Words by Chuck Reece    •    Photography by John-Robert Ward


Back in August, we began a journey.
A long and drunken journey.


We resolved to challenge some our favorite bartenders to create a cocktail called The Bitter Southerner. We would collect their recipes and number them, in keeping with the grand and time-honored cocktail tradition.

Jerry Slater’s Bitter Southerner No. 1 began the series deliciously, and it remains on the menu at his H. Harper Station in Atlanta’s Reynoldstown neighborhood. Today, we bring you The Bitter Southerner No. 3.

Before we introduce you to Paul Calvert’s lovely new cocktail, let’s address the obvious question: Where is The Bitter Southerner No. 2?

Well, it’s out there. It exists. There are precisely two places in the world where you can have this drink right now: at BS headquarters and in the home of the barkeep who invented it. Circumstances have conspired to delay the debut of the No. 2, but who doesn’t love a good mystery?

Until we can set the No. 2 loose on the world, we counsel patience and regular but moderate consumption of The Bitter Southerner No. 3, whether you visit Mr. Calvert’s establishment to have the master himself mix one for you, or whether you stir up the No. 3 yourself.

Either way, you’ll be fine. We promise.




Bookmark and Share

Paul Calvert first surfaced as a bartender of note in Atlanta at Sound Table, an interesting joint in the Old Fourth Ward that begins every evening as a restaurant and ends every evening as a dance club, sort of. He moved on to Pura Vida in Poncey-Highland, where he arguably got more creative with tequilas, mezcals and rums than any bartender in town. (Seriously, if you want someone to blow you away with a mezcal cocktail, Calvert is your man.) When chef Hector Santiago shuttered Pura Vida at the end of 2012, Calvert opened his own spot, Paper Plane, a tiny joint in a Decatur back alley.

The Atlanta food press and the Yelpers immediately called out the speakeasy nature of Paper Plane’s hard-to-find location and worked to find variations on the “Don Draper would feel right at home here!” theme. As for me, I can’t say my visits to Paper Plane made me feel the need to buy skinny ties or cheat on my wife, but I can say there’s something brilliantly Southern in Calvert and crew’s take on the speakeasy. 

Maybe in San Francisco and New York, it’s OK to have precious little cocktail bars that require you to know the right person with the right phone number who’ll tell you the right password to get into the joint. In the North and West, it works to turn the honorable rite of consuming a well made drink into a velvet-rope extravaganza of snobbery.

But down here, it ain’t really a bar unless everyone’s welcome. That’s why the announcement that confronts patrons at the front and back doors of Paper Plane says simply, “Members and Non-Members Only.”



Calvert began his search for The Bitter Southerner No. 3 with that most classic of Southern cocktails, the Sazerac.

“I love a Sazerac. It’s probably my favorite drink,” he says. But Calvert knows the Sazerac poses a challenge to those who love it. Drink two of them, and you might as well bend over and kiss your ass goodbye.

“The problem with a Sazerac, especially the way I like to make it, with a healthy dose of absinthe and two ounces of bonded rye whiskey, is that it will get you drunk,” Calvert says. “I’m 35 years old, and I don’t recover from drunk as well as I used to. Although my profession is to be around booze, that doesn’t change the chemistry of my body. Some people can just go and go and go and go, but I’m not one of those people. I’m kind of a cheap date, actually, and always have been.”

The Bitter Southerner No. 3 can extend the longevity of cheap dates such as Calvert. It is a Sazerac you can keep drinking. A cocktail for the persistent. A drink to cause Sazerac lovers to feel a kind of love they never knew before, at least for a bartender.

“I wanted to drink those things that are featured in a Sazerac, but I wanted to keep drinking and enjoy the evening and not wake up feeling like garbage,” Calvert says. “So I thought, let me make a Sazerac variation that throws out some of the spirit and replaces it with bitters and fortified wine that are of a lower proof, so that I can enjoy a complete cocktail without getting knocked on my ass.”

