onion. 

Allow me to break down the components in plain language:


1. Vodka or Gin 

Vodka is usually distilled from wheat, grains, or potatoes. Vodka distilled from wheat and grain tends to have a lighter, cleaner flavor than the potato counterpart, which leans toward a sweeter taste with a more robust body. 

Gin is essentially vodka infused with botanicals such as, juniper, coriander, lemon/lime/orange peels, cucumber, black pepper or rose petals. These ingredients differentiate gins from one another. I’ve found that people who think they don't like gin actually just don’t like bad gin. I couldn’t agree more. Avoid the “pine tree” flavor of lesser-quality gins by asking your bartender to describe the flavor profile of what he or she has available. 

2. Vermouth

A wine infused with botanicals, vermouth is actually very delicious on its own - I’m drinking it over ice as I write this. The thing that’s important to understand about vermouth is that because it’s a wine, once the bottle is opened, it will go bad with time. It is best to keep vermouth in the fridge and to finish it within about a month. 

3. Garnish

Your choice of martini garnish depends on preferred flavor accent.  My personal favorite is the lemon peel; the lemon highlights the alcohol and brightens up the whole cocktail. Olives are the most commonly requested, adding a touch of salt, accenting the vermouth and giving the cocktail a unique umami quality… as well as a little snack. Ordering a “Gibson” martini means you'd like your bartender to add onions as garnish for a tangy final bite.

4. Ice

Ice is easily overlooked as the key fourth ingredient — and the origin of the reputed shaken vs. stirred directive. People tend to order their martini shaken because that’s how James Bond did it. Shaken cocktails have a few great qualities to them. When shaken, the ice breaks up so when the drink is poured, you get these little ice shards that float on the top, which make the cocktail extra-cold. When properly shaken, it also introduces air into the cocktail. Once it is poured, you will see little air bubbles in the cocktail, which gives the cocktail a livelier mouth feel. If that’s your thing, drink fast, because it waters down quickly.

Stirred martinis, by contrast, have a more rich mouth feel offering the full taste of the martini, which can become too cold or "bruised" when over-shaken. 


Now that we’ve clarified the ingredients, let's discuss martini terminology. This is what's going to make the difference between sounding like James Bond or a sorority girl to your bartender. Like ordering hash browns from Waffle House, once you know you like them scattered, smothered, covered and capped, you never forget.

Basic Martini:
2 ounces gin
1 ounce vermouth

Dirty: Olive brine is added to your martini. I personally start with .5oz , though measurements vary from bar to bar.

Extra Dirty: I’ll add .25oz more of olive brine. Again, this can vary.

Extra Extra Dirty (Filthy): At my bar, I will add another .25oz of olive brine bringing us up to 3/4oz. For the record, that's a lot.

Dry: 1oz of dry vermouth added

Extra Dry: .5oz of vermouth added

Extra Extra Dry (Bone Dry): Only a few drops of vermouth are added … some folks will jokingly say "look at the bottle" of vermouth while making the cocktail. Please don’t use that joke. Ever.

Wet: Extra vermouth is added

Perfect: Equal parts dry and sweet vermouth added.

Up: Served in a stemmed glass. 

Down: Served in a rocks glass 

Rocks: Served over ice

Gibson: Again, this is a basic martini but garnished with cocktail onions

So let's say you prefer a gin martini with a splash of vermouth over ice with some lemon. That would be an extra-dry gin martini on the rocks with a twist. Do you prefer an ice-cold martini with vodka, a lot of olive brine an olive garnish? Ask for a shaken extra-dirty martini with olives. If you would like a “lemon drop martini”, then, please… just order  a Lemon Drop. I'll make you the best one you've ever had, but please, just don't call it a martini.

Photo: Caroline Fontenot

Photo: Caroline Fontenot

About the Author:

Jeff Banks is the lead bartender at The Luminary in Atlanta's Krog Street Market, where he has established a loyal following for his creative, handcrafted cocktails that focus on seasonal ingredients and classic liqueurs. Banks’ restaurant career began at Levy Restaurants in 2005 where he worked through almost every role. In 2010, he joined the acclaimed team at Atlanta’s favorite beverage store, Greens where he worked as a high-end beer specialist. In 2012, Banks made the switch to cocktails as bartender and beverage director at local favorite Graft Restaurant in Grayson, Georgia where his bourbon selection caught the eye of the Atlanta Journal Constitution. In addition to running a successful bar program, Banks offered hands-on cocktail classes to residents who wanted to strengthen their palates and impress their friends. Banks now brings this same expertise and passion to The Luminary with a thoughtful cocktail list and extensive wine and beer program. 

