Photography by Alex Smythe
Almost every new drink created is derived from a short list of “classic” cocktails. These drinks are the foundation of modern cocktail culture. For this reason, it is especially important to know these classic cocktails today, and understand their place in history. With that in mind, I developed the Edible Memphis guide to classic cocktails with a focus on their often hazy origins and the local bartenders who have perfected them. For a look at my own take on one of these classics, scroll down to “The Daiquiri,” a drink I serve up often at The Cove.
Q Sabreen Shakur of Belle Tavern
The Bee’s Knees was made popular during Prohibition, as honey and fresh lemon juice were readily available. Both of these ingredients helped to hide the taste of bad 1930s bathtub gin, which usually wasn’t of the quality that bars stock today. It is a riff on the daiquiri. The gin replaces the rum, the lime is replaced with lemon juice, and honey subs in for simple syrup. Gin is a neutral grain spirit that is traditionally flavored with botanicals like juniper, citrus, rose and other spices.
Q Sabreen Shakur works at the Belle Tavern downtown, where they put real effort into their bar, especially the whiskey collection. The bottles of bourbon, scotch, rye and others, like Irish and Japanese whiskeys, line the beautiful wood-finished back bar. It is a whiskey lover’s paradise.
Q’s barrel-aged Bee’s Knees is fitting considering how important barrel aging is for whiskey production. “By leaving the gin in an oak barrel for a few weeks, it takes on a woody profile and adds more character to the drink,” she says.
Belle Tavern sources both their honey and Barr Hill gin from Caledonia Spirits located in Hardwick, Vermont. Q makes her Bee’s Knees with equal parts honey and lemon juice, with 2 ounces of Barr Hill gin. “This is my cocktail for all the people who say they don’t like gin,” says Q. “It is a huge crowd pleaser.”
The Bee’s Knees cocktail drinks like a daiquiri, but with more sweetness from rich honey. The gin is pronounced but not too strong; this is another excellent summer drink.
Originally from Detroit, Q moved to Memphis in the early 2000s and started finding restaurant gigs. “I first started at the Butcher Shop (back when it was downtown) as a server, and that was my first serious restaurant job,” she says. “We had to take hundred-question tests on everything from every ingredient in every dish, to the prices of certain spirits, and an extensive wine list.” After leaving the Butcher Shop, Q helped open Bluefin sushi bar when the Ichi family were the owner-operators. “That is when I was introduced to more eclectic cocktail culture,” she says.
After the Ichis sold Bluefin, she left for the Madison Hotel rooftop bar, and then to Loflin Yard. She’s been at Belle Tavern for about two years and loves it. “I get to work with people who are very passionate about whiskey and spirits, just like me, and Belle Tavern is a great environment for that,” she says.
Jef Hicks of 3rd & Court
As Prohibition began in America, many of the best bartenders of the era found themselves without work. There were plenty of speakeasies, but many bartenders did not want to risk being put in jail for their craft. So a great number left for Europe, in hopes of bringing American drinking culture to other cities.
One of the establishments that rose out of this migration was Harry’s New York Bar in Paris. There, American bartenders experimented with European ingredients. This is where the Boulevardier was first created by famed Scottish-American bartender Harry MacElhone. (He is also credited with creating the Bloody Mary, Sidecar and the French 75.)
The Boulevardier is traditionally equal parts rye whiskey, Campari, bitters and sweet vermouth, stirred together and served with an orange twist. It is a balance of bitter, sweet and the whiskey’s oakiness. The Boulevardier is a cousin to the Negroni, swapping out gin for rye, but the Boulevardier was actually created first. When you get thirsty for a Boulevardier, go see longtime bartender Jef Hicks, who works at 3rd & Court inside the Indigo Hotel downtown.
Jef started his career in bars at age 17 in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where he barbacked at a tourist bar on the beach. He has worked all over the country since then, most notably in New Orleans and Austin, before permanently moving to Memphis. “New Orleans was enormous fun,” says Jef as he grabs his ingredients from the back bar. “I started at a bar called the Spotted Cat.”
Jef pours ¾ ounces each of Campari and Dolin French sweet vermouth into his mixing glass, then 1 ¼ ounces of overproof Rittenhouse rye whiskey. “The rye has to be bold enough to stand up to the other ingredients,” he explains. “After the Spotted Cat, I worked at the New Orleans staple Jacques-Imo’s for a few years until I moved to Austin.”
