By Clair McLafferty
If national publications are to be believed, Birmingham’s cultural and food scenes are casting a spell on the entire country. Over the past couple years, different outlets have cranked out story after story about Birmingham’s food revival and its status as a hidden – and affordable – gem.
These pieces often overlook the rich drinks scene or mention it in a footnote. Like most smaller cities, Birmingham tends to lag a couple years behind the cutting edge of cocktail trends. Though this can be frustrating, it also means we get to skip some of the potentially dangerous trends, like homemade tobacco bitters or activated-charcoal tipples.
In our defense, the scene has faced some significant challenges in getting things started: Alabama is a control state, so bringing new products requires much time and effort. I’d love to say the situation might change, and a grassroots push from brewers did shift the state’s regulations on beer sales. But Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) is in the odd spot of being the only revenue-positive government agency in Alabama.
And thanks to Alabama’s not-so-progressive reputation, it’s nigh impossible to recruit bartending talent from other, larger cities. Birmingham’s cost of living is sexy as hell, but it’s also a small market with few opportunities for national exposure. So, all the bar managers I know are working to train new bartenders, but it’s not happening fast enough to keep pace with the demand created by new restaurants and bars.
That imbalance is part of what makes the scene so cool: It’s based on a loose recipe of roughly three parts self-education and one part knowledge brought back from time spent elsewhere. The craft bartenders here tend to be pretty nerdy and well-versed enough to keep up with the city’s demands and give their guests thorough, accessible education on unfamiliar products, spirits, and drinks.
Birmingham is the first place I ever had a craft cocktail. Back in the spring of 2011, I interviewed a local bartender who made me a cocktail based on my then-favorite drink: the gin and tonic. In hindsight, it was super simple — a gimlet made with fresh herbal syrup — but it was special, and even more than that, it made me feel special because my bartender took the time to match the cocktail with my preferences.
The experience was magical, and it’s one that I’ve tried to replicate for people during my time behind the bar. But more than that, it’s typical to Birmingham. Since it’s a smaller market (and, as I like to quip, the biggest small town on Earth), the bartenders often are free to take time with and get to know regulars. The community of bartenders in the city is fairly tight, and shares knowledge and opportunities.
Thanks partially to this openness among bartenders and customers alike, we have standalone cocktail bars as well as bars that bring together a daytime restaurant concept and a bar crowd after peak hours.
We have a mid-century modern watering hole complete with a costume closet (The Atomic), a whimsical cocktail bar decorated with giant paper airplanes (The Collins), and a speakeasy-style bar you enter through a telephone booth in a hot dog shop (The Marble Ring, where I work). There is a gorgeous bar at the center of Pizitz Food Hall for all your midday cocktailing needs (The Louis) and a “barcade” with plenty of video games to keep the whole family entertained (Paramount). That’s not even to mention the wealth of fine dining restaurants with standout bartenders (Google it).
That probably doesn’t seem like much to those of y’all who live in Atlanta, Nashville, New Orleans, or a big Northern city, but with only 200,000 people in the city (1.1 million with the suburbs included), Birmingham is off to a good start. We know we lack a tiki bar, but a couple of bars in town do Tiki Tuesdays or other, themed pop-ups.
The city’s size does come with some predictable problems: Many brands don’t schedule educational seminars that are old hat in other cities. Ideas for competitions that could potentially bring us together and sharpen our skills on each other don’t always get off the ground.
But the service is impeccable. If there’s one thing we know how to do, it’s how to invite people in with food and drink and keep them happy. It doesn’t hurt that the food and drinks are delicious.