A Toast to Winter

by Elysian Magazine
winter cocktails

Original recipes for winter cocktails

Winter cocktails by three of the Southeast’s most sought-after bartenders, Kellie Thorn, Megan Deschaine and Colleen Hughes, are keeping us warm this season.

Megan Deschaine

As the bar manager at Charleston’s 492, Megan Deschaine is making drinks that mirror her personality — whip smart and with a great sense of humor. Deschaine is exuberant about what she does and could probably talk for hours about the history, science and folklore behind spirits. She’s the kind of person you want to share a drink with — the mark of any good bartender.

When not behind the bar or crafting a new recipe, Deschaine is busy competing in (and winning) national mixology competitions and in her role as vice president of the Charleston chapter of the United States Bartender’s Guild.

Five essentials for the at-home bar?

In my home bar there’s definitely whiskey — I really love bourbon. I have a bottle of bitters, a spoon and a mixing glass, and citrus of some kind for zesting.

Drink that made you fall in love with the craft?

My first cocktail bar gig was at a place called Rye in Baltimore. This spot focused on classic cocktails, and like the name of the bar suggests, had an impressive whiskey collection. The Manhattan was the first cocktail I learned to make and definitely inspired my love for the craft. It’s three ingredients — it’s so simple — but like most things, it’s easy to mess up with a heavy hand or inconsiderate preparation. Just as with cooking, better dishes start with better ingredients and preparation. First step was using a quality vermouth (we use Carpano Antica formula in the bar) and keep it refrigerated when you aren’t using it. I prefer a two-to-one ratio of whiskey to vermouth with a few dashes of Angostura. The part that blasts my eyes open was stirring the cocktail instead of shaking it. Typically you stir drinks that are only spirit-based. The resulting cocktail has this sexy, silky, roll-down-your-throat texture that convinced me there was definitely something to this “craft” thing. I think that would be my “cocktail that started it all.”

If you could have a drink with three people, dead or alive, who would they be and what would you drink?

I would love to have a gin martini with journalist Dorothy Parker. She was one of the first females to really challenge gender norms; she cursed like a sailor, drank a ton, and hung out with the men (it was really kind of unheard of for women to be in bars back then). She was a rockstar feminist. I’d also want to drink with Hemingway — he knew how to party — and we would have a daiquiri. And I would like to drink with President Obama. I don’t know what we would drink — maybe a fine scotch?

Where do you seek inspiration for your recipes?

I think it’s important to have a firm foundation in the classic repertoires. Those formulas are still relevant because they’re good. And then when it comes down to the creative process and rethinking new formulas, I find inspiration from what’s fresh and seasonal. I tend to take the garden approach. I like drinks that manipulate your senses. My goal is to make people smile — whether it’s from a whimsical cocktail presentation or playful names (I live for puns!).

Does science or art play a role in your drinks?

Art and science are definitely a part of the process. People often underestimate the relationship of science to their alcohol, but alcohol is the result of chemical processes. Just simply adding water to your whiskey is chemistry. There is a popular cocktail on our menu called the Disco Sour, a riff of one of my favorite cocktails to drink, the Pisco Sour. So the fun artsy part is that it changes color with the help of a little science. There is a flower from Thailand called “Butterfly Pea Flower” that has a naturally occurring enzyme in it that reacts to pH change. A wonderful company called Wild Hibiscus Flower Co. makes all kinds of flower extracts; among them is a butterfly pea. We dilute it and freeze it into ice cubes and serve the sour on the side. The ice is blue, the cocktail is yellow, and the resulting drink when the two are mixed is a pale pink to rich purple. On its own it’s a simple formula, but for the guest, it’s an interactive experience. I think that’s the reason that this cocktail has become so popular — it offers this kind of the next-level experience. As bartenders, more and more we are challenged to make not just a good and balanced drink, but we have to ask ourselves how do we make it memorable.

What’s your favorite drink to make?

My favorite cocktail to make for myself is probably an Old Fashioned, but when it comes to my bar guests, whatever they like! My favorite drink to make is your favorite drink.

orange winter cocktails
“Fireside Chat No. 2”

  • 1½ oz of your preferred rye whiskey
  • ¾ oz of rum (I recommend Plantation 3 Star or Denizen — they are both filtered blends of aged Caribbean rums and very affordable)
  • ½ oz of Giffard Banana liqueur
  • 1 dash of Fee Brothers Black Walnut bitters
  • Orange zest (for garnish)

Stir all ingredients to the proper dilution and chill, and strain over large cube. Express an orange zest over the glass. Enjoy.

Kellie Thorn

Kellie Thorne of Empire State South in Atlanta.

With a father in the maritime industry, Kellie Thorn was raised in different coastal towns across the Southeast, learning to adapt quickly and connect with people easily. This probably explains why she landed on her feet when unexpectedly thrown behind the bar at the tender age of 21. Charting Thorn’s meteoric rise in the industry is humbling. She met with the celebrity chef Hugh Acheson about six years ago when he was opening his first restaurant in Atlanta, Empire State South.  With a shared passion for local agriculture, the two chatted for only a few minutes before he was welcoming her to the team. Fast-forward to today, and Thorn has become Acheson’s point person for all things booze. In her role as beverage director, she manages the bar at Empire State South, and when Acheson is opening a new restaurant (he now has a total of four in Georgia) or working on a new project, she has her hand in it. From advising on efficient bar design to writing cocktail menus, you name it, Thorn does it.

Best cure after an evening of being over-served?

I don’t know if there is a cure yet, but I hear there are a lot of good men and women in the field doing active research. My own research has led me to a few relief options: as much sleep as possible, Topo Chico Water with activated charcoal and lemon, pho, and as unappealing as it may sound, I feel better if I power through a kickboxing session at the gym.

Five essentials for the at-home bar?

Good Vermouth stored properly. I recommend getting the smaller bottles and keeping them in the fridge for home use. Bitters. Spoon. Mixing glass. Shaker/strainer set.

If you could have a drink with three people, dead or alive, who would they be, and what would you drink?

A tough list to make! Martinis with Dorothy