Jef pours the red mixture into a chilled coupe glass, and garnishes with an orange twist. This drink is very strong. The nose is all citrus, and the drink is so complex in all the right ways. Bitter, sweet and boozy. The rye really shines here too—this drink is great for a fall or winter sipper. “I worked at the Elephant Room in Austin, and it was honestly one of the coolest places I have ever been in. The shotgun-style jazz joint just attracted the best, most fun crowds every weekend,” he says. “I absolutely love this drink.”
Bennett Brown of The Cove
The daiquiri is the original “sour” cocktail, comprised of only three ingredients: rum, lime juice and sugar. For many, the daiquiri is a frozen drink that comes out of a machine, made with sticky syrups and artificial lime juice. A real classic daiquiri is a tangy, refreshing drink perfect for hot weather—basically limeade spiked with rum. In my opinion, the daiquiri is by far a bartender’s best test drink, offering an opportunity to showcase that you can balance a drink’s ingredients.
The daiquiri itself has somewhat of a dark past in regards to cocktail culture; rum in general, with its vast and rich history, does too. Rum is a distillate of molasses, which is a natural byproduct of refining sugarcane. In the prime of European colonialism in the Carribean, sugar was a major cash crop, and the majority of sugarcane processing was done by slaves. Rum can be made anywhere in the world, but is historically made on the Carribean islands, which were colonized by the French, Dutch, English and eventually the United States, among others. The history of rum goes hand in hand with slavery, as sugarcane plantations in the Carribean were the birthplace of rum. Slaves distilled the leftover molasses, mixing the distillate with sugar and lime juice. Rum was actually the most consumed spirit in the colonies and the United States before whiskey’s popularity increased.
The most important aspect of a classic daiquiri is the ratio of ingredients. It is so simple, yet so delicious. My preferred daiquiri is 2 ounces of a dry white rum (like Brugal Extra Dry from the Dominican Republic or Plantation 3 Stars from Barbados, Jamaica and Trinidad), 1 ounce of fresh lime juice and ¾ ounce of simple syrup poured into a cocktail shaker. Add 1 large cube of ice and shake vigorously. This drink is at its best when balanced and lime forward, with a dry rum driving its profile and a tart finish.
Brian Hamilton of McEwen’s
The French 75 is one of the first cocktails to utilize champagne to add flavor and effervescence to a drink. Originally using French cognac as its base, over time the recipe evolved to use gin, which was more accessible during Prohibition. The standard is comprised of 1 ounce gin, ½ ounce lemon juice and ½ ounce sugar syrup, then topped with champagne and a lemon or orange twist. It was created in 1915 at the legendary New York Bar in Paris by barman Henry MacElhone. He was quoted as saying that the drink has a kick like a French 75-millimeter cannon. When we want this refreshing gin drink, we head to See Brian Hamilton at McEwen’s on Monroe.
Brian uses Citadelle gin, lemon and simple syrup, and prefers prosecco in place of the traditional champagne. Brian has worked every position in the restaurant and bar industry. A Memphis local, Brian graduated from Harding Academy and has been in the business for 15 years. He started at Rum Boogie Cafe on Beale Street, worked up to general manager at Bluefin on Main Street, and helped to open the Andrew Michael staple, Hog & Hominy. Brian exclaimed that McEwens is a whiskey-heavy bar that attracts those curious for Scotch, Japanese whiskey, bourbons and ryes. “I decided to put the French 75 on the cocktail menu because it is an approachable drink for non-whiskey drinkers, and the ladies love it,” he says.
Brian also likes to DJ in his free time, and in his own words, “I’m a ‘mixologist’ both ways. If the ladies are happy, everyone is happy. The nightclub scene and the bar are no different.” Brian gave us his opinion on the craft cocktail movement, and explained how he decided to scale back McEwen’s cocktail menu. “One night a customer said to me, ‘If I wanted to see a show, I would go see a movie,’ and I knew that I couldn’t be pretentious and that a cocktail menu has to reflect your business.”
“Bartenders are getting younger, and your customers know more about spirits and cocktails than ever before, and you have to stay on your toes,” he says. “I believe to truly be a professional in this industry, you have to stay on your game and know the spirits and cocktails and wine that your bar serves.”
McKenzie Nelson of Lucky Cat
The Last Word is truly an example of a cocktail lost in history. Created before Prohibition, the drink mixes gin with Italian cherry liqueur, French green Chartreuse and lime juice, all in equal parts. It is credited as being created in the Detroit Athletic Club, a sleek socialite drinking club of the era, in the early 1900s. It was popular up until World War II, where it was lost to history as the war halted trade between nations, and the Italian and French spirits necessary for the drink were unavailable to most bartenders. It was not until over 80 years later in 2004 that it was published on a cocktail menu by Murray Simpson in Seattle, and reestablished itself as one of the most important cocktails in history.
