The Love List



Meet Me in Lebanon: The Tale of Opelika, Alabama in Three Acts

Opelika, Alabama's creative renaissance was largely sparked by Richard Patton, above.

Opelika, Alabama's creative renaissance was largely sparked by Richard Patton, above.

Production: Jess Graves | Re-written by Katherine Michalak | Photos: Caroline Fontenot

The long-dozing town of Opelika, Alabama is wide awake these days, experiencing a booming creative renaissance. Anchored by a recording studio and distillery in the heart of downtown, hometown hero Richard Patton has ushered in a vibrant cultural scene, one that has attracted nationally acclaimed indie rock band Delta Spirit, who are taking the stage amongst the venue's stills. 

The tattoo on his forearm reads “On purpose, for a purpose,” serving as the simple, but too-oft forgotten daily reminder of what so many of us long to find. It certainly appears Richard Patton has found his. He’s weaving his way through John Emerald Distilling Company in preparation of his latest feat in Opelika, Alabama. Patton’s managed to persuade nationally-acclaimed American indie rock band Delta Spirit to make this tiny town a stop on their tour. 
Nestled a mere 7 miles northeast of Auburn, Opelika plays friendly neighbor to that bustling college town. With the student population cycling through the University - and the opposite seemingly true for residents of Opelika - Patton perceived that people got stuck in his hometown by default, not by choice. When he graduated high school, he swore off Opelika and ended up in Birmingham, landing in a "soul-sucking" corporate job. Eventually, he answered his mother’s call to return home.

“She needed help renovating the building on the corner of 2nd Avenue into a bed and breakfast ... it didn’t take much convincing to leave,” Patton admits. 

We’ve all be there — moments in life when we question our path, when monotony threatens to turn us into drones. Patton reached that point when, even as he earned more money than he knew what to do with, he felt a nagging void. It bothered him that he wasn’t adding value to the community, that he wasn’t building something long-standing. 
Patton’s mother held the office of Opelika’s first mayor-president (that’s what they call it there) for 8 years, and now serves as the current Chamber of Commerce president. Her son has a similar penchant for community involvement coursing through his veins, but it wasn’t until a divorce drove him to a personal crossroads when he finally acknowledged the particularity in his breeding. 


Armed with a vision that had been brewing for years, Patton made up his mind to stay in Opelika and build something significant in his own backyard. He dedicated his attention and resources to the fourteen pieces of property he already owned in the downtown district.

“For me, my community is my family, and it is my obligation to provide for that family. On the selfish side, I want to live in a city that has great quality of life. This tends to organically grow in cities that have a strong arts scene.  Restaurants, bars, shopping, outdoor activities naturally gravitate towards these types of communities,” Patton says. "Opelika needed a nightlife."

In May 2012, Patton turned a corner. The grand opening of The Railyard, his art gallery and music venue, marked the fulfillment of his first efforts — the blood, sweat and tears shed by those who persevered in the faith their sleepy town could be revived. The following renaissance in Opelika bred music venues, a coffee shop, creative space for artists, and a recording studio known as Cottonseed Studios. Cottonseed is still in the works, a labor that has moved to the forefront as Patton’s principal project. 

“I do not know if I will be here forever, but for now [Opelika] has an energy creatively that is driving lots of people into unique endeavors.  There is purpose here for lots of us. We are connecting with others throughout the South.”

Cheery painted storefronts and replenished cobblestone decorate the streets around Opelika’s Lebanon Arts District. The district adopts it’s name from an earlier chapter in the town’s story when, in 1837, settlement emerged around the Lebanon Church and Meeting House. Fueling the soul of Opelika, Lebanon once served as the central place for community gathering and prayer, and now beats as the heart of the city’s booming cultural arts scene.

Casting eyes toward the future, the new gathering place is a watering hole called John Emerald Distillery, right on North Railroad Avenue where, much like Patton, distiller Jimmy Sharp and his family have made Opelika the home of their long-standing dream. 