So let’s walk a step at a time through how this is achieved. Remember what we pointed out last time: The basic cocktail formula is Spirit + Bitter + Sweet = Cocktail.


BS_still life-140-Edit.jpg

Calvert combines three quite different ingredients to fill the bitterness bill of The Bitter Southerner No. 3. The first is basic: Peychaud’s Bitters. Antoine Amedie Peychaud created them in New Orleans in the 1830s. They are bright red, sweeter and more floral than the bar standard, Angostura Bitters.

“Peychaud’s Bitters and lemon oil (which is the finishing touch on the No. 3) are just a badass combination,” Calvert says.

Then there’s Cynar, an Italian bitter liqueur that dates back to the 1950s. Its primary ingredient is artichokes, but Cynar has an uncanny ability to transform itself when mixed with other ingredients. “It can taste like chocolate or cola. Or it can have a vegetal and earthy flavor, like a mushroom,” Calvert says. “I love Cynar for all those reasons.” And Cynar is only 16.5 percent alcohol by volume.

The final piece of the No. 3’s bitter puzzle is a newer concoction: Gran Classico Bitter, which is 28 percent alcohol. This liqueur comes from a young California company, Tempus Fugit Spirits, whose aim is to “source and recreate rare spirits from the pages of history.” Gran Classico, the company says, is an attempt to recreate something called Bitter of Turin, which dates back to the 1860s. The company says it makes Gran Classico in Switzerland using “numerous herbs and roots including bitter orange peel, wormwood, gentian, rhubarb and other aromatic plants.”

Gran Classico’s orange notes particularly attracted Calvert.

“I like Gran Classico in small quantities,” Calvert says. “There is this floral component that is aggressive, but in small quantities it’s just irreplaceable. There’s just something about it.” And he’s right: The bitter-orange base of Gran Classico ties all the No. 3’s bitter pieces together. We tried to make the drink with the closest substitute Calvert could recommend — Aperol — and the result was nice. But if you make it with Gran Classico, you realize how a mere half-ounce of the exact right ingredient can take a cocktail from good to perfect.


BS_still life-114-Edit.jpg

There is one sweetening agent in The Bitter Southerner No. 3: Carpano Antica Formula sweet vermouth. It is still produced by the family of Antonio Benedetto Carpano, the man who invented sweet vermouth back in the 1760s by fortifying red wine with spirits and flavoring it with herbs and spices. Carpano Antica is the most assertive sweet vermouth you can find, even though it’s only 16.5 percent alcohol.

“Other vermouths would be too soft,” Calvert says. “They wouldn’t stand up to the bonded rye and the bitterness of the Cynar and the Gran Classico. I needed something that had a bit more of a backbone. Carpano has that.”


BS_still life-046-Edit.jpg

The No. 3 would fail to follow the Sazerac model if it were not for a signature extra step: rinsing the glass with demon absinthe. “After the first glass of absinthe you see things as you wish they were,” the Irish author Oscar Wilde once wrote. “After the second you see them as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.”

New Orleans, of course, has a long and storied relationship with absinthe. The Old Absinthe House bar on Bourbon Street dates back to the 1830s. But absinthe was banned in the United States in 1912 and remained banned even after Prohibition was repealed in 1933.

In 1934, two New Orleanians who had learned to make absinthe in France during World War I, J. Marion Legendre and Reginald Parker, began to make an approximation of absinthe. They called it Herbsaint, and it rapidly became as indispensable to New Orleans bartenders as rouxs are to its chefs. After the U.S. absinthe ban was finally lifted in 2007, the Sazerac Company, which now owns the brand, reintroduced Legendre’s original 100-proof recipe and called it Herbsaint Legendre.

That’s what Calvert chose for The Bitter Southerner No. 3.

“If you’re using ingredients in very small amounts, they need to have a strong and aggressive flavor profile,” Calvert says. “Herbsaint Legendre has that. That, and the bottle is gorgeous.”