Marsh Mud & Sea Salt: How to Throw A LowCountry Boil

Chef Whitney Otawka throws the perfect Low Country boil at the historic Cumberland Inn.

Chef Whitney Otawka throws the perfect Low Country boil at the historic Cumberland Inn.

Words: Whitney Otawka | Photos: Emily B. Hall

Long-eluded throughout her career, adoptive Southern Chef Whitney Otawka finally discovers the secret to perfect Frogmore Stew – or as it is more commonly known, a Lowcountry boil – on the sleepy coast of Georgia.

Frogmore Stew. I’ve cooked this dish thousands, literally thousands, of times in my career. If I had to guess, I’d lay a claim to cooking 8,000 simmering bowls of Frogmore Stew. Let’s be clear. I am not from the South, nor am I even from a coast. At 26, I was introduced to this landmark dish in a trial by fire moment. I “grew up” in a famous Athens, Georgia restaurant under the watchful eye of a popular chef. Frogmore Stew was the signature dish and it never left the menu. This dish is a roadmap of my culinary career. 

A warm night under the Spanish moss in Cumberland Island, Georgia.

A warm night under the Spanish moss in Cumberland Island, Georgia.

My first job as Garde Manger (cold/salad station) put me right next to the fish station. I knew I’d earned some respect when the fish cook asked me to plate the Frogmore Stew during a large push—up to twenty plates at a time. Moving from Garde Manger to the fish station at the end of a shift gave me an opportunity to catch the last few “fires” of the night, which almost always included a bowl or two of Frogmore Stew. I took pride in these moments. I carefully guarded each little pot of stew, double-checking my seasoning, hoping that this was the very best bowl of Frogmore the restaurant had ever served and I would be regaled as the greatest line cook of all time. A girl can dream, right? 

No forks here. Friends gather over Frogmore stew with their sleeves rolled up.

No forks here. Friends gather over Frogmore stew with their sleeves rolled up.

The next step in my culinary journey was promotion to the fish station. At the time the fish station was the “it” station, demanding skill and endurance. No mercy. On a busy night, we knocked out 250 to 300 covers. I loved the pace and excelled under extreme pressure. Prepping and cooking Frogmore became autopilot: shrimp, fingerling potatoes, corn, Andouille sausage, Frogmore broth (one part tomato juice and one part clam juice), Old Bay, and aromatics (small dice of leeks, red onion, and fennel). Throw it in a pot, cook it down, throw it in a dish, garnish with arugula and grilled bread. Frogmore turned into an  afterthought —the easy dish. Left over Frogmore broth became a frequent late night meal. I would grab the last, dried up corners of bread floating around my station and sop up the over-reduced Frogmore both. Perfect . . . almost. 


Confession. See, for as much as Frogmore was the signature dish, I never really liked it. It was good, but not great. At the time, I could not have explained  why. My move to the Georgia coast inspired the next chapter in my life as a chef and revealed to me what was missing from the famed Frogmore Stew. Call it what you will—Frogmore Stew, Low Country Boil, or Beaufort Boil—it almost always has a dusting of Old Bay, boiled potatoes, sausage and corn.  It may contain shrimp, clams, or blue crabs. It may also contain all three! And that, my hungry friends, is where the magic lies. It must have the best damn seafood you can get your hands on. 

Fresh seafood is key to a proper boil, which is why it only  really  works in areas where the right ingredients can be caught the same day.

Fresh seafood is key to a proper boil, which is why it only really works in areas where the right ingredients can be caught the same day.