McKenzie went to school at Savannah College of Art and Design. She left college with a job in advertising, but found her passion behind the bar. She began reading cocktail recipe books from legendary New York City bars like Death & Co and The Dead Rabbit. She moved to Memphis soon after school in 2017 and began working for accounts like Railgarten, Loflin Yard and Bounty on Broad. She began doing more high-volume craft cocktails at Bounty. McKenzie’s preferred Last Word is traditional, with equal parts— ¾ ounce each—of every ingredient. She prefers to use a botanical gin such as Uncle Val’s gin, green Chartreuse, Luxardo maraschino liqueur and fresh lime juice.
McKenzie now works at Lucky Cat on Broad Avenue. She creates drinks with her coworker, Paul Gilliam, and they infuse Asian flavors into their drinks. “There is always a lot of dialogue between the kitchen and the bar, and it always leads us to using Japanese and Southeast Asian ingredients in drinks,” she says. “A lot of the food at Lucky Cat is salt- and fat-forward so we definitely have to balance those flavors in our drink menu with crisp cocktails utilizing ingredients that are light and reflect on our food menu.”
Tabitha Finta-Pruitt of Knifebird
The Manhattan was created in the early 1880s in the famous Manhattan Club, a social venue for wealthy businessmen and politicians. The ratio of ingredients reflects the area code of Manhattan island, 2:1:2, being 2 ounces rye whiskey, 1 ounce of sweet vermouth, and 2 dashes of Angostura bitters. A physician named Iain Marshall is said to have created the drink for a cocktail party thrown by Winston Churchill’s mother, who was pregnant at the time. Like most classic cocktails, this is both disputed and corroborated by historians, and no one will ever know for sure. We do know that the Manhattan is to this day one of the most iconic drinks in the world of spirits, and one that every decent bartender knows. Tabitha, who works at Knifebird wine bar, makes a great one.
Tabitha began working in the restaurant industry at age 17 in Louisiana, and has done every job in the business. In Baton Rouge, she worked at an Italian restaurant where she learned the business, front and back of house, even cooking at one point. “Both of my parents worked on Beale street, one at Alfred’s and one at B.B. King’s. I feel destined to do it,” she says. She moved to Memphis and started working at the legendary college hangout, Newby’s, for about a year, and then decided to get into fine dining. She began a stint at Char, north of the Highland Strip. While at Char, Tabitha met Kate Ashby, who was an assistant manager. Kate had worked in New York City, California and London, and her dream was to open her own wine bar. This dream came to fruition in June 2018, and Kate brought Tabitha along for the opening of the ultra-popular Knifebird in Midtown.
Tabitha’s prefered Manhattan deviates from the traditional recipe. She still uses 2 ounces of rye whiskey, but chooses to up the bitters and cut back on sweet vermouth, creating a drier, more bitter Manhattan. Her preferred whiskeys are either Rittenhouse rye or Sazerac, and she uses Dolin sweet vermouth. She likes to cut the vermouth to ¾ ounce, and adding about 4 dashes of Angostura and 2 or 3 dashes of orange bitters. She then likes to garnish the drink with both a Luxardo cherry and an orange twist. “I began making this altered version for my coworkers for our after-shift drink, and they loved it,” she says. “Now I get asked for it every shift, and it’s the Manhattan I make for my customers.”
Pablo Mata of Catherine & Mary’s*
The Martinez is a Manhattan variation dating back to the 1880s from Harry Johnson’s Bartender’s Manual. It is also the precursor to the martini, and the “right” recipe is just as highly contested. A classic Martinez uses Old Tom gin (a slightly sweeter variation than London Dry), sweet vermouth, orange bitters and maraschino cherry liqueur. It is a slightly sweeter, boozier gin variant of a Manhattan. This cocktail is not extremely popular or well-known, and Pablo Mata at Catherine & Mary’s wants that to change.
“I always try and order a classic Martinez, then get told it’s called a martini and if I want vodka or gin,” says Pablo while he preps his bar for service. “I love this drink because of the wiggle room, and if you stick to the classic template, you can play around with your ingredients. I love trying new and different gins with a combination of sweet and dry vermouth.”