“My father and I had been home brewers for years and were always interested in pursuing distilling. For two to three years we kicked around the idea.” Sharp explains. “When my daughter, Lily, was born I was running my previous company and away from home three weeks out of the month.”

A new baby gave Sharp further motivation to start his own business, and commit to establishing that long-imagined distillery. He searched for a location in his hometown of Montgomery, Alabama, but came up dry.

Sharp decided to take the advice of Scott Peek, who owns The Standard Deluxe, a music venue in nearby Waverly, Alabama. Peek pointed him down a yellow brick road of sorts to Patton and Opelika. It is inside The Railyard building Patton originally used as the town's creative home base out of which Sharp now runs shop.

“We loved what we saw going on in Opelika as far as the revitalization of downtown,” Sharp says.

Sharp realized that if the family dream was going to come true, they had to learn from the best. A lack of Alabama distilleries sent Sharp and his father John visiting operations in Colorado, Chicago, and finally Scotland to learn the process and business of bottling spirits. 

Opelika's John Emerald Distilling makes a variety of small-batch spirits, including vodka, gin, rum and single-malt whiskey, all of which bear labels proudly emblazoned with the town's name.

Opelika's John Emerald Distilling makes a variety of small-batch spirits, including vodka, gin, rum and single-malt whiskey, all of which bear labels proudly emblazoned with the town's name.

John Emerald Distilling Company adopted a “farm-to-glass” technique, a combination of modern and traditional methods, choosing to distill their spirits in small batches. Rum, gin, whiskey and vodka all take on local characteristics, their profiles informed by regionally-sourced ingredients whenever possible. The gin is flavored by hand-harvested wild juniper berries foraged by Sharp from underneath the red cedar trees in nearby pasture lands during the fall. The distillery’s spiced rum uses cane syrup sourced from growers in south Alabama. 

Sharp jovially prepares a menu of cocktails for the evening’s show. A crowd favorite, The Porch Swing, aptly named for the balmy late spring weather, combines spiced rum, lemonade and a basil garnish. 

As Delta Spirit goes up on stage for soundcheck, the brewing equipment and the band look right at home.

“Delta Spirit has been [one] of my top five bands for years. When Richard told me they were going to be playing the Distillery, I was very excited. It was great to see the space transformed … our still and fermentors as the backdrop of the stage.”

Delta Spirit goes through sound check, the stage set amongst the distillery's fermentors and stills.

Delta Spirit goes through sound check, the stage set amongst the distillery's fermentors and stills.

The thing about the South is that kin’s never far, whether you know it or not. Sure, Delta Spirit’s one of Sharp’s favorite bands, but he also seems to share a great-great-great-great-(maybe add another great in there for good measure) grandfather with lead singer Matt Vasquez through Sharp’s mother’s side.

“We both had a family story of three Scottish brothers moving to Missouri. One brother went north (presumably Matt’s clan), one stayed in Missouri (our clan) and one went south,” Sharp details. 

With a presence in Georgia & Alabama, sights are set on placing products in Florida, Tennessee and New York City.

“As we grow our brand we hope to raise awareness about Opelika and all the great things that are happening here. Also we are finding that the distillery creates a reasonable amount of tourism, and we hope to see that grow.”

It’s a Wednesday night in Opelika and this once-sleepy little town is wide awake. 
The five friends forming Delta Spirit– frontman Matt Vasquez, guitarist Will McLaren, bassist Jon Jameson, drummer Brandon Young and instrumental wunderkind Kelly Winrich – are prepping to play in town for the first time.  

“We didn’t know what to expect.” Vasquez recounts, “We’ve never been to these smaller places, and we’re doing the whole summer tour thing with larger stops, so we thought, ‘why not just do it’.”

He goes on to talk about finding used-books at the independent retailer Gnu’s Room down the street and the guys flipping through vinyl at nearby MusicTown Records.

When asked about the Distillery, Vazquez’s face lights up, “All I ever want is single malt, and they actually make that here… the best American single malt I’ve ever had.”

“Each of these stops have their own unique vibe -  there are people [at each] that are really into music. We wanted to give [people here] the opportunity to experience that,” Jameson adds.

