Jacksonville’s craft cocktail scene has arrived, and here’s the proof


Although a respected title in the industry, to the outsider bartending has often been considered an in-between gig. Just something to pay the bills after college until you can find a real job. For the true professional, however, bartending isn’t just a profession; it’s a way of life.

“Bartending is a part of me,” says Ford Roberts, general manager and bartender at Grape & Grain Exchange in San Marco. “I feel like I’m allowed to be who I am through this medium. Through making cocktails.”

Luckily for the passionate mixologist, some stereotypes are changing. The United States Bartenders’ Guild, an organization of professional bartenders that’s been around for over 50 years, has seen a huge spike in membership in recent years, and new local chapters are opening up in cities large and small. The group was established to connect bartenders and others in the industry, and to encourage camaraderie, as well as healthy competition, among bartenders across the country. Jacksonville’s recent explosion of cocktail bars — Grape & Grain, Volstead, Sidecar — convinced local bartenders it was finally time to join the ranks of the mixology elite.

“It's amazing how far the scene has come since we opened Downtown five years ago,” says Jay Albertelli, owner of Dos Gatos, a premier downtown cocktail lounge. “I think what excites me the most is that I can now go to so many more places around town and find a bartender who is not only competent, but passionate, and that's the key. You can even get great cocktails in Jax Beach now.”

Jacksonville chapter president Kurt Rogers, co-owner of Sidecar in San Marco, and vice president Alex Smith, spirits director at Restaurant Orsay, collected signatures and donations to become part of the prestigious guild. “If you don’t have USBG, you don’t count,” Roberts says. “This is definitely going to put us on the map.” Despite being in a relatively small market, local bartenders have been able to come together to build a strong network of cocktail enthusiasts in the bourgeoning spirits scene.

“It’s not about our place,” says Roberts, “It’s about Jacksonville. If you’re not helping each other, you’re not going to progress. You’re not going to grow.”

To celebrate the official launch of the local USBG chapter, the group will be screening the documentary Hey Bartender at the San Marco Theatre August 11 and has invited award-winning mixologist Charlotte Voisey, who appears in the film, to answer questions and interact with local bartenders and craft-cocktail connoisseurs.

“Charlotte is an expert in the spirits industry and has a true dedication towards educating others about the craft,” Smith says. “Giving local bartenders a chance to meet with her is a great opportunity. She has reached a level in our industry that many of us hope to achieve some day.”

After the screening the party will move next door to Grape & Grain, where bartenders from Gainesville’s 2nd Street Speakeasy, Dos Gatos, Ice Plant, MOJO’s, Orsay and Sidecar will be on hand, answering questions and making cocktails, both the classics and originals.

“I’m excited to get the best bartenders in Jacksonville in one room, doing what they love,” says Smith. “It’ll be a celebration of the future of the Jacksonville craft cocktail movement. A unique opportunity for attendees to see that Jacksonville has some great bartenders, crafting world-class cocktails.”

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