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How Ian Cox Went From Competing on the Football Field to Competing Behind the Bar

A former college football player, Cox is now winning cocktail competitions.

Ian Cox at The Luminary.
Ian Cox at The Luminary.
Matthew Wong/Eater Atlanta
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Ian Cox has been working in bars since his college days at North Carolina. A former tight end on the Tar Heels football team, he started as a bouncer — no surprise there — before moving getting behind the stick at a college town bar in Chapel Hill. Once he began pouring beverages, he found his passion. From college football player and bar bouncer to national cocktail competition winner, with a short detour as an insurance salesman, Cox discusses The Luminary's bar program and why you never turn down recommendations from Jerry Slater and Greg Best.

How did you end up at The Luminary?

I had already put in my notice at Wrecking Bar, with no intention of going after another bar program. My plan was to gypsy bartend around town at a few places. Then I got a phone call from [H. Harper Station owner] Jerry Slater, asking me if I knew Eli Kirshtein. Of course I'd read about him and watched Top Chef. Jerry said, "Well, he's opening a place and looking for a bar manager. I heard that you just put in your notice [at Wrecking Bar], so would you mind if I gave him your number?"  So he gave Eli my number. At the same time, [former Holeman & Finch bar manager] Greg Best gave Eli my number. And when you get recommended to a place by both Greg Best and Jerry Slater, you kind of make that a priority. Eli did call me, and we sat down with The Luminary's GM, Jeremy Isles, and we all just hit it off. It got rolling from there.

What can people expect on the bar menu, and what's exciting about what you get to do with the program?

I get to do whatever I want.

I get to do whatever I want [laughs].

It's going to be more fluid. We're changing it about once a quarter. Basically, seasonally. It's a focused cocktail menu. It's sitting at about ten drinks right now, and it's going to stay at about ten drinks. Most of them are going to be my creations with a couple of classics thrown in there. I wanted to include them on our initial menu so people would look at it and see "oh, these guys know what they're doing."

What's really fun is that it's not whiskey-focused. It actually has a lot of esoteric liquors, digestifs, aperitifs, and cognacs. I'm also learning a lot about wine. Eli and Jeremy - they know their wine. I don't. I know beer, and I know spirits. I'm learning wine. That's another reason I came over here.

How did you get into bartending?

I started as a bouncer at a college bar in Chapel Hill, N.C., called Pantana Bob's. I was playing football, and I was 6'3 and weighed 270 pounds. And I honestly got the job just to make a little bit of extra money to go to a bachelor party in Vegas. That trip never happened, but I kept the job. I bounced for a year and a half, and then right as I was graduating, the two guys running the place left, so I got moved up to bartending. My first night of bartending was actually the last night of classes of spring semester. It hurt. But I made a lot of money, and I've been in love with it ever since.

I ran Pantana Bob's for three years, and then quit and went and sold insurance. And was miserable. It's not that I was bad at it. It just wasn't for me. When I quit that job, my manager was like, "What are you going to do, go back to bartending?" I said, "Yep. I'm a whole lot better at that than I am at this!" And here I am.

How did you get involved in competitions?

... 'No way I'm going to win this.' But I did.

Really, it was kind of just put to me. I'm competitive, having played football, of course. I started doing them at Wrecking Bar. I did three or four competitions and did well, but didn't win. I got tired of finishing second and third and almost quit. Then I entered the Woodford Manhattan competition and won with the Port Authority Manhattan, made with benedictine, tawny port, sweet vermouth, ginger syrup, and Angostura bitters. Once you win one, you learn how to keep winning. I was chosen to represent USBG Atlanta in the Beefeater Gin 24 competition, not knowing what the prize was. I won the regional, then went to Chicago for the finals, and found out the winner would go to Prague to represent nationally at the IBA World Championship and go to London to represent the U.S. in the Beefeater 24 global competition. I thought, "Well, that would be cool, but there is no way I'm going to win this." But I did.

What's the best drink you've ever had, and where was it?

I went to the Artesian Bar in my hotel in London. It's consistently rated one of the top bars in the world. They had some really great drinks. Their presentation was really cool. They actually used a plastic balloon for one of the components and popped it in front of me and squeezed it into the drink, which was scotch-based.

What's on your "wish list" of bars to visit? Are there other programs you really admire?

I'd really like to go to the Aviary in Chicago. PDT in New York. I'd love to check out Juiced in San Francisco. It's a new program. Trevor Eastman runs it, and he's a buddy of mine. He was the West Coast brand ambassador for Beefeater. I've heard great things about his program.

What's the strangest thing anyone's ever asked for at a bar?

I do love it when people have their own variations on drinks. I had someone ask me to switch out the maraschino for St. Germain in the Last Word, and that was really good. It gave it a lot of good body.

And someone actually had a suicide beer at Wrecking Bar. They made me mix every beer. Seven beers total. That was pretty fucking gross. They seemed to like it, though.

They made me mix every beer. Seven beers total.

What do you like to drink when you're at home?

I typically drink a lot of beer. Right now, a lot of browns and ambers. Whiskey. Whatever I've got. A lot of chartreuse and benedictine.

Any favorite cocktail books?

Love the PDT Cocktail Book. Love Imbibe! [the reprint of Gerry Thomas's book]. Punch by David Wondrich was a lot of fun. That's how I started doing a lot of punches. We do one here about once a week and serve it in Jeremy's grandmother's sterling-silver punch bowl. I have to really sell people on punches, because it reminds them of those bad Hi-C concoctions you have at church picnics. But to go full circle, we do everything here. Punches, wine, craft cocktails, beer. It's really a lot of fun.

The Luminary

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