Was it really only 15 years ago that martinis were a novelty? It seems like another time entirely, that pre-Swingers era, those days when the only mixed drinks that could be found on most menus were screwdrivers and daiquiris.
Suddenly, just as coffee shops had begun popping up everywhere a few years earlier, there were now martini bars in every city in the country. It seemed more essential to own martini glasses than wine glasses (even if you ended up mostly using them for serving sorbet or chocolate mousse). And soon every chain restaurant in the country had their own "martini" lists—neon green appletinis and sticky pink sugar-rimmed cosmopolitans.
It's easy now to make fun of the surfeit of nouveau girlie confections, but if it weren't for the martini craze, cocktail culture might not have had the same resurgence. That initial flush of nostalgia for retro drinks has led to a real revolution in the way Americans drink. There's been an explosion in the boutique liquor market, and people talk about the "art of the cocktail" without irony.
Of course, Knoxville is a college town, one where most of the bars cater to youthful palates and small budgets. This isn't to say that the bartenders themselves don't have skills, just that they don't often get to use them.
If you go to any larger city these days, you'll find a plethora of restaurants and bars with specialty cocktail lists that make the educated drinker's mouth water. There are classic cocktails, and classic cocktails with a twist. There are a lot of fresh, local, seasonal ingredients. The flavors are delicately balanced, just as a chef might do.
This is mixology. And, thankfully, it's finally starting to show up around Knoxville. The city may have a long way to go to catch up with Nashville or Memphis—even Chattanooga has a bourbon bar now. But if the four people we profile here have anything to say about it, Knoxville will soon be on its way.
JESSE RATLIFF, BLACKBERRY FARM
Jesse Ratliff is the only person we know of in the vicinity who officially has the title of "mixologist." And when you sit and talk to him as he mixes drinks behind the bar at Blackberry Farm's luxurious restaurant, The Barn, you can see that he takes his title seriously, employing a combination of science and culinary training to his quest of making a perfect cocktail, each and every time.
Ratliff says he started taking cocktails seriously only over the past few years, although he worked in bars in college. He's been at Blackberry Farm for 14 months, following a stint managing the wine and spirits program at RT Lodge in Maryville. He says he has taken what he learned while working in the kitchen at Town House in Chilhowie, Va., under chef John B. Shields and has applied it to the bar, pairing local and seasonal ingredients to create the perfect combination of flavors.
"I'm inspired by everything—the moment, the mood," Ratliff says.
Ratliff likes to talk about creating a cocktail that is perfect for its time, even if that means it's only on the menu for two weeks because that's as long as the sour cherries are ripe. He mixes a brilliantly purple Spiced Pear Mule, his rendition of the classic Moscow Mule for early fall, with spiced pear vodka, house-made grape jelly, and a pungent ginger beer, with a cinnamon stick stirrer.
"To me it says fall. It feels like that," he says.
Then there's the Kentucky Afternoon, a lemony mint julep served up. It tastes nothing like a whiskey sour or a julep. It tastes not like an afternoon, but like heaven.
Ratliff is precise to the point of using different size ice cubes and different shakes for different drinks. Andrew Noye, the beverage manager at Blackberry, says the resort's well-traveled guests are almost shocked they can find cocktails like Ratliff's outside of major metropolitan areas. Yet he is mostly self-taught—a point that Ratliff says gives him hope when it comes to the Knoxville scene.
"I think this town is screaming for that authenticity," Ratliff says. He hopes next to organize a local chapter of the United States Bartending Guild, which is a national network of mixologists.
"Knoxville just needs to build that critical mass, and I think—I hope—we're at that point."
Ratliff says, "We often try to put a spin on a well-known cocktail with our own regional flavors, and the Pisco Sour is a perfect drink for the first days of fall. The aromatic qualities of the Pisco complement the sour, sweet, pure grape flavor of the muscadine." He notes that you can omit the egg white if it freaks you out, "but it adds a luxurious foam and silky texture to the drink." Ratliff gently swirls the dash of bitters into the foam to create a latte-like effect.