Delta Spirit drummer Brandon Young onstage at John Emerald Distilling.

Delta Spirit drummer Brandon Young onstage at John Emerald Distilling.

Despite their California origins, the soul of their music translates well to a Southern audience. Though don’t assume that a name like Delta Spirit implies twangy songs about the good ole Mississippi -  or any other stereotypical Southern platitude.
“Our band has never been about shtick, it’s always been about five people who love each other and want to make music,” Vasquez says.
A few years back, the boys packed their bags and made their way to Brooklyn, where they recorded their latest album, 2014’s Into the Wide. The name itself feels vast and all-encompassing, but the band intentionally cast a wide net. Brooklyn’s a stark contrast to the West Coast, and the visceral change ushered an evolution in their sound, which began to reflect the brooding, gritty facade of their new digs.

“We had this rehearsal space - and it was big for New York, but it had really low ceilings and no windows. So it was a very extreme place to write music,” Jameson recalls.

They dubbed it “The Rat Cave”, and the claustrophobic environment sparked an introspective mentality among band members. Vasquez spent time in the surrounding neighborhood listening to Greenpoint residents relate personal stories – anything from mob tales to Nazi encounters. Daily walks from his apartment to the studio gave him ample time to sink his teeth into those stories and spin on his own - the song “Live On” chronicles Vasquez’s experience with a childhood bully.
Producer Ben Allen (Youth Lagoon, Animal Collective) fleshed out the New York grit, but saw it fit to never totally abandon the band’s sunny roots. They finished up the record in Atlanta, Georgia. 

A spur-of-the-moment acoustic performance from Dana Swimmer went on behind the Distillery. Video below.

A spur-of-the-moment acoustic performance from Dana Swimmer went on behind the Distillery. Video below.

As Delta Spirit goes through sound check, their Athens-based opener Dana Swimmer look on. 

“It’s our first time playing with Delta Spirit,” says lead vocalist Jack Blauvelt, “and it’s beyond the coolest show we’ve played. We really respect these guys.”
Also comprising Dana Swimmer are background vocalist Maggie Blauvelt, drummer Parker Lusk, lead guitarist John Riccitelli and bassist Danny Hurley. Jack and Maggie are siblings, and the band’s name is derived from a childhood story.

“I’ve been making up stories lately because I get sick of telling it,” Jack laughs. “But when I was four years old, my parents told me we were going to have another baby, and they asked me what I wanted to name her. I decided that Dana Swimmer would be perfect name.” He smiles, “Obviously they didn’t pick that.”

Ultimately, of course the name didn’t go to waste. The band’s playfulness is just as pronounced on stage as it is off. Their debut album Veloce is charged with roaring, soulful rock, energetically informed by their Southern roots - an energy that’s on par with the evening’s headliner.

It is easy to see why Patton thought they were a great choice to open at the Distillery. Ultimately, it is his ability to connect people that makes his endeavors a success - ones which demand attention far beyond the Opelika town line.

Patton pauses. “You can never underestimate the power of music, and what it can do for a community."

VIDEO: The Love List Presents

Dana Swimmer at John Emerald Distilling

Strange Bedfellows

JUNE15, BOOZEJess Graves
The oyster bar at Chef Angus Brown's LUSCA in Atlanta.

The oyster bar at Chef Angus Brown's LUSCA in Atlanta.

Words: Jess Graves | Photos: Caroline Fontenot

At Chef Angus Brown and Nhan Le’s Atlanta restaurant LUSCA, three of the world’s rarest and most interesting oysters get slutty when introduced to their boozy soulmates. 

Oysters and I have had a thing for some time now. Aside from gin, my dog and a few key people, you might say its one of the most stable relationships I've got. I was raised in the Florida Panhandle, where Apalachicolas were cheap and plentiful, but it wasn't until I landlocked myself for the first time in my life, by moving to Atlanta, that I began to explore the world of oysters that weren't shucked from a cooler on my parents' porch.

