The State of the Southern Bar Scene

By Clair McLafferty

Dear Drinks International,

We read your list of the World’s 50 Best Bars every year. We scour it and congratulate friends whose bars make it onto the list. Every time, our hearts drop when we notice that Southern bars (excluding Miami) aren’t included.

If you ask, and you won’t, we’ll bite back frustration and tell you that a cross-section of America and the South drinks at our bars, and that you should visit sometime. You’ll probably find something that surprises you, bless your heart.

We know your expectations are low, but we keep making and drinking and featuring cocktails anyway. Your lists of “surprising” national or international culinary destinations usually include our cities, but it’s something we knew already: The way to a Southerner’s heart is through their taste buds. We get it: You’re surprised that our fine dining haunts serve pâté and make Old Fashioneds “as good as any you’ve had in New York, Portland, or San Francisco.” But it’s not the cocktail that surprises you. It’s your bartender, and their hospitality, knowledge, and passion.

Your lack of expectations is a double-edged sword. Many of us create and mix our drinks for customers who are sometimes our peers, not the other way around. We make some damn fine classic and modern cocktails, sometimes in unexpected venues. But your lack of expectations also steals away talent, especially from smaller markets, as many bartenders feel that they’ve learned everything that they could and have to move to continue to grow.

And Diageo World Class, you big bad bartending competition you, we see you, too. We see that you host the Southeastern finals in Nashville (when you host them at all), which makes attendance difficult for many in the Deep South. The rest of y’all, we see your visits to the Bourbon Trail and your posts about America’s Native Spirit, as well as your lack of attention to smaller spirits produced in the region.

What all y’all are missing is that there’s a Southern bar culture. National, or even regional, coverage of these smaller markets is lacking, except in hyperlocal publications. We’re bitter about it, but we can do better. Some already are: The Giving Kitchen in Atlanta is working to ensure that local service industry workers have a safety net, and the Barman’s Fund hosts pop up events to raise money for local charitable organizations.

Every month, we’ll be looking at the cocktails – and the people behind them – in major Southern cities like New Orleans, Miami, Nashville, Atlanta, and Charleston and smaller markets. We’ll be covering the bartenders, drinks, bars, and organizations that make up the cocktail scene down here.

Nowadays, there are precious few places that people come together. For many, a hometown bar or drinking spot is the safest place to go. But the stories of the people who make those places comfortable often go untold. Our drinks are bitter, and so are we. But the patience and kindness of the bar world is something that can make us better. Pull up a stool, order a drink, and let’s chat.