A Southerner Goes North
As you may have noticed, dear reader, this blog has been idle since July of 2013. The reason for this, of course, is that I have relocated from the quiescent suburbs of Atlanta to bustling metropolis of New York City. As a result, my mixological endeavors have been placed on life’s back burner for six months. I’m sure that more than a few of you know what a task it is to relocate your place of existence, and how your priorities can change as a result.
All this is not to say that there haven’t been some remarkable developments in my cocktailian life — there were the first — and second, and third — visits to the Pegu Club, tastes of Amer Picon and authentic aged Peach Brandy, and the joys of Astor Wine & Spirits, to name a few – but there are still many stones left unturned. After all, this is New York — the Metropolis, the City That Never Sleeps, the Cocktail Capital of the United States, if not the World (sorry, London). It is the old haunt of Jerry Thomas, the probable birthplace of the Dry Martini, and the certain birthplace of the Manhattan. It is the headquarters of the “revolution” that has permanently transformed our understanding of the Cocktail as we know it — heady stuff for an amateur suburbanite bartender such as myself.
Along with the new experiences, however, comes a feeling that is familiar to every traveler, every expat, and every stranger in a strange land: the longing for a taste of home.
Enter “The Bitter Southerner.”
Based in Atlanta, The Bitter Southerner is a newsletter that, in the words of its writers, “seeks to explore…the duality of the Southern thing.” The musings and reports that issue forth from the site are, to me, a friendly reminder of home — it music, its politics, its history, its culture, its food…and its drinks.
You see, the folks at B.S. have asked their favorite Southern bartenders to mix up a series of simply named, simply numbered cocktails that are emblematic of our region’s attitude toward drinking – one of proud traditions infused with strong regional flavor and hospitality, augmented with a dash of innovation and collaboration. Its an attitude that stands in contrast to New York’s competitive, cosmopolitan bar scene, with its infinite supply of infinite variety. Sure, you can grab a good drink and decent conversation at any corner bar up here, and quality cocktail programs abound, but the corner bar and urban speakeasy are not Southern concepts — they’re all about urban drinking, which, by nature, is quick, potent, universally practiced and available, and often done standing up. It ain’t back-porch sippin’.
In response to these conditions, this Southerner, in search of some relief and respite, will occasionally turn to a new-but-comfortingly-familiar cocktail, such as the following…
Bitter Southerner No. 1
- 2 ounces Booker’s Bourbon
- 3/4 ounce Sorghum Mix*
- 1/2 [or 1/4, to taste] ounce Fernet-Branca
- 2 dashes Fee Bros. Barrel-Aged Bitters
Stir with ice and strain into a coupe or cocktail glass. Garnish with a flamed orange twist.
Created by Jerry Slater, of H. Harper Station, Atlanta, for “The Bitter Southerner”
* Sorghum Mix: Equal parts sorghum syrup and water, heated and stirred until evenly dissolved.
The formula is strictly traditional: Spirit + Sugar + Bitters + Water. (The best cocktails, in my opinion, are the simplest.) The fact that bourbon forms the backbone of this Southern drink needs no explanation. Here, Booker’s packs sublime, barrel-proof wallop while remaining smoothly, paradoxically sippable –a wonderful example of the South’s defining spirit. The heady flavor hits with the power of an artillery barrage — it’s the Lemon Hart 151 of the bourbon world.
The heavy blow of the bourbon is softened by a sweet cushion of sorghum syrup. A crop originally imported from Africa, sorghum was once a major staple that has now been relegated to roadside country markets, farm-to-table eateries, and the memories of a diminishing population of native Southerners. In fact, I bet most Atlantans have never even tasted it — I certainly hadn’t until about half a year ago, and my first taste only came after a fairly substantial hunt around the Georgia Piedmont (internet and mail order be damned).
When we say sorghum, we typically mean sorghum syrup, a thick substance that is like molasses, cane syrup, and maple syrup all rolled into one — yet it is completely different from any of its cousins. Sorghum is earthy, grassy, and thick, redolent of the land from which its harvested. To use sorghum in cocktails, treat it as you would treat honey and create a sorghum mix — one part sorghum syrup and one part water, heated until evenly dissolved and blended (also very nice in a cup of coffee). You won’t find it on any Yankee back bars, I can guarantee that (your turn, New Yorkers — here’s where you prove me wrong).
Paired with the strong and sweet is, of course, the bitter. Here, Fernet-Branca contributes a heady dose of mint and saffron — flavors that are pulled to the forefront by the earthy qualities of the sorghum. The barrel-aged bitters — long a favorite of mine — bind all the ingredients together with an undertone of woody, blackened spice, while the orange twist provides just the right amount of citrusy zip to all that booze and sugar.
In short, the Bitter Southerner No. 1 is a compact wallop of a drink — like a mint julep (trust me) squeezed into bullet form, and a refreshing take on the basic cocktail formula. It’s a taste of home — a true Atlanta original that warms the bones chilled by New York City winters and one that leaves this Southerner feeling anything but Bitter.
Photos by IJL.