There is so much going on inside the seal of an oyster shell. Meat and liquor, sure, but also romance, sentimentality, gluttony and sex. Aside from their flavor of course, I think it is their contradiction I love the most. They're at once sinful and good, clean fun. The lusty process of prying one open reveals a wet and willing interior, but its first salty kiss is what makes you fall in love. They can be high cotton or low brow, served clean on a grand, icy tier or spread across an old picnic table like a piggy trough. 

Speaking of liquor, there is no better bedfellow for an oyster than a little booze. Jimmy Buffet may have preferred beer, but we aren't eating oysters from a cooler today. Chef Angus Brown is the creative force behind Atlanta's LUSCA restaurant, which boasts a healthy oyster bar that is entirely his baby. After selecting three of the rarest and most interesting of his cockled collection, we sat down with General Manager and Beverage Director Stuart White to see just how quickly an oyster would get slutty (you know, open up) with the right drinking buddy. We all get looser with a little liquor in us, right?

The oyster bar at LUSCA boasts a constantly-rotating selection of sustainable oysters, tirelessly sourced by Chef Angus.

The oyster bar at LUSCA boasts a constantly-rotating selection of sustainable oysters, tirelessly sourced by Chef Angus.

A Drink That Submits

"Wine pairing isn't an exact science, but a good place to start is to pair foods with wines form the same region."

White stands at the head of the table, pointing out the nuances of the sake in his hands. Brown is seated at the other end, three rapt students between the two, myself included. White's teaching stance and encyclopedic knowledge have earned him the nickname "Stuniversity." Class is in session.

"Generally, the other way to do it is to pair an acid and a fat or a bitter, or something sweet and tart, and so forth. But pairing sake is completely different. The Japanese feel the beverage should support, not complement the food. It's supposed to be the delicate foundation for the food to be built on."

The sake in front of us today is a sparkling Nigori (a word White tells us roughly translates to "cloudy," named for its appearance, which is due to the unfermented rice solids remaining in the sake) from Hakkaisan, a brewery in Niigata which is located on Japan's main Honshu Island, facing the Sea of Japan. 

Much like the oysters sitting beside it, sake's flavor varies greatly by its terroir. The geography and climate of Niigata give Hakkaisan's sakes a distinctly clear taste due to the area's consistently low temperature during the winter. Heavy snows give way to a slow melt on neighboring Mt. Hakkai and, because it doesn't travel through the earth, the resulting water is very soft. That water is brought to Hakkaisan's Kura (sake factory) from the foot of the mountain via pipeline, which ultimately produces a high-quality sake with smooth, sweet, fairly dry flavor that doesn't disturb the taste of the food it is being served with.

White thinks Hakkasan's Nigori sake is particularly well-suited to the Belon oysters (sometimes called European Flats) Chef Angus has shucked for us. Belons are so incredibly dominant in flavor that they demand the naturally-submissive personality of sake. They are strong, metallic, fishy, and taste slightly of zinc, so our tongues welcome the sweet effervescence of sparkling Nigori. I love them. Others at the table crinkle their noses as the Belons slip down their gullets. 

"People either love these or they hate 'em." Brown says. "The flavor is really in your face, it lingers."

Getaway Kids

Originally from the Belon River in France, in the 1950's, scientists began seeding the Belon oyster in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. Or so they tried. Seeing no growth, they threw in the towel. But, as Rowan Jacobsen quips in his indispensable field guide A Geography of Oysters, "The oysters, however, did not." They clacked their way to escape, establishing outlaw colonies all over Maine. Belons began wild, and had every intention of staying that way.

Offspring of the first jailbreak still thrive in the wild, rogue and bawdy as their flavor, clenched and stubborn, bitterly battling the water year after frigid year. Only about five thousand are pulled from that water annually - sustainably, by hand, something Brown feels convicted about - which makes them one of the rarest in the world.



Oh, the Lord's been good to me.
And so I thank the Lord
For giving me the things I need:
The sun, the rain and the appleseed;

Isastegi Sagardo Cider is made from apples (duh) in Spain's Basque country and aged in kupelas (old, large, oak cider barrels). What began as a small hobby operation out of a family farm has become the Isastegi estate's sole function. In its homeland, it is properly administered by an escanciador, pouring the cider long and from a height, which allows the movement of air into the glass. 

