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Miles Macquarrie on Kimball House, Inspiration, Recommendations, and the Classic Cocktail Experience

Miles Macquarrie
Miles Macquarrie
Photo: John Maley

Believe it or not, Kimball House bartender and partner Miles Macquarrie's first love was beer. Though the Decatur hot spot opened last year to acclaim and is best known for its ever-changing cocktail program, Macquarrie wasn't always the cocktail expert he's become. After an exchange program with Holeman & Finch Public House, a stint leading the bar at Leon's Full Service, and lots of research on the way drinks used to be, that love for beer has become a passion for cocktails. Here, Macquarrie talks about what makes a good bartender, the best cocktail he's ever had, and the bobcat that presides nightly over the action at Kimball House.

How did you come up with the concept for Kimball House?
Kimball House was a long-time dream of mine and the three other managing partners, Matt Christison, Brian Rackley, and Jesse Smith. We all worked at Brick Store Pub together forever ago, and as we matured and our palates matured, we really got into cocktails and oysters and the old school way of dining. We liked the history behind old drinks, and that we still like those drinks the way people were doing them back in the day. When we were looking for inspiration for a name, we came across the old Kimball House Hotel in Atlanta, and we found some old menus from the hotel. I remember seeing one of its old tasting menus, and the first course was Blue Point oysters and a Manhattan, and I thought 'That's awesome! That's still what we're into today— classic cocktails and oysters.' We found this building [built in 1891], which has a great history behind it, and that's how we got started.

How did you get started in cocktails?
I was a manager/bartender at Brick Store, and I was going over to Leon's Full Service to be the bar manager there. I knew we were going to be doing cocktails, so we did an employee exchange program with Holeman & Finch. They sent some of their employees over to Brick Store to learn about beer, and I went over to H&F to learn about cocktails. They had been open for about six months at that point. Greg [Best], Regan [Smith], and Andy [Minchow] were super awesome, and we became friends, and they just really inspired me. And there's just so much history, and so much American history, about what goes into cocktails, how people drink, and the integrity of making drinks before Prohibition. And obviously now, there's been a huge boom in that style of cocktail, so that's kind of how it happened. And at Leon's, I was lucky to have creative freedom and really got into old books and tools. It became a huge hobby as well as a job. I have a huge collection of books at my house and tons of whiskey, and it's just something I really fell in love with. My job is now something I really, really love.

What's your favorite cocktail book?
I have a couple old ones I really love. One is Famous New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix 'Em by Stanley Clisby Arthur that came out in the 30s, and that's the first time the Vieux Carre was in print. I have an original copy of Ted Saucier's Bottom's Up, which has the Last Word for the first time. Another one of my favorites is Charles Henry Baker's Men's Companion: Around the World in a Flask; it's a two-volume book; one is recipes for food, and one is recipes for cocktails, and he has these cool stories that go along with it. I like really cool, obscure classics like the Razor Blade, which we did here.

Were you a beer person before you were a cocktail person?
I was and still am. Beer was my first love. That's kind of how all of us— the partners here— got involved with drinks. It was learning from Mike [Gallagher] and those guys at Brick Store and seeing how much there was to know about beer. I really liked it, learning about the different styles and countries, and what goes into the process of brewing. That's why here we have 12 beers on tap, and it's still something we take seriously.

What's your favorite cocktail to make?
I really don't have a favorite cocktail. My favorite cheesy comeback line when people ask me 'What's your favorite cocktail to make?' is 'What's your favorite cocktail to drink?' I love recommending drinks, but it's really not about what I like, it's about finding what other people like. I like everything. I have to like everything. It's part of the job. Liking sours and boozy drinks. It's really about finding out what other people like and then opening them up to something in that same category. It's really cool to give someone something they've never had before, and they love it, because it's somewhat familiar. It's always better when you have a direction of what to recommend. We take our technique here very seriously. The same amount of care goes into all of the drinks we make. I really like it, though, when someone comes in with a specific taste and orders something classic like a Hanky Panky that isn't on the menu at the time. It's cool to see people make drinks at home and then come out and know about these old drinks and request them.

Where was the best cocktail you've ever had? Or best drinking experience?
I think sometimes it's less about the drink itself than the sense of place or where you are. I know the first time that I was served a Sazerac by Greg Best, before I knew anything, it was like this huge burst of flavor that I'd never, ever experienced before. I was like, 'Holy [expletive], this is awesome.' That, or there was a place called Experimental Cocktail Club in Paris that my wife and I went to that was really cool. The drinks were just so awesome. And something as simple as being served an Old Fashioned there in this amazing room with really cool people was memorable. If someone is really friendly, and then the drink is really good, it just makes the experience that much better. That's why this room [Kimball House, designed by Square Feet Studio] was so important to us, because it's that classic environment suited to drinking cocktails. Drinks can taste better just because of the room.

