THE RISE OF NORTHEAST FLORIDA’S COCKTAIL CULTURE

Let’s begin by stating what is, to anyone who’s set foot in a bar in, oh, the last two years or so, an obvious fact: Whiskey, especially craft whiskey, especially craft American whiskey — your bourbons, your ryes — is having a moment, in the same way that craft beer had (and is still having) a moment, starting in the early part of the last decade, when everything about the way we drank beer began to change. No longer was a cold Bud or Miller Lite sufficient; we wanted double IPAs and high-gravity barleywines, beers produced not for mass audiences but for the judicious and sophisticated palate.

And so it went with whiskey. (Between 2003 and 2013, the number of craft distilleries in the United States rose by nearly 600 percent.) A shot of gut-rot chased with PBR? No thanks. We want a High West Double Rye, neat, or perhaps a Hudson Baby Bourbon Manhattan. We follow blogs dedicated to bourbon reviews. We line up around the block at the mere rumor of a Pappy Van Winkle release. We argue with our friends about barrel-aging techniques. We’re weirdly obsessive about the stuff that not so long ago we drank only to get ’faced.

Quantity — consuming as much as you can as cheaply as you can — is out. Quality is in. Give us the good shit, and give it to us straight.

This emergent whiskey obsession is, of course, a descendant of the foodie movement, which also gave rise to craft beer. It’s all fruit of the same tree: Pay attention to what you’re putting into your body. Respect craftsmanship. Eschew commoditization.

You see signs of this obsession all over town, but I’ll single out two places in particular: Mojo No. 4 in Avondale, which bills itself (quite deservedly) as an “Urban BBQ Whiskey Bar,” and Blind Rabbit — A Burger & Whiskey Bar in Riverside, both boasting some of the finest whiskey collections around. (Blind Rabbit offers reasonably priced whiskey flights; if you’re new to the craft whiskey world, this is as good a place as any to go to school.)

Whiskey’s moment has gone hand-in-hand with the craft cocktail’s moment, which has filtered down from neo-speakeasies in New York City to Portland and Chicago and Philadelphia and elsewhere, eventually settling in Jacksonville in November 2012 with the opening of the Grape & Grain Exchange in San Marco. (Or, depending on how you want to define the term “craft cocktail bar,” with the opening of Dos Gatos in Downtown in 2009, or even the opening in 2008 of Restaurant Orsay.) In the last couple years, Northeast Florida’s craft-cocktail space has become evermore congested: The Ice Plant Bar in St. Augustine, The Volstead and the recently opened Candy Apple Café in Downtown, The Shim-Sham Room in Jax Beach, Sidecar in San Marco, just to name a few — and more are on the way. (The scene is now officially legit, too: In September, the U.S. Bartenders’ Guild certified a Jacksonville chapter, the fifth in the state; it has 70 dues-paying members.)

And in the cocktail’s moment, no drink has fared better than the Old Fashioned.

The Old Fashioned is, at its core, a simple drink — spirit, sugar, bitters, ice — and in fact is considered the first cocktail, dating back to 1806. By the dawn of the 21st century, however, it was little more than your grandfather’s drink, an anachronism crowded out by tequila shots and cotton-candy-flavored vodkas.

Then came the whiskey revolution. As cocktail culture grew and the mixologists — people who treated drink-making not as a job, but as a craft — it birthed came into their own (and as Don Draper reintroduced his cocktail of choice to Mad Men’s audience), the Old Fashioned became a pop culture phenomenon.

“When we say it is our most popular drink,” Matthew Carson, managing partner of Sidecar, told me recently, “I really wonder what No. 2 is.”

It is this phenomenon — these two phenomena, actually: the rise of the Old Fashioned and, more generally, of cocktail culture in Northeast Florida — that I set out to explore. (And, yes, in the process, do some company-sponsored drinking. This gig does have the occasional perk.)

Over the past few weeks, I visited five bars that are driving Northeast Florida’s craft cocktail scene — Sidecar, The Volstead, The Ice Plant Bar, Grape & Grain and Dos Gatos — drinking Old Fashioneds along the way and chatting up owners and managers at each, both about their takes on my drink of choice and on the ongoing evolution of the area’s cocktail culture.

We’ll begin where I did, at the youngest bar of the bunch.

SIDECAR
1406 Hendricks Ave., San Marco
527-8990, drinksidecar.com

Matthew Carson and Kurt Rogers, Carson’s partner and bar manager (and the president of the local USBG chapter), had both been in the Jacksonville bar game for years, had both grown up in it. Carson had slung booze at dives around town. Rogers had helped start the cocktail program at Orsay and then at Black Sheep.