Live vinegar cultures give Isastegi a sour, fermented bite in the nostril. A new cider drinker may well be too faint of heart at first whiff, but it is far less offensive on the tongue. Paired with something salty, it's suddenly bright and fruity, which makes it perfect for caviar, ham, roe and yes, oysters - Wianno oysters, in our case.

Liquor is Quicker

Wianno is on the southern coast of Cape Cod, where its oysters are hand-harvested on shelves. That means they experience low tides, so they see plenty of sunshine, which gives the shell its green color. Always about 3 inches, they're plump and burst with salt when they first hit your tongue. They're not as potent as the Belons, but still plenty briny, and their cups runneth over with good liquor. 

There are many methods of harvesting oysters, all of which have their merits, all of which are dictated by the terroir (there's that word again) of the area and, if they are farmed, allow the flavor to be controlled to some degree.  

"Harvesting is like a stopwatch." Says Brown. "I spend half my day doing direct sourcing, many of the places I get my oysters are picky about shipping, which can get expensive, so you have to buy a hundred pounds at a time to make it worthwhile. And once they're harvested and here, storing them is a whole other thing. Most people think you put them on ice, but we only do that when we're serving them. When you put an oyster on ice, it wakes up and opens a little. You don't want them to open. You want them to stay shut tight. You want them to maintain that seal, so that they don't lose their liquor, because you can't replace it. So really, you want to store them in the dark, under a damp towel. You want to let them sleep."


First Hit's Free

Class wraps up with the mildest oyster of the afternoon, Black Points from Nova Scotia. They have a nice salinity, but are far from overpowering. They're blonde and carefree. I'd call this one a "gateway oyster" - it's a great starter for someone who's never had one before, but the biggest snob can enjoy it too. If oysters were hustled on street corners, Black Points would be the free first taste.

"People tell us this one has the vague aftertaste of cucumber." Brown says.

Sure enough, right at the end, there's a crisp, vegetal note. I think to myself that this oyster makes me want a gin and tonic, but White has grander ideas. 

He wanders back from the bar with a cocktail in a tall glass that is decorated with a big-breasted lady in a bikini top and hula skirt. It's got two straws and a blue umbrella tucked inside. The tiki glass contains pineapple juice, coconut, and both St. George and Tempus Fugit Spirits' Vieux Pontarlier absinthe. It tastes like a delicious a licorice jelly bean. A perfumed, minty one with some anise. 

Two Heathens

"We're calling this one the Bedford Avenue" He says, "we named it for the street in Williamsburg where Maison Premiere, the old-school New Orleans-style oyster bar, is located. Basically, it's an absinthe piña colada. Absinthe and oysters are a very classic French pairing."

Quite the hedonistic pairing, too. Absinthe used to be blamed for madness after all, and oysters are touted as an aphrodisiac, though their sexual voodoo is up for debate. 

I myself am a believer. Oysters are sinner's food - the meal of drinkers and revelers, consumed in bars and dark restaurants by old salty dogs and paramours imagining one another undressed. On a dinner of a dozen, mixed with the green stuff, you have one hell of a magic potion for bad behavior. Absinthe and oysters, indeed. If there was ever a recipe for wreckage, I think that is it.

LUSCA is located at 1829 Peachtree Rd. NE in the Ansley area of Atlanta. Reservations are available on OpenTable.

Maggie Mathews' Art: Water, Shells and Bones

ART, JUNE15, PEOPLEJess Graves
Mathews' Buckhead studio is littered with natural elements, art books and inspiration.

Mathews' Buckhead studio is littered with natural elements, art books and inspiration.

Words: Katherine Michalak | Photos: Caroline Fontenot

Atlanta-bred abstract painter Maggie Mathews calls the beaches of St. George Island her muse. We caught up with her on the eve of her first solo exhibition.

