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