Pablo says there is no correct way to make a Martinez; it’s all about preference. Pablo uses 2 ounces of Plymouth Navy Strength (57% abv) and splits the vermouth, using both sweet and dry—½ ounce each of Dolin dry and sweet vermouth. He adds orange bitters, and then a bar spoon of Luxardo maraschino liqueur. “This is just my small riff on the classic,” he says.
Pablo got his start bartending in his hometown of Chicago. His grandmother owned a Mexican restaurant and tavern called Perla’s in the early ’90s. “My family has worked in bars for generations, and my mom really didn’t want me around the bar, but that just made me want to be there more, of course,” he says. Pablo didn’t learn a lot about drinks there—just how to make a bad margarita.
He moved to San Francisco in the late ’90s and began working in kitchens. Pablo began studying wine, and worked in the kitchen at A16. He left the kitchen for the bar after the restaurant scored a James Beard Award. “I really got into cocktails there, and I was coming up in the cocktail revival of the early 2000s when world-class bars were opening in New York and San Francisco,” he says.
Pablo moved to Memphis in 2018, and began working at Alchemy in Cooper-Young. He was cold called by Catherine & Mary’s in January to work behind the bar. “I enjoy it here,” he says. “The standards are very high, and I couldn’t think of a better environment for this level of drinks.”
*You can now find Pablo at Bar Hustle in the Arrive Hotel.
Morgan McKinney of Bari
The Negroni has made a massive resurgence. You can find it on almost any menu, and any decent bartender should be able to make a good one. This boozy, red-hued drink is among the top 10 most popular cocktails in the United States. It has its origins in early 1900s Italy, supposedly having been named after Italian general Count Negroni in 1919 Florence. Negroni was accustomed to ordering the ever-popular Americano, which is comprised of equal parts Campari (an Italian bitter citrus liqueur), sweet vermouth (a fortified wine) and sparkling water. The count decided he wanted a little more kick in his drink, and told the bartender to sub out the sparkling water for gin and, thus, the Negroni was born.
When you get thirsty for this high-alcohol, bitter, gin-and-citrus-forward drink, head to Bari Ristorante in Overton Square. There you will find local bartender Morgan McKinney, who makes a damn good one.
“A traditional Negroni is a 1:1:1 ratio of gin, Campari and sweet vermouth,” Morgan explains as she begins grabbing bottles from the back bar. “Many bartenders decide to measure an extra half ounce of gin, but I prefer the traditional recipe, as it lets the vermouth and Campari shine.”
She begins measuring out each ingredient. “My preferred Negroni, that I make for people every shift, is equal parts Tanqueray London Dry Gin, Cocchi Vermouth Di Torino, and Campari stirred over ice and served on a large single rock of ice,” she says. Morgan pours the drink into an elegant glass and garnishes it with an orange twist.
There is a wonderful citrus aroma from the twist, then bitter and citrus notes from the Campari. This is rounded out with sweetness from the vermouth, and then I am hit with botanicals from the gin. The drink is complex, especially for having so few ingredients.
Morgan has been behind the bar for several years now, and she never disappoints. “I got my start in fine dining as a server at the Memphis staple Felicia Suzanne’s downtown,” she says. “I was given the opportunity to get behind the bar and jumped at the chance. Seeing high-end, quality cooking with good ingredients led to a curiosity with quality ingredients behind the bar.”
She said she learned nothing but the classics there. “Chef Felicia was very specific about her bar. She wanted classics only, but done extremely well,” she says. Morgan learned to make the perfect cosmopolitan and Sazerac, both recipes she still uses to this day. She told us about her passion for cooking at home and how she is always learning how to pair flavors, a skill that translates into her drinks.
At Bari, Morgan makes original daily special cocktails that range from simple and delicious to using some of the most interesting ingredients available, creating layers of complex flavors in a single drink.
Harold Cook of Next Door
The Old-Fashioned is the king of cocktails, and widely considered by most bartenders to be the original cocktail. Like so many cocktail origin stories, the history is a little hazy. It’s said that the first Old-Fashioned was created in Louisville, Kentucky, in the 1880s, before being put on a menu in a prominent New York City hotel. There had been mentions and published articles about the Old-Fashioned, but never a hard recipe until its appearance on that menu. Some say it got its name from people ordering a cocktail “the old-fashioned way” from a bartender.