BS_still life-069.jpg

The two bitter liqueurs and the vermouth in the No. 3 comprise a full two ounces of relatively low-alcohol liquids, which allows Calvert to cut the spirit in this drink — 100-proof Rittenhouse bonded rye whiskey — down to a single ounce. And there you have it — a drink that feels like a Sazerac but won’t kick hell out of you if you have one too many.

Perhaps Calvert’s most admirable goal in creating The Bitter Southerner No. 3 was his desire to make it affordable and accessible. The Carpano and the Gran Classico can be found in most good liquor stores somewhere in the mid-$30 range per bottle (although Carpano Antica has recently become available in half-liter bottles at less than $20 a pop). The Cynar goes for less than $25 a bottle.

Then there’s the Rittenhouse rye. It’s in most liquor stores at around $20 a bottle, but it’s not unusual to find it missing from the shelves. It sometimes gets scarce because there’s not a bartender from Miami to Seattle who doesn’t love the stuff. Rittenhouse is made at the Heaven Hill Distillery in Bardstown, Ky. Sadly, its provenance doesn’t make it easier to find in the South — a fact that disturbs Calvert. 

“It’s a shame to me that the majority of high-quality or sought-after workhorse whiskeys go to Northern and Pacific markets before they go to Southern markets,” Calvert says. “To me, that’s just bullshit. We are whiskey down here. I mean, f*%k those guys. It’s just incredibly irritating.” Calvert once took his irritation directly to the source in a conversation with Craig Beam, the great-great nephew of Jim Beam and the son of Heaven Hill master distiller Parker Beam.

“I said, ‘How do you expect my market to help grow your brand if we can’t get any product and sell it?’” he recalls. “It’s very frustrating to me. People think the South is ‘behind’ economically or in its beverage culture, and so we get put in third place every time.” In other words, the liquor follows the money, primarily to New York and California.

So, in a sense, every time you drink a No. 3, you are making a statement for the South. You are saying: Give us our fair share of the rye, because you are, after all, making it in our homeland.

To drink a Bitter Southerner No. 3, then, ladies and gentlemen, is to strike a blow for justice.

Perhaps we’re exaggerating, but it is fun to sit at the bar at Paper Plane and wonder: What the hell would great-great uncle Jim Beam think about his family selling all that good rye whiskey to New Yorkers before they take care of the home folks?

So herewith ...


First, fill a single rocks glass with ice and pour in a very small quantity of Herbsaint Legendre, then set it aside.

Then, in a chilled mixing glass, combine:

3 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters

A half-ounce of Gran Classico Bitter

Three-quarters of an ounce of Cynar

Three-quarters of an ounce of Carpano Antica Formula sweet vermouth

One ounce of Rittenhouse bottled-in-bond, 100-proof rye whiskey

Fill the mixing glass to the top with ice, and stir for about 30 seconds.

Hold the rocks glass over a sink and roll it sideways to coat the inside of the glass with the Herbsaint Legendre, then dump the contents.

Strain the drink from the mixing glass into the Herbsaint-coated rocks glass.

Take a strip of lemon peel and squeeze it to express its oils over the top of the drink, then drop the peel into the drink.



~ Mixing The Bitter Southerner No.3 With Paul Calvert ~

~ Click the Images Above to Open the Gallery ~




Next Week:

It's Fruitcake Season

Christmastime’s a-comin’, and if you grew up in the South, you know that’s the time of year when the heavy box from a distant cousin arrives, bearing the annual Claxton Fruit Cake. Were you a fruit-cake hater, or a fruit-cake lover? Once upon a time, not too long ago, there was a very interesting old lady in Florida who made it her business to turn the whole nation into fruit-cake lovers. She became a regular on “The Tonight Show” in the process. But the late Fruitcake Lady, Marie Rudisill, was a far more complex character than the one she played on TV. Next week, we bring you her amazing story. We’ll make you some fruit cake and egg nog, too.


The Bitter Southerner©2013 All rights reserved.
To contact The Bitter Southerner, you can connect with us through Facebook.
We accept Submissions here.