After 23 years in business, South City Kitchen knows a thing or two about Southern hospitality (and whiskey). The Atlanta restaurant staple recently opened a third location in the heart of Buckhead's financial district in hopes of rekindling the city's romance with the concept and its revamped beverage program. Eater sat down with Fifth Group Restaurants beverage director and sommelier Vajra Stratigos to talk whiskey, wine, and cocktails and their place in the wildly diverse Buckhead drinking market.
At any given time, South City Kitchen Buckhead could be filled with affluent Black Card carriers, power-lunchers brokering deals, rosé-sipping soccer moms, and international business travelers staying at one of the sky-scraping hotels in the neighborhood. Serving that clientele could be tall order for a concept built on casual, Southern cuisine and whiskey. Stratigos and his team realized the challenge the minute the build-out began last year at 3350 Peachtree Rd. And while Fifth Group's philosophy is to strike a balance between consistency and forward-thinking, which has helped to keep South City a staple on the Atlanta restaurant scene, he says in a world full of superstar bartenders and 19-ingredient cocktails, being reliable and a "safe bet" doesn't mean they don't strive to be the best at what they do.
"[Fifth Group Mexican concept] Alma was one of the first bars in the Southeast to partner with Herradura and their double-barrel program," Stratigos said. "We're now on our 20th barrel. When we opened Lure, we were one of the first in the city to do carbonated bottles and a punch program. South City Kitchen is the most straightforward brand we have: Southern inspired dishes, brown spirits. But with Buckhead, we have the added international element."
This was the challenge. How to create a menu that catered to both the discerning palate of the whiskey or wine enthusiast and those simply seeking Bulleit on the rocks or Tito's and soda with a twist of lime.
"The guest experience is the number one priority at all of Fifth Group's restaurants but none more so than at South City Kitchen," Stratigos said. "The concept was built on Southern hospitality. We took that to heart in Buckhead because of its diverse set of drinkers."
The Buckhead restaurant's beverage menu contains more than 120 wines, both domestic and hard-to-find back-vintages from what Stratigos is calling "South City Cellars." Beer includes selections from a dozen or so Southern and Georgia breweries such as Creature Comforts, Second Self, and Wild Heaven. As for whiskey and cocktails, Stratigos has assembled a healthy roster of big-distillery, craft, and small-batch whiskies for sipping neat or on the rocks. Cocktails pay tribute to the South's love of brown spirits with concoctions like the beertail Ole Hobbs McGraw, with Larceny bourbon, peach, grapefruit bitters, and Terrapin's Sound Czech. Smoke and Mirrors is a Manhattan-esque drink with Charleston's Virgil Kane Robber Baron Rye, spiced-cherry syrup, and smoked cherries. The cocktail program aims to be neither geeky nor simple, but an unpretentious and thoughtfully developed set of approachable drinks.
Stratigos's real pride and joy is the barrel program he's developed, which has also been worked into Buckhead's bar design. Hanging over the bar are three Prohibition-era barrels full of special select whiskies, tapped and ready for pouring.
"We wanted to bring something fresh to the concept yet still honor the traditions of whiskey in the South," Stratigos said. "We've been involved with several distilleries over the years doing barrel programs and hand selections. But how can we build upon that?"
He called in a few favors from his friends in the winemaking and whiskey business he had worked with over the years with Fifth Group.
"We had these three Prohibition-era barrels put up as a design element to let guests know there's a serious whiskey situation going on here," Stratigos said. "But it goes beyond that. We had the winemakers ship barrels to chosen distilleries, like High West. The distilleries filled those barrels with whiskey. But instead of letting it age as usual, we would periodically taste samples from the barrels as the whiskey was aging until it hit the perfect notes we were after. The whiskey was then bottled and the barrels sealed to prevent further aging. Those whiskies now sit back in those same barrels."
One barrel marries Stratigos' sommelier prowess with the restaurant's whiskey-centric theme. The result: a High West Double Rye rested in a Stuhlmuller zinfandel barrel, which gives the spirit a grape quality further enhanced by plucking a much younger version of the rye from the barrel before it's fully aged. The fresh, green notes and lighter mouthfeel allow it to easily pick up the barrel's grape notes. It drinks like a finished cocktail. Another barrel ties in with South City Kitchen's cocktail program.
"This third barrel will always be a finished, seasonal whiskey cocktail," Stratigos said. "This summer we're doing the bourbon classic mint julep with Old Forester 1870 and Boomsma cloosterbitter."
The barrels serve one more purpose. They allow the Buckhead location to host barrel-release parties and tastings to promote the latest selections and newly released seasonal cocktails. Stratigos said South City Buckhead's barrel and cocktail programs are both part of Fifth Group's forward-thinking strategy. The group plans to roll out the new programs at its Midtown and Vinings locations over the next three months, tweaking each location's menu to fit the vibe of their respective neighborhoods.
"What we're trying to do is bring Southern comfort into Buckhead through the whiskey we carry and cocktails we create," Stratigos said. "The new barrel program, especially the third barrel being a whiskey cocktail, is part of giving guests at all of our South City Kitchen locations some of that good old Southern hospitality."