Bartender Navarro Carr and Karl Injex put a lot of thought into everything that they do at the Sound Table. From the atmosphere to the curated selection of spirits behind the bar, everything is deliberate— and it shows. Here, they discuss how they feel about speakeasies, what makes a good drink name, and what's changed about cocktail culture.
Why is it important to give drinks good names? How do you come up with them?
KI: I think that the perception of the quality of something starts in your mind. Even before your taste is engaged, you think about what it's going to be. I have to say Navarro is very good at that.
NC: Names can come from anything that means something to me. It could be a phrase, could be titles of music that I might be listening to. The Soothsayer is Wayne Shorter's album.
NC: Sometimes you really don't have to have a direct connection [between a name and a drink]. It could just be a good name. You can say, that one sounds really mystical, that sounds like a good strong name. Other times, it depends on the spirit. Usually with spirits with strength like bourbon and rye, I want a name that stands up to them. I wouldn't name a strong rye drink something like "a delicate flower." You try to equate the name with how strong the drink is. But sometimes, a name is so strong that you don't want to waste it on a drink. It has to be the right drink for the name. Some people name drinks after their dogs or their girlfriends' middle names, or they'll use, for example, a French name for a drink made with French liqueurs.
KI: Or places. We've done a couple drinks named after local landmarks, like a play on a Blood and Sand called the 4th and Sand. We also had one called the Pink City Ricky, which was named after a low-rent hotel slash house of ill-repute. You know, just kind of playing with locality. That's the fun part, getting to be creative with naming what you're serving.
NC: If I wanted to name a cocktail after you and not be so obvious, I could look into the etymology and go deeper, so it'd be a hidden meaning in the name that references your name. Once, I was watching a documentary on Antarctica and they were talking about how barren the land is, and when they would go underneath the ice, they called it going into the cathedral. I just thought the phrasing was so beautiful that I had to use it for a drink.
How did you get started bartending?
NC: I have a corporate background, but I always wanted to own a bar, so I tried to get into the business to learn about it. I started off at Halo a long time ago as a bar back. I grew up in a dry house and wasn't a heavy drinker myself; I liked the business side and the aesthetic appeal of certain places, and I kind of worked my way up. The first time I did this kind of bartending, I worked at Trois with Eric Simpkins, who was my mentor back in those days. We started Trois, and that was honestly one of the first— along with Holeman & Finch— to make true cocktails.
What would your own bar be like?
NC: If I do something, it's going to be my baby and I want it to be right. I'm always keeping my eyes open, but it's nothing that I'm taking lightly. It would probably be a little more intimate— the place I'm currently at is awesome and we just have so many things going on, from a full dinner to cocktails to the club scene late at night. I would probably eliminate the late-night club aspect and focus more on dinner and cocktails for people who wanted to gather, talk, drink. I want it to be a festive environment, but I don't necessarily want DJs banging loud music.
What's different about Atlanta's cocktail scene now?
NC: I think the biggest change is that it's now large, it's a big scene. When you go to restaurants that are even more like pubs, you can almost always expect to get a cocktail list of some sort. Cocktails are everywhere, which is a good thing. I think it's because there's been so much more literature over the past four or five years, people writing serious books about cocktails. Now people are seeing proportions, and there are more guides to show people how to make proper cocktails. A lot of people are getting into spirits, they're starting to understand balance instead of just going willy-nilly, throwing in ingredients and shaking them up and stamping a name on it.
What do you think the worst cocktail trends are?
NC: One thing I want to say is that lot of people feel comfortable with things like flavored vodkas, and that's okay. We don't carry them, but I think we're the exception, not the rule— there are a lot of exceptions, it's growing, but most people cater to the larger public and what they want.
KI: And there's always going to be that, so maybe it's actually beneficial to do that, to meet people at their point of desire. Some people are not that interested in expanding. They want what they like, they want what they know. For us personally, we don't want to do that, but if someone else wants to do it, I honestly think that's really okay. My problem is with the places that want to ride on cocktail culture and trends and don't perform, meaning they want to take the name, but they basically just want to wrap these horrible drinks in this culture because the culture seems cool.
NC: You can wear a bow tie, but?
KI: Yeah, exactly. Anything having to do with the '20s. That's an unfortunate side effect of this return of the cocktail.
NC: That's probably, in my opinion, the worst trend. It's not real— wearing the tie, the suspenders, having this whole little get up.
KI: It's the equivalent of bartenders back in Jerry Thomas's day wearing Roman shields and having spears and being like, "do you want some lion's blood?"
NC: It's just kind of fake. It's like, if you have to say you're a speakeasy?
KI: The concept of speakeasies in general is a bad thing for modern cocktail culture, that idea of trying to create a highly publicized secret bar. For me, the bigger issue is that by wrapping a bar in this old, faux, antiquey-type culture, you're taking it out of a living context and making it into this sideshow, whereas in cocktail culture now, we already incorporate a lot of the great ideas and the history. It's part of the education process, and we don't need that '20s music or twisted up, waxed mustaches.
NC: It's the pretentious nature of the thing that I'm against. We're getting to the point where we can get a good drink anywhere. You don't have to have this dog and pony show set up to prove that you can make a well-made cocktail, we can have it in any environment.
KI: I think the real danger is that anything that becomes hyper trendy, like speakeasy cocktail bars, will have a limited lifespan, because it gets very popular and then it just goes away. Whereas here, we try to integrate cocktail culture as well as we can into a high-quality dinner service and music. The idea is to move forward with it and keep it growing instead of letting it recede into this haze of guys on horses cruising down the street to their local saloon.
NC: The one positive thing that I will say is that anytime you're exposing a person to cocktails, no matter who you are, you're helping cocktail culture. You're educating. Even though I'm not so much into all the show behind it, I do appreciate anybody who is offering cocktails and offering them in a respectful manner. They're giving people exposure to the cocktail world.
KI: As an entry point it's not so bad. The danger is that you don't want the whole culture to become this monoculture, a museum of cocktails.
How do you introduce people to new drinks if they're looking for something you don't carry?
NC: Like anything, you have to gain their trust very quickly. The main thing is that you have to be very careful not make them feel like they're doing something wrong. I'll try to politely say, I'm so sorry, I don't have the ingredients to make that, but I kind of know what you're looking for, and I can make you something fitting. Usually people are open. 99% of the time there's a solution.
KI: People think that bars like ourselves that focus on quality spirits and don't have a whole lot of flavored spirits and typical brands— they think it's a statement, a thumbing of our noses, but it's actually simply a matter of efficiency. We don't have the room or the budget to stock all of these different brands.
What are your favorite things to drink?
KI: My favorite thing to drink is a cocktail that incorporates three constituents. I've noticed that my favorites have three or fewer ingredients, roughly, like a Negroni, a Manhattan. When you can taste all the ingredients and they're working in conjunction to create a heightened flavor that's more than the sum of their parts, it's really satisfying. Once you get past four or five ingredients, it can start to muddle things. I think that's the reason why most classics are very simple.
NC: I like simple. There are only a couple people that I like to make drinks for me; I don't want people to spend too much time fussing over me. Simple drinks, like the old fashioned. Anything that's more spirit-forward, not covered up by sugars or extra things, that's what I enjoy.