Around 2010, Carson moved to Washington, D.C., where the craft cocktail scene was in full bloom. He managed two bars there, one a speakeasy. When he moved back and started working with his friend Kurt at Black Sheep, they began kicking around ideas for a bar of their own — in Rogers’ words, they wanted “to elevate the neighborhood bar.”

Sidecar, which opened May 29, is very much a neighborhood bar. There are few accouterments. A bar, some tables, a homey outdoor patio. They make a point, they tell me, to keep drink prices down. Six-dollar classics at happy hour — Old Fashioneds, Sazeracs, Manhattans, Vespers. Even the super-top-shelf stuff — the lonely bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue that’s been sitting on the shelf since they opened, the occasional Van Winkle that comes in — is priced to move, or at least well below what you’d see at a hotel bar. Admission to their New Year’s Eve party is free.

It’s that kind of place. Just a bar with good beer on tap, a good booze selection, and a staff with a knack for making good, affordable drinks.

Their next venture, however, will have something of a theme. In January, the two plan to open a rum-forward “urban tiki” bar in Jax Beach called Flask & Cannon. “It’s not gonna be kitschy,” Rogers assures.

The Old Fashioned: There are two schools of thought on the Old Fashioned. The first is the purists. (We’ll discuss the second later.) These are the people who look to the pre-Prohibition era when crafting their cocktail. Kurt Rogers is among them: “Simplicity at its best. Four ingredients. Anybody can do it at their house.”

Four ingredients: Michter’s Rye, turbinado simple syrup, orange and Angostura bitters, ice, as well as an orange peel and cherry for garnish. Rogers says he chose Michter’s because it’s “spicy. It stands up well to the sugars and bitters.”

THE VOLSTEAD
115 W. Adams St., Downtown
414-3171, thevolsteadjax.com

When The Volstead opened at the end of 2013 — it had been in the works for several years before that, but renovating the building and securing all the right permits and licenses proved unexpectedly difficult — they would tell people that they “majored in whiskey, minored in gin.” Only they found out that not many people really cared about gin. They wanted whiskey. And, yes, The Volstead has whiskey.

The Volstead also has history. Housed in a renovated historic building, its aesthetic is an elegant love letter to the pre-Prohibition era, “the height of classic cocktails,” as bar manager Alexa DiMaio puts it. “We love classic cocktails. We love history.” (The bar, of course, is named for the congressman who sponsored the National Prohibition Act of 1919.) It’s a sort of neo-speakeasy — you don’t need a password to get in, but there aren’t signs out front, and they don’t do much advertising. You have to know where it is to find it.

DiMaio frames The Volstead’s ambitions as being bigger than the bar itself: “We’re trying to inspire another age of progress for Jacksonville.” That is to say, the success of The Volstead is inexorably linked to the success of Downtown — this kind of bar has the best chance of long-term viability in a thriving, sophisticated urban market, and this kind of bar will help make that market a reality.

The Old Fashioned: Remember the two schools of thought? Ironically, perhaps, The Volstead doesn’t really fall into the purist camp — they muddle fruit. To explain: After the 13 years of Prohibition, bartenders forgot how to make the classic Old Fashioned. They began to augment the traditional ingredients with cherries and oranges mashed in the bottom of the glass and mixed with the sugar and bitters, making the drink considerably sweeter — and, purists would say, papering over any deficiencies in the spirit.

The Volstead chose to adopt this recipe because “it’s more approachable,” DiMaio says. (For the first two weeks they were open, The Volstead also added club soda to their Old Fashioned, but stopped after customers reacted negatively.) Rounding out the drink are Michter’s Bourbon, simple syrup, Luxardo cherries and oranges, and Angostura bitters.

And it is approachable, in that it’s sweet but not sickly sweet, and the sweetness is balanced by a really nice, complex bourbon, resulting in an exceedingly quaffable beverage.

THE ICE PLANT BAR
110 Riberia St., St. Augustine
829-6553, iceplantbar.com

You can’t talk about The Ice Plant Bar without talking about the ice. The Wednesday afternoon I visited, bar manager Zachary Lynch was out on the upstairs deck, with his chainsaw, cutting a 300-pound block while bartenders from other cocktail bars looked on. The ice program is their calling card — their cocktail menu shows the shape of ice that comes with each drink (cube, sphere, crushed). Downstairs, there are two tubs in which purified water is being frozen into these 300-pound blocks, which will then be sliced into manageable chunks with the chainsaw.

Like at The Volstead, there’s a premium on history here. The building itself — an early 20th-century ice plant — was intrinsic to the experience they wanted to provide. “Ice,” co-owner Ryan Dettra told me, “had an important part in cocktail culture.”

Dettra first pitched the idea of a distillery — the St. Augustine Distillery adjoins the bar — four years ago. It took years to get the building in order. But it didn’t take long after it opened, in September 2013, for the crowds to come in. Part of it’s the food. Part of it’s the atmosphere — the ice and the old-timey outfits and all that. And part of it’s the drinks.