I met with Maggie Mathews at the studio space she’s recently moved into, where she’s still getting settled. 

“Sorry, I’m realizing I haven’t cleared off places to sit,” she chuckles, moving a box from a chair and dragging over a stool. 

She’s relaxed and casual, not an ounce of pretense or staunch formality. Soon we’re rambling on as though we’ve been hanging out for years. We sip coffee as she tells me about her upcoming show, pointing to the stacks of canvases leaning against walls behind her waiting to be hung together at this important debut. She tells me that all her previous work -- the private commissions, the marketplaces and pop-up shops, the independent projects -- has been preparing her for this show. 

 “Everything up to now has been research.” She says.

Atlanta-bred abstract painter Maggie Mathews.

Atlanta-bred abstract painter Maggie Mathews.

There’s never been a time in Mathews’ life when making art was not her singular focus. As she rattles off the list of creative forces perched in her family tree, she unwittingly gives further credence to the age-old nature/nurture discussion. Raised in the family furniture business, hanging around the “office” resulted in absorbing the interplay of line, form, color and pattern. A treasured aunt paints, her father draws and sketches, and both her parents greatly encourage artistic expression. So, for Mathews, becoming a painter felt less like establishing an occupation and more like speaking in her native tongue. 

She grew up in Atlanta, her childhood home resting on the banks of the Chattahoochee, which offered up a watery playground replete with active wildlife. Regular trips to St. George Island, Florida intensified her fascination with shoreline ecosystems, an appeal that developed into a lifelong artistic symbiosis. As a school girl, Mathews painted sections of Lilly Pulitzer patterns she liked, delighting in the color. College brought intensive study and further technique development.

Mathews remains mesmerized by masters such as Georgia O. Keefe, Joan Mitchell, Cy Twombley, Willem de Kooning and David Hockney; she’s also counts Betty Anglin Smith and Jim Draper among her influences and is energized with inspiration by her contemporaries -- from colleagues like Sally King Benedict to local Atlanta street artists. 

Mathews' painted champagne bottles have become a hot commodity among her collectors.

Mathews' painted champagne bottles have become a hot commodity among her collectors.

She also enjoys writing and interior design, yet continually returns to her brushes for deepest expression. Mathews started out her professional career painting landscapes, mostly coastal, before moving into full exploration of abstracts. Her pieces range in size, from small accent canvases to wall-sized panels and mural projects; she loves to paint large-scale, or as she says “really stretch and extend my arms” giving an inherent physicality to those works.

Maggie admits to pressuring herself for (perceived) success right out of her college art study, approaching her work from a perfectionist standpoint and becoming increasingly frustrated. She over-conceptualized as she struggled with what her art “should/could/would be about” and searched for powerful themes. In short, she was thinking too much. Once she began to relax and acknowledge the images that had always been floating about in her head, she moved into her comfort zone. 

Maggie concedes, “I started to respect it... respect that painting to feel good is enough.” 

New works in various stages of completion are stacked high in Mathews' studio.

New works in various stages of completion are stacked high in Mathews' studio.

That’s when she caught her current and found her muse. Water, shells, bone -- these are Maggie’s calling cards, the motifs of each simultaneously juxtaposing and mimicking each other in a confluence of texture. Maggie walked me through a few paintings as examples, basically giving me a guided tour inside her mind, and within moments the patterns lodged in my brain as well -- tides and driftwood, oysters and cow skulls, turtles and insect exoskeletons dancing around in kaleidoscope transitions. 

We’ve talked for over an hour before I mention that I brought a whole list of interview questions along with me and had yet to look at them. Mathews smiles and tells me to get them out.

I’ve already learned so much about her, but I pick one question from my notes to ask: “Mark Twain said,’The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.’ When did you discover your artistic birthday?” 

Maggie ponders the question for a long minute then declares, “Probably now, I think. Now it’s all starting to feel right, starting to make sense to me.” 

Mathews largely works in acrylic, but dabbles in watercolor and pastels as well.

Mathews largely works in acrylic, but dabbles in watercolor and pastels as well.