By Clair McLafferty
In the drinking world, different cities or areas are referred to as “markets” for different products. Nashville, Atlanta, New Orleans, and Charleston are all big cocktail markets, while many college towns like Birmingham and Charlottesville tend to be big beer cities. But that's to say nothing of the smaller, up-and-coming markets that some publications might label surprising places to get a well-made cocktail. As a writer and sometimes bartender, many of my industry friends live and work in these towns.
Florence, Alabama, is one such place. It lies at the intersection of major cultural forces: fashion, music, and industry. It’s the home of fashion designers Billy Reid and Natalie Chanin, is spitting distance from Muscle Shoals Sound Studio and FAME Studios, and is home to a Frank Lloyd Wright house as well as a university. It’s also home to my whiskey friend Brian Lovejoy, the bar manager at Odette.
“It’s a really unique crowd,” says Lovejoy. “You’re catering to a lot of blue collar workers, but it’s also the only farm-to-table restaurant in town.”
With this setting, a craft cocktail bar in a farm-to-table restaurant slots neatly in to serve locals and international celebrities. Lovejoy is on a first-name basis with chef Sean Brock, Billy Reid, and many others thanks to his work at Odette. When the restaurant opened three-and-a-half years ago, it was the first place in Florence to offer craft cocktails and an extensive whiskey selection.
Lovejoy’s position at Odette came about by accident.
“I was just intending to visit [Florence],” he says. “My family’s here, my daughter’s here, and Kristy [Bevis, manager of Odette] wanted to hang out one night. She asked if I would consider moving back, that there was a bar here where I could do anything. I thought that was really funny, because at the last bar I managed in Florence [before I moved], I got reamed out because I’d bought a bottle of Woodford and a bottle of Knob Creek, and they said no one would ever buy that in Florence.”
Being the first in a market, especially a small market in Alabama, comes with a unique set of challenges. First off, Alabama is a control state, which means that all liquor has to be purchased from state-owned stores. Second, Florence is a small town, which can make it even harder to attract bartenders. But Lovejoy says, “The most challenging thing to me about running a cocktail bar in a small town in the Southeast is focusing on flavor profiles and presentation of cocktails without allowing the the lameness currently drenching the food and beverage industry to erode my passion for the craft,” he says. “When I first got into craft cocktails, there were a couple of broke college kids in my bar that I would try my drinks out on, and it was awesome. There was sincere interest and no pretentiousness. That was when trucker hats were for truckers, and you didn’t have to be a part of some cool-kid foodie club in order to be taken seriously.”
Education is also a big priority. “It’s not a big enough market to just show up for work and know you’re never going to have to explain anything,” he says. “It was about a year before people stopped looking at our prices. There's so many liqueurs that people aren't used to and things like that.” To remedy that, the menu contains vignettes about the classic cocktails, and a section on the back with explanations of ingredients that may be less familiar.
“When we first opened, it was an unfamiliar concept. But now, we can do more, add more, and make drinks like they would at Dead Rabbit or Pouring Ribbons or whatever. Which is a real benefit, because you don’t have those bars across the street. So we can do stuff here that’s really weird.”
He’s not kidding. After I last visited a couple years ago, he dehydrated Fernet to grind over the top of a summer pineapple cocktail and to shape into wafers for garnishes. He’s served a drink with Pop Rocks that guests could pour in themselves.
“It’s absurd and it tastes like grape Kool-Aid,” he says. “Sometimes I just like to have fun. You’d be amazed how many people want to pour Pop Rocks into their drinks.” After 16 years as a bartender and six slinging craft cocktails, he has the experience necessary to make these goofy drinks work -- and the tenacity to bring in yet newer ingredients.
Lovejoy has two hobbies — one related to his work, the other not at all. He collects vintage bourbons and climbs mountains. “Someone puts you on a mountain, and you’re not thinking of anything other than your next step,” he says. “It’s always about the journey on the mountain.”
The zen Lovejoy finds on the mountainside comes back with him; it’s clear when you sit at his bar and watch him mix drinks.
“it's easy to come across as pretentious when you're house-infusing this and that and the other thing,” he says. “I just try to be passionate without being pretentious.”