2 oz. pisco
3/4 oz. fresh lime juice
3/4 oz. muscadine syrup (see below)
1 egg white
Fresh grated nutmeg
Add the brandy, lime juice, egg white, and syrup to a shaker and shake hard, without ice, for a few seconds. Add ice and shake again for upwards of 30 seconds to chill and aerate the foam further. Strain into chilled wine glass and top with fresh nutmeg and a few drops of Angostura.
1 qt. muscadines
Simple syrup to taste (2 parts sugar, 1 part water)
Run the muscadines through a food mill or press through chinois to release the juice. Add enough simple syrup to sweeten but not overpower, about two parts juice to one part syrup. Stir to combine. Store refrigerated for up to a week.
CASSI MORRISON, CHEZ LIBERTY
Cassi Morrison barely looks 21—she's 24, as it turns out—but she's been managing the bar at Chez Liberty for about a year now. The Bearden restaurant has become known in local dining circles for having possibly the most extensive wine and Scotch list in town; Morrison wants to make sure it becomes known for its cocktails, too.
Chez Liberty's cocktail list is a mix of the classic—French 75, Dark and Stormy—and the creatively named, like the Black Pearl, a twist on a cosmopolitan that uses Inniskillin Riesling instead of vodka. Morrison says she likes to put her own spin on classic cocktails, often using house-infused liquors, like in her Deconstructed Piña Colada or her Mint Gin Mojito, which has just a dash of lavender syrup—a perfect late-summer quencher.
Chef Robert De Binder says Morrison has one of the best palates he's seen, but she admits she's still developing and refining it, learning new things about new spirits all the time. She says she knew nothing about cocktails before she started at Chez Liberty.
"The only thing I ever made before here was hunch punch," she jokes.
But now Morrison spends two or three days perfecting each new recipe for a seasonal list she rewrites every two months. Soon gone will be the Cucumber Melon, a mix of cucumber-lime vodka and cranberry juice that tastes like liquid watermelon, replaced with a tobacco-infused rum and Coke, or a hot toddy with pumpkin simple syrup.
She says the restaurant's semi-weekly tastings of wines and spirits have helped introduce customers to less familiar items, like ice wines and Amaro. But she's convinced even the most conservative drinkers can be won over to the world of mixology—Morrison also makes her own tonic water, which makes even a boring vodka tonic a completely new experience.
WHITE WHISKEY OLD FASHIONED
Morrison calls this moonshine drink "a new take on a classic cocktail." She prefers Smooth Ambler White Whiskey, but a similar unaged corn or rye whiskey can also be used. She says the Fee Brothers bitters really add that special something, but Angostura bitters will work in a pinch.
2 oz. unaged white whiskey
1 oz. simple syrup (equal parts sugar and water)
Slice of an orange
Luxardo Maraschino cherry
Fee Brothers Whiskey Barrel-Aged bitters
Muddle the orange and cherry in a glass. Add the white whiskey and simple syrup. Next, shake with ice, then pour into glass and top with a splash of soda and a few dashes of bitters.
LAURA SOHN, THE PUBLIC HOUSE
Laura Sohn was introduced to cocktail culture when she moved to a dry county.
Her first job out of college was at Appalshop, the arts and culture nonprofit in Whitesburg, Ky. At the time, the closest legal liquor was at least one county away. Lacking a local bar to hang out in, staff members had devised their own private drinking routines. "They made lovely cocktails," Sohn says. "That's when I started learning."
Whenever she or her coworkers traveled, they would try to pick up interesting liquors or drink recipes and bring them back. "We'd often just end up experimenting," Sohn says. "A lot of times it was terrible, but sometimes we'd stumble onto delicious concoctions. And then forget it the next day."
As co-owner of the Public House on West Magnolia and manager of its menu, Sohn is bringing some of that same adventurousness to the Knoxville bar scene, along with an appreciation of cocktail history. The tavern's list of signature drinks includes Jazz Age classics like the Bee's Knees (gin, honey syrup and lemon juice) and Blood and Sand (Scotch, orange juice, cherry brandy, sweet vermouth). "People have been pretty open to trying some of the new things we have," Sohn says. "It's not a simple cocktail list, but it's accessible."