The recipe is a simple one that lets whiskey shine, while being more palatable than whiskey on its own. Every bartender does the Old-Fashioned a little differently. Some add orange and cherry to muddle, some just an orange peel, and more recently many bartenders skip muddling altogether. At its core, the Old-Fashioned is straight bourbon whiskey, Angostura bitters and a touch of sugar, served on the rocks. When you’re itching for one, go see Harold Cook at Next Door in Cooper-Young.
His Old-Fashioned, made with 1 large ice cube, contains 2 ounces of Weller, 1 dash of Angostura bitters (Ango, as he calls it), lemon and orange zests, and 1 Luxardo cherry.
Harold’s affinity for the restaurant and bar scene in Memphis began when he was a child. “ I remember going to all of the bars with my grandmother,” he says. “I thought it was the coolest thing. She would take me to Pappy & Jimmy’s and let me pick out a lobster.”
While in high school at Central, “The High School,” Harold started his bar career as a barback on Beale. He got his first lead bartending role at The Half Shell, and the rest is history. Loving a good conversation and that the job is never boring, Harold is a perennial local favorite in the bartending scene.
David Parks of Restaurant Iris
The Sazerac is a well-known New Orleans cocktail. Moreover, it’s an American cocktail. Its history is steeped in cultures melting together. It was created in part due to hundreds of years of French colonialism in the Louisiana territory and the port city of New Orleans. When the French and Americans began trading heavily, they began discovering one another’s spirits. The history of who created this drink is hazy, most likely lost forever, but we do know it was first served sometime in the 1850s in the French Quarter of New Orleans.
American rye whiskey was very popular at the time, and French cognac and French absinthe were being imported to Louisiana. Cognac is a French liquor distilled from grapes, and absinthe can be made anywhere, but traditionally uses wormwood and anise as its primary botanicals. Somewhere along the way, these spirits were mixed with medicinal bitters and sugar, and a classic was born. It truly is a cocktail to represent the melting pot that is America. When you get thirsty for a Sazerac, go see our David Parks, longtime Memphis bartender and philanthropist, at Restaurant Iris.
The notorious “Parks” has worked since his early 20s behind the bar at too many establishments to count. He got his start working a bar at a small biker hangout, opening beers in Jackson, Mississippi, as a favor to a friend. With a strong following around Memphis today, Parks is truly a career bartender. He is currently satisfying his many regulars at Restaurant Iris, where his 12-seat bar is one of the most beautiful in the city. It is only fitting to order his Sazerac now that he works at the acclaimed Creole/New Orleans-influenced eatery in Overton Square, overseen by chef/owner Kelly English.
Parks explains his process for making his ideal Sazerac. “I always muddle orange and lemon peel along with my bitters. And if I have time, I will use a whole turbinado sugar cube instead of simple syrup,” he says as he douses the cube with both Angostura and Peychaud’s bitters.
“The Angostura adds a clove and allspice hit, and Peychaud’s gets you with that bitter citrus of a classic Sazerac,” he says. Parks then muddles the sugar and bitters with the citrus peels. Parks says he doesn’t use any brandy or cognac in his recipe. “I like an aggressive fucking rye, and rye only,” he says as he free pours Sazerac brand rye in the mixing glass.
“Classically, this drink is made with some brandy, but I like a really spicy whiskey typical of rye,” he says. The difference between rye and bourbon is only the ratio of grain. Rye whiskey must contain 51 percent or more rye grain while bourbon contains 51 percent or more corn. Parks then adds ice and stirs the whiskey, sugar and bitters. “Always, always chill your glass,” he says, grabbing a frozen glass from the freezer.
Traditionally, absinthe is poured into the glass and swirled, then dumped out. But Parks likes to put his absinthe in a small spray bottle. “This way the glass gets an even coat of absinthe every time,” he says. With style he pours the contents of the mixing glass into the rinsed coupe glass and slides it across the bar. Instantly, there is a nose of citrus and absinthe, which is a heavy anise flavor, almost like licorice. After citrus, the drink is all whiskey with sweet sugar and bitters. It’s perfectly balanced.
“I love this drink so much. It is devastatingly pretty,” says Parks. “Cheers.”
Bennett Brown has been in Memphis his whole life. In college he studied psychology and biology at the University of Memphis. Today he enjoys dining and drinking around the city, writing, and working behind the bar serving guests at The Cove. @bennett_brown1
Alex Smythe is a born and raised Memphian. With an art background from University of Memphis, he has been a freelance photographer for the last 10 years. With photography being his part-time creative outlet, he has worked passionately at Grizzlies Prep Charter School for the last 6 years as their Operations Manager. @thealex3