Where do you get inspiration for cocktails?
All over. It can be from a dish I ate or an old cocktail book or the way the weather is turning or some cool ingredient the kitchen is bringing in. I think the important thing is to always pull inspiration from different aspects of just living life.

Talk about the vintage glassware you've been hoarding for this space.
Yes, this place has been in the works for a very long time, so as we were trying to get investment dollars and get off the ground, we knew we wanted antiques, so we just started collecting vintage glassware. We would go to antique stores and thrift shops and even had a storage space so we could store all of it. A drink just tastes better in that kind of glass. It's just sexy. You eat and drink with your eyes first, and then your nose, and then your mouth. A big thing for us was appearance and presentation, so the glassware is definitely part of the experience.

Where did you find some of your favorite pieces?
Some of my favorite pieces came from Scott Antique Market. The guys and I also took a road trip to North Carolina one day a few years ago when we all had the day off. We just stopped at a lot of out-of-the-way places and got tons of cool glasses and had a great time together. My wife loves it. If I say, 'Let's go antiquing,' she's in.

What about the bobcat?
My father-in-law is a hunter, and he shot the bobcat, and it was in my man cave/home bar, and it seemed like that shelf was just meant for that bobcat. He stands tall over there and looks out on the party every night.

What do you think makes someone a good bartender?
I think there are a lot of things that make a good bartender. Integrity is the main one. A bartender has to maintain the integrity of the drink for hours upon hours. Anyone can mix and shake a drink correctly. But can you do that hundreds of times a night and maintain integrity while still having a great attitude and product knowledge and maintaining a good rapport with guests that come in? That's a huge part of it. You have to be genuine. You can't not want to serve people and be a good bartender. You have to put other people's needs before yours.

Do you have any favorite regular guests or VIPs?
We treat all of our guests with the same level of respect, but there's this guy named Earl who's become a good friend of mine, and who has been a regular since our Brick Store days like a decade ago. When Matt and I first moved here from Florida, he invited us to his house for Thanksgiving. He's gone from hanging out and drinking beers with us at Brick Store to coming into Leon's and drinking cocktails with us there to coming in [to Kimball House] pretty much every Saturday night. He actually shares a birthday with my wife, so we go out and party together.

What's the strangest request you've ever gotten?
We had someone order an Appletini. And people want to climb the ladder sometimes. People get drunk and act weird, but we haven't had anything too crazy happen here. Yet.

Where do you hang out when you're not at work?
It depends. If I'm around here, Victory Sandwich Bar is cool for an after-work beer and to go and hang out. As far as dining, I love Paper Plane. Paul [Calvert] and those guys over there are awesome. That's one of those places, like what we want to do here, where you walk in and it instantly transports you. It has this sexy, Mad Men vibe. And the food and drinks are always great. I love Kellie [Thorn] at Empire State South, and Julian [Goglia] and the guys at The Pinewood. Atlanta has such a good community. I can't wait to see what Greg [Best] and Regan [Smith] are up to. They've been mentors to us through all of this. Obviously, I love going back to Leon's and seeing what the ladies are up to there. I don't go to a ton of dive-y spots. Fontaine's is one we always go to on New Year's Day. I love to see what everyone else is doing around town.

What do you when you're not working?
If I'm not chilling with my wife, I'm really into old vehicles. My daily ride is a '66 F100, and I also have a '76 Harley Davidson. Old cars and motorcycles are my hobbies outside of my work hobbies. I obviously love food and drinking and hanging out.

Do you always wear flair? Where do you get some of your pins?
Yes, I definitely like to wear flair. I have one pin from Kimball House, obviously. The 'Whiskey for Drinking' pin is the slogan for a great bar in Chicago called Longman & Eagle. I got the 'I Love Bitters' pin from Tales of the Cocktail. I have a Southern Foodways Alliance one from an event I worked on with Greg Best. And I have some biker stuff. My 'Fossil and Hide' pin is from a jewelry company Jenny Watts (a bartender at Leon's) and Jesse [Smith]'s wife Karen own. They do cool stuff like leather and bones.
Laura Scholz
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LEON's Full Service

131 East Ponce de Leon Avenue, , GA 30030 (404) 687-0500 Visit Website

Kimball House

303 East Howard Avenue, , GA 30030 (404) 378-3502 Visit Website

Holeman and Finch Public House

2277 Peachtree Road Northwest, , GA 30309 (404) 948-1175 Visit Website

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