Her own tastes run to the "less sweet, verging on the bitter"—for example, the Negroni, with its complex balance of Campari, gin, and vermouth. That's on the Public House's "Classic Cocktails" list, alongside gimlets, Manhattans, and martinis.
Sohn has also been hosting tastings to introduce patrons to lesser-known drinks. A recent Chartreuse night featured both the green and yellow varieties of the mysterious French liqueur (made by monks from a secret recipe), and cocktails made with it. Sohn uses Chartreuse in one of the Public House's stand-out offerings, the Last Word.
She aims to update her cocktail list seasonally, and this year will bring back mulled wine around the holidays, which was a big hit last winter. Sohn allows that her own experimentation has slowed down a little with all her other responsibilities, but the menu does include a few of her inventions. She also admits that as she's become more attuned to the qualities of different alcohols, she increasingly prefers pared-down drinks. "The next step is just a glass of bourbon or a Campari," she says.
Sohn created this bourbon-based cocktail, which the Public House menu calls "a grown-up whiskey sour." It's named for the outlaw who once escaped from a Knoxville jail. For the lavender syrup, Sohn recommends buying lavender buds from the Three Rivers Market (or picking them yourself, if you happen to grow lavender), and cooking them with sugar and water. Sohn uses Buffalo Trace bourbon.
2 1/2 oz. bourbon
1 oz. lavender syrup
3/4 oz. lemon juice
Shake over ice, and strain into a glass. Serve neat.
AMIE SNYDER, SAPPHIRE
Scan through Sapphire's extensive drinks list, and you might think Amie Snyder has a sweet tooth. There's the White Courtesy Phone, with its White Godiva Chocolate liqueur, vanilla vodka, and Monin caramel syrup (plus Bacardi 151 for kick); the Downtown Cougar, which matches Skyy pear vodka with white grape juice and sparkling wine; and the Almond Joy, with vodka, rum, hazelnut syrup, cream, and a coconut chocolate rim.
But left to her own devices, Snyder—one of Sapphire's managers and Metro Pulse readers' favorite bartender, according to this year's Best of Knoxville poll—has much simpler tastes. "Jack Daniel's on the rocks, Ketel One on the rocks," she says. "Or a dirty martini."
Still, she knows what sells at the stylish Gay Street gin mill, which has built its reputation on martinis (and/or other drinks that come in martini glasses). She offers an impressive list of classic cocktails, from the Hemingway Daiquiri (made with grapefruit juice, not strawberry mush) to a Pimms Cup and Sazerac. And then there are her own creations, which she says have mostly come from just experimenting. "This is like a bartender's playground," Snyder says, gesturing at Sapphire's long, well-stocked bar. "It has everything."
Snyder has been tending bar since she was 18, but she says it wasn't until she landed at Sapphire that she started to think beyond the usual routine of Jack-and-Cokes and G&Ts. "I've basically taught myself," she says. "I studied a bunch of books when I first started here." She says her patrons are open to trying new things, but a lot of them are still learning. "I think it's getting there," she says. "A lot of people don't know what bitters is, people don't know what Campari is."
But they do know what looks good. Snyder's drinks are designed for visual effect as well as flavor. That includes the Family Circus (recipe below), with its pink hue and marshmallow rim dipped in candy sprinkles. When she serves one, she says, she often gets orders for two or three more. "We sell a ton of these," she says—and not just to women, however "girly" the drink might sound.
Of course, if a guy really wants to impress a date, Sapphire also offers the priciest drink in town: the $350 Sapphire Martini, which is the vodka or gin of your choice garnished with a 2.25 carat natural blue sapphire. Do they actually sell in this economy? "You'd be surprised," Snyder says. "I've sold out of sapphires before."
If you've ever wondered what whipped-cream flavored vodka tastes like, here's your chance.
2 oz. Pinnacle Whipped Vodka
1/2 oz. banana schnapps
1/2 oz. strawberry syrup
Splash of pineapple juice
Splash of Sprite
Rim a martini glass with Fluff, then dip in sprinkles to coat it. Combine liquids, shake over ice, and strain into glass.