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The muffled sounds of a college town can still be heard at the bar of The Branded Butcher, which sits adjacent to the historic Georgia Theatre in downtown Athens, Georgia. The sophisticated space pays homage to the nostalgia of days gone by, and the chefs pride themselves on their modern take on classic recipes using only the highest quality ingredients. Farm to table dining never looked so effortless.
Head Bartender Harrison James greets customers as he crafts cocktails from behind the bar, listening to the working man's woes. But this mixologist has a thing or two to share himself: I sat down with Harrison James to discuss his take on the classic cocktail.
What makes a good cocktail?
HJ: A good cocktail is first and foremost balanced. That being said, personal preference dictates largely how that balance is achieved. A cocktail, like any good dish, is a whole greater than the sum of its parts. That's not to say that a quality scotch neat is less than a Rob Roy--for a well-balanced scotch can be the stuff of legend--but again it's about personal preference and balance. Quality ingredients are important: fresh fruit juice, spice, and fresh cut garnishes.Thanks to the resurgence of cocktail culture and craft manufacturing, quality products are more readily discovered with a little searching.
What do you look for when selecting a bourbon?
HJ: Again, balance is key. I tend to personally enjoy rich toasted honeycomb and spice flavors like coriander with a little orange peel; subtle vanilla notes delight the senses in any good bourbon. One of my favorites is the Elijah Craig 23 Year.
What is your favorite Butcher's cocktail featuring bourbon?
HJ: The "Ric's Flair II." It's muddled orange and lemon slices in Demerara syrup, Four Roses Yellow Label bourbon, both Angostura and Rhubarb bitters, and a touch of mint. I sometimes tell customers that it drinks similar to a 1950s era Old-Fashioned, since they both contain fruit muddled together and shaken. The orange and lemon provide a mellow citrus component, the bourbon a structured oaky base, and the mint supplies a touch of levity to lighten the final drink. And by the way, it's called the Ric's Flair II because Ric Flair, the wrestler, used to "woo" and it became his calling card. We enjoyed this drink so much when we first made it, it made us want to "woo" like Ric Flair, and the name stuck.
Do you have a signature drink?
HJ: When people ask for something different I usually ask them a few questions about flavors they enjoy and ones they dislike, and try to narrow down some ideas. For example, the other day a customer was looking for a more dessert-y cocktail to finish off their meal so I made a rye whiskey, amaretto, egg white, and cream cocktail based on what he told me he enjoys. It was structurally a take on a Ramos Gin Fizz with a change of cast.
What advice do you have for someone just venturing into the world of cocktails and spirits?
HJ: First, find a quality, knowledgeable bartender that will allow you to pick their brain and can suggest good cocktail ideas based on your preferences. If you're looking to craft cocktails at home, take a recipe you know and change a little here and there until you find a new thing you like--all while keeping in mind the need for balance. There are many great books that are helpful to a beginner, as well as someone more advanced. One of my favorites is Death & Co: Modern Classic Cocktails, named for the world-renowned Manhattan cocktail bar and written by its owner and bartenders.
Nothing says southern elegance like the right bourbon whiskey, so trust the professional, and choose your spirits with care. For more information about The Branded Butcher, visit www.thebrandedbutcher.com.