America’s greatest 19th century painter of birds, John James Audubon, once ran a dry-goods store in Henderson, Kentucky, on the Ohio River. Audubon’s residence in Henderson (until he went bankrupt in 1819) remains that town’s biggest claim to fame.
But a young man who grew up in Henderson much more recently might become a new historical footnote for the town. His claim to fame, however, won’t be his skills with paintbrushes. It will be his skills with shakers and bar-spoons.
Brooks Reitz, the Henderson boy in question, almost single-handedly brought the American cocktail resurgence to Charleston, South Carolina, his adopted hometown. That happened mostly because of Reitz’s skills, curiosity and knowledge, but good timing played a role, too.
Until 2006, South Carolina law prohibited bars from stocking any spirit or liqueur that was not sold in mini-bottles — that’s right, the kind you get on airplanes. Soon after that, life circumstances brought Reitz to Charleston. He was fresh off a stint at the great Louisville, Kentucky, bar called Proof on Main, which houses one of the South’s broadest bourbon collections. Reitz landed as a server and bartender at chef Mike Lata’s FIG (it stands for Food Is Good). Lata and partner Adam Nemirow’s restaurant was already making waves, but three days after Reitz was hired, Lata won the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef: Southeast award.
“That began this really interesting, five-and-a-half year period of major growth and pretty intense exposure at Fig,” Reitz says. “They were busy already, but it went to new heights as soon as that happened.” Problem was, FIG’s bar program at the time wasn’t in the same league as the food of its award-winning chef. Almost two months after his arrival, Reitz took the bar manager’s job.
“I had expressed an interest in revamping the cocktails already, because, to be honest, they were totally terrible when I started,” he says. “It was just quite dated. The Cosmopolitan was still on the menu. And they were using inferior products.”
Thus began the process of educating FIG’s staff and Charleston tipplers in what a proper cocktail program looks like. He did not begin with esoteric creations.
“I’ve never been the guy who does the carrot juice with caraway mixed with mustard reduction,” Reitz says. “I’ve always been a fan of really simple, easy to understand drinks and food. So, we did very approachable, easy-to-love flavor profiles, and we were able to win people’s trust that way. A little later, we started doing a daily cocktail where we’d use more esoteric ingredients.” But by then, people trusted their craft, and therefore trusted the cocktails. Very soon thereafter, Joe and Marielena Raya opened The Gin Joint, and, along with Reitz’s work at FIG, Charleston’s cocktail game had jumped to a new level within a year.
Three years ago, Reitz struck out on his own to open Leon’s Oyster Shop on Upper King Street in Charleston. He had already built a business of his own with Jack Rudy Cocktail Co, which sells cocktail ingredients — tonics, syrups and bitters — made to Reitz’s specifications. And now, his businesses include two additional establishments: Saint Alban, an all-day cafe, coffee shop and wine bar, and the recently opened Little Jack’s Tavern, which describes itself as “a simple tavern with classic liquor drinks, decent beer and some swell food.”
And Little Jack’s will be the home of The Bitter Southerner No. 7, a drink that came from a little mind exercise Reitz put himself through.
“I started thinking, what would a displaced Southerner — now bitter because he or she is living up North — want to drink to remind them of home?” he says. “Maybe on the stoop of their fifth- story walk-up, as they try their hardest to pretend they’re sitting in a rocking chair on a spacious porch? I think they would go with something that reminds them of home: bourbon, sweet tea, mint, lemon.”
So, herewith, the New No. 7 (which you could make with Old No. 7 if you want to). It’s designed to cure any Southerner’s summer longings.
Reitz was cooking up this recipe at the same time he was building a new product for Jack Rudy Cocktail Co. — a sweet-tea syrup that would add a distinctly Southern twist as a base ingredient in cocktails. You can make a sweet-tea syrup at home: Just bring eight ounces each of water and sugar up to about medium heat and simmer until the syrup gets clear. Take it off the heat, insert one or two standard-size Lipton tea bags, and let it steep for about 10 minutes.
But we also know that Reitz and company did serious experimentation to come up with a wonderful product, and with a bottle of Jack Rudy Sweet Tea Syrup in your bar, you leave nothing to chance.
At Little Jack’s, Reitz and crew make the BS7 with Old Grand-Dad bourbon, but he says the kind of bourbon (or even Tennessee whiskey) you like is the kind you should use.
“There’s no bourbon specification here,” he says. “If you want a little bit more spice, you could do a rye-heavy bourbon (such as the aforementioned Grand-Dad). But if you want more sweetness, then something with a little more wheat (such as Buffalo Trace or Maker’s Mark).”
The Bitter Southerner No. 7 melds the flavors of sweet tea and bourbon with the two flavors that go most naturally with sweet tea: fresh lemon and fresh mint.
In a shaker tin, combine:
- One and three-quarters ounces of bourbon
- Three-quarters of an ounce of Jack Rudy Cocktail Co. Sweet Tea Syrup, or your homemade syrup
- Three-quarters of an ounce of freshly squeezed lemon juice
- Four to six large pieces of mint
We’ll let Brooks provide the next step in his own words.
“Add ice, shake to all hell, and double-strain into a coupe glass,” he says. “No garnish, because a Bitter Southerner doesn’t have time to fuck with it. They just gotta get that drink down quick to numb the pain.”
A perfectly potent — and perfectly Southern — cocktail. May this drink bring you happiness until the cool of autumn arrives.