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H&F's Greg Best Talks Gateway Cocktails and More

Greg Best.
Greg Best.
Photo: Beall + Thomas

Greg Best is many things: Sazerac lover, Holeman & Finch partner, and, most importantly, esteemed Eater Awards 2012 winner in the category of Atlanta's Bartender of the Year. He's been in the city for just over eight years, first at Restaurant Eugene before heading over to open Holeman & Finch in 2008. Now, he opens up about the cocktail scene in Atlanta, the worst cocktail trends, and the new radio show he's doing with Linton Hopkins.

On how the cocktail scene in Atlanta has changed.
Dramatically. At that time, there really wasn't a cocktail scene. There was a handful of us in the city trying to do cocktails, and fortunately, we met with some success because now we have a fantastic, vibrant cocktail market, but at the time, you were lucky if people knew what a Manhattan was. Most of the cocktails that people were drinking were still of the ilk of, you know, flavored martinis. Anything with the ending "ini" was popular. We were just trying to depart from that world of sugary sweet, fake-flavored booze and get back to the roots of cocktail culture.

The first movement was getting people to embrace the classics. Making Manhattans properly, Old Fashioneds and Sazeracs. Slowly, people started getting more and more into it, all the restaurants started developing their own cocktail menus, and it just kind of went from there. It's been really, really fast growth. Our city's whole cocktail culture happened in the past six years.

On why the cocktail scene in Atlanta changed.
I think part of the reason that the cocktail culture grew so fast is because the restaurants were going through a metamorphosis too. It was a perfect storm. We have some a great air of camaraderie in our market, which is very rare. In most markets, restaurants are incredibly competitive and not all together in the spirit of brother slash sisterhood, but we have that in Atlanta. I think that's a big reason why we've seen the success that we've had and why it stuck. Places like Victory Sandwich Bar or Corner Tavern, even they have cocktail menus now. That tells me that there's sustainability, which is awesome.

For geeks like me who have been waiting in a closet for years to have cocktails hit the scene again, it's so awesome. The idea that each house has a representation of a cocktail is so, so exciting. That tells me that our clientele has also become very sophisticated, which is just cool.

On introducing people to the world of cocktails.
I usually start people with really approachable, super linear cocktails. Things that are in no way offensive. A lot of cocktail people say that vodka is useless, and on some levels I agree, but on other levels, I think you can make a great cocktail with vodka as a base. It's harder to do, but people aren't as scared of it, it's a good place to start. Things with cucumber or elderflower or ginger liqueur, primary flavor profiles with a good balance of sweet and acidity. I'll usually start people with something that has citrus juice in it instead of going straight into the world of stirred and boozy. Maybe a little fortified wine, or maybe vermouth to give it some weight, but still kind of keeping it on the soft, elegant side. Then I'll use some bitters that are on the more gentle side of things. That's usually where I start people, and then when people have that trust established through one or two of these gateway cocktails, I'll say, "Hey, do you want to try something in the same vein but you'll be jumping into a whole different genre?" Usually they'll say yes.

That's one huge, dramatic change, as opposed to five years ago. Then people were not willing to jump into the unknown, and now, we've created this culture where people are like yeah. Let's do it, I want to try that.

On the worst cocktail trends.
I'm very, very old fashioned, kind of a purist, so I'm not particularly fond of things that I consider just novelty techniques. I would never use liquid nitrogen, for example, in a drink. I feel like that's doing it for the sake of doing it. I'm not a fan a big fan of molecular gastronomy, either. I think it's neat, but I think it's something that maybe belongs in Epcot Center. You know, those little frozen dots of astronaut ice cream. I don't think there's a soul in doing that behind a bar or using techniques that alienate guests because there's just no way that they could engage in that. I think it's really important for a bartender to create a dialogue both literally and metaphorically with their guests and really instill in them not just the confidence of drinking in the comfort of being in their house but also the confidence in taking these ideas home and experimenting on their own. I'm a firm believer in the big picture, I think to have a sustainable cocktail culture, people simply have to be making drinks at home. That's how beer and wine were able to solidify, it's because people were making beer at home and had their wine cellars. It's that same thing, there has to be a takeaway. Any technique that is more about the show of it than the art of cultivating that root of cocktail culture, I don't have much use for it.

On plans for the future.
Right now, most of my focus is on the bottle shop and really enabling people, using our bars at H&F and Restaurant Eugene to push people in that direction. They can find all these items that other liquor stores don't carry and they can find the tools to make drinks at home. We archive all our recipes, so you can go to H&F Bottle Shop and flip through all our cocktail recipes, and we'll give you cocktail recipe cards to take home and talk to you about technique. That's where a lot of my focus has been lately, on elaborating on the idea that I said earlier of getting people comfortable and willing people to take cocktail culture home. I don't plan on opening another cocktail bar anytime soon. If I was to do something, it'd be real super simple and very stripped down. I think we have a great cocktail culture, I think it's very diverse and dynamic. I love the part that Holeman & Finch and Restaurant Eugene have played in that and I love where they stand in relation to the culture, but another thing I'm a huge stickler about is training, and kind of turning really qualified barkeeps out into the world. So we have a very slow, very long training process. Since we opened in 2008, I think I've trained maybe three people. It's really important for me for these people to grow on the correct path. Then they'll go and spin off and add to the culture, and it will be awesome, but I think I've found my place and what I'm supposed to do, and that's to operate our little temple, our little dojo.

On the radio show.
It's super exciting. Linton and I had been kicking around the idea for a while. We talk often about music; it is a big deal for us, it's a passionate subject. We'd been thinking that we should consider doing a podcast. We'd been guests on a couple radio shows and gotten a lot of great responses from our peers. The same week that we were talking about it, Max from 1690 called me and asked if we would be interested in doing a radio show, and that's how it was born.

The show itself is about celebrating the connectivity between music and food and drink and techniques and really just sharing with people what goes on behind the curtain in the restaurant world, how we find our narrative and what sets us on our different creative paths but also informs on how we do business. Music plays a big part in that. This was just a fun way to explore territory that we hadn't ever been able to do with large groups of people before. We would have these individual conversations at events or at the restaurant, but we thought it would be neat to share that dialogue with everyone. We'll see how it goes; we're really excited for it. I think that as we find our voice and as the show develops, I think it'll be a fun respite from everything else that's out there. Tune in, hear recipes, and call us up. It'll tell a little more of the story of the hospitality industry. We're also going to try to do listening parties for every one of the shows at H&F Bottle Shop. [Hear past episodes here.]

On having an open mind.
Approach cocktails with an open mind. Enjoy the celebration that is cocktail culture and eating and drinking. It's one of the best things we can have. It shouldn't be daunting and it shouldn't be surrounded by any judgment or ego or confusion. Everyone is going to have a different expression. If you look through classic cocktail books, you'll find eight different recipes for the same drink. I believe that cocktails are almost a philosophical idea as much as they are a physical drink for people to enjoy, so people should keep their minds open always. You never know what you're going to stumble upon. If you're ready to celebrate and be excited by something, chances are you're going to enjoy it even more thoroughly.

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