“A lot of people who haven’t had the opportunity to have fresh ingredients are just blown away,” says co-owner Patricia McLemore. The bar hired one person to come in, 9 to 5, to do nothing but juice fruits.

“At the end of the day, it’s all about the quality of the cocktails,” Dettra says.

The Old Fashioned: The Ice Plant falls decidedly into the purist camp. Old Forester Bourbon — which Lynch swears by, and says he could pick out blindfolded — a tiny bit of sugar, bitters, a pretty big chunk of ice, orange peel and cherry garnish. Here again, the whiskey does the talking; Old Forester has subtle notes of caramel, vanilla and honey, which all contrast nicely with the bitters and the acidity of the orange peel.

GRAPE & GRAIN EXCHANGE
2000 San Marco Blvd., San Marco
396-4455, grapeandgrainexchange.com

For a guy who sells a whole lot of whiskey — 40 to 50 percent of the Grape & Grain’s business — general manager (and USBG chapter vice president) Ford Roberts doesn’t sound terribly enthusiastic about its popularity. “People think it’s a club people need to be a part of.” His drink is mescal. “It’s not generic. It doesn’t taste like charcoal. It doesn’t taste like corn.”

We’re sitting in The Parlour, the bar’s speakeasy-style back room, separated from the front bar/package store by a faux bookcase. “We’re really blessed to be in the middle of a trendy concept,” says owner Bob Smith. “In the ’80s, everything became big and corporate. In the late ’90s, [people] started going back to caring what goes in your body.”

Smith, a sommelier who’s spent his adult life in the restaurant biz, says the most important thing is education — educating people about spirits and cocktails, helping them expand their horizons. “People are pretty open-minded,” he says. “They know we make a good drink.”

Roberts, meanwhile, is hyped about what the USBG certification means for the local bar scene. There may come a point when the competition becomes necessarily cutthroat. But that’s not really the case now. Now, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander — the better the cocktail culture, the better the cocktail business.

“We’re the family,” Roberts says. “As a chapter, we’re really strong on education, community and party.” He laughs. “And not being pretentious.”

The Old Fashioned: Roberts may not be terribly keen on whiskey, or at least our collective exuberance toward it, but he makes a good whiskey cocktail nonetheless. He, too, is an Old Fashioned purist — no muddled fruit, though he does muddle the orange peel with the bitters, to accent the citrus notes. (At least, I think that’s what he did.) The spirit is Riverboat Rye, a young, unfiltered whiskey, rich and spicy and fruity, with a slight bite. It’s a distinctive rye, to be sure, but I thought it worked well here, in tandem with the usual accompaniments.

DOS GATOS
123 E. Forsyth St., Downtown
354-0666, dosgatosjax.com

I’ll conclude with a visit to what Ford Roberts described as the OG of Jacksonville’s craft cocktail scene. Except that Dos Gatos doesn’t really market itself as a craft cocktail bar. Sure, they make cocktails, and sure, they think those cocktails are pretty good. But Jason Albertelli, who opened Dos Gatos at the end of 2009 (as well as The Shim-Sham Room in 2012, and a St. Augustine Dos Gatos earlier this week), thinks the craft cocktail hype is a little overdone.

“I own bars,” he says. “I don’t try to be craft this or craft that.” He wants Dos Gatos to be Downtown’s neighborhood bar, and he wants folks to know that, sure, they can order a fancy bourbon cocktail at his place, but they can also come in and slam a Jäger bomb without getting the side eye. “I’ve said for the last few years, there’s a backlash coming toward mixologists,” he told me. The word “comes with such a pretentious tone to it.”

At the same time: “Craft cocktails — what are you talking about here? Using the right ingredients? Not taking shortcuts? Thinking about what you’re making? The proper techniques?” His bartenders do all that, he says — call it craft if you want, or don’t. Doesn’t matter.

When he moved back from LA to open Dos Gatos, he says, Jacksonville was a Crown Royal town — not that there’s anything wrong with that, but his goal is to push people out of their comfort zones. And that’s the upshot of the cocktail boom: “What you see more than anything,” he says, “is people being more adventurous.”

The Old Fashioned: True to form, perhaps, Albertelli didn’t talk up his drink, other than to tell me what was in it: Bulleit Rye, cherry and Jerry Thomas bitters, sugar, ice, orange peel. He didn’t need to. The drink spoke for itself.

Besides, he told me, I, like the Crown Royal enthusiasts, need to move outside my comfort zone. Enough bourbons. Enough brown liquor. Try a barrel-aged tequila.

After a couple weeks of Old Fashioneds, that doesn’t sound like a bad plan.

About FOLIO

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