That’s what opened my eyes and my taste buds to the glories of Frogmore Stew. I moved to Cumberland Island to take the reigns as Executive Chef for the first time at the famous Greyfield Inn. I can say with 100 percent certainty that I never really tasted shrimp until I tasted shrimp fresh from the Georgia coast. Now I’m spoiled. When I need shrimp, I don’t have to go far. The Greyfield’s boat, Lucy Ferguson, pulls up alongside a local shrimp boat and we get 60 to 100 pounds of head-on Georgia whites. When blue crabs are needed, we load up a trap with chicken necks, drop the trap off the dock, and cross our fingers. Need clams? Just hop in the truck and ride up to the north end of the island and clam away. Shuck one of those babies open right out of the sand and never consider eating inland clams again. Sweet and mildly briny, fresh-shucked, raw clams are divine.

My eyes are opened. For all of the thousands of Frogmore Stews I cooked early in my career, I never truly cooked one the right way. What’s the right way? Frogmore Stew made with fresh, local seafood on a summer night, Spanish moss swaying gently overhead, newspaper spread over the table, and the background music of cicadas. These days I prefer to call it Low Country boil for its a beautiful tradition.This is a dish to eat with the hands and get dirty. Toss that fork over a shoulder and dive in. This is a dish to be shared with friends and family. When I eat a Low Country boil, I know where I am — in the South, near the marsh mud and the salty sea.

Here at Greyfield Inn we cook this dish during the early part of the summer. I like to serve a smoked paprika butter alongside, good for dipping everything from shrimp to potatoes. Dig in.

Low Country Boil
Serves 12-14 people

Equipment Needed:
1 large stainless steel pot, preferably one that comes with a perforated basket
1 turkey burner and a full propane tank
1 large spoon with a long handle
Lots of newspaper to cover your table
Cooler full of ice-cold beer, for drinking

For the Boil:
3 gallons water
2 quarts tomato juice
5 bay leaves
15 sprigs of fresh thyme, about a small handful
5 lemons cut into ¼ inch thick slices
¾ cup Old Bay seasoning
1/3 cup kosher salt
3 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, cut into wedges
1 large onion, peeled and cut into wedges
6 ears of corn, shucked and cut into 2 inch pieces
1 pound Andouille sausage* cut into ¼ inch slices
6 pounds of the freshest, unpeeled shrimp you can get, head on is even better
Smoked Paprika Butter (see below)

In the pot, combine the water, tomato juice, bay leaves, fresh thyme, lemons, old bay and salt. Bring to a boil. When the mixture reaches a boil, lower heat and simmer for about 10 minutes to let the aromatics infuse the water. Add in the potatoes and onions. Cook for 10 minutes. Add in corn and Andouille sausage. Cook for 5 minutes. Add in shrimp and cook just until their tails curl up, about 4 minutes. Lift the perforated basket out of the pot, or simply scoop out the ingredients with a long handled strainer. Dump the strained low country boil onto a newspaper-lined table or a platter and dust with additional tablespoon of Old Bay and a tablespoon of kosher salt. Serve alongside the beer and Smoked Paprika Butter.

Smoked Paprika Butter

7 small cloves of garlic, minced
1 pound soft butter
¼ cup Worcestershire
3 tablespoons of smoked paprika
1 teaspoon kosher salt

In a medium sized saucepan, melt 1 tablespoon of the butter over medium heat. Add in the minced garlic and sauté for about 2 minutes. Add in the Worcestershire and reduce by half, about 3 minutes.  Adjust the heat to low and add in the smoked paprika and kosher salt, stir to combine. Begin adding in the butter while whisking. When butter is fully incorporated, remove the mixture from the heat and reserve.

*Looking for a good Andouille sausage? Check our Star Provisions in Atlanta. They make an amazing selection of charcuterie. Another favorite is the Andouille made at Butcher in New Orleans. Owned by one of my all time favorite chefs, Donald Link, this stuff is the real deal and worth having shipped to your door.

Photo: Lyric Lewin

Photo: Lyric Lewin

About the Author:

Whitney Otawka is as award winning Chef who has trained in some of the world’s top restaurants. Originally from California, she moved to Georgia in 2004 and quickly fell in love with the food, history, and culture that defines the South. She was a contestant on Bravo’s Top Chef and has had recipes published by The New York Times, Garden & Gun, Southern Living, and The Local Palate. She has an unshakable wanderlust, love of eating, and a need to write. She currently lives and works on Cumberland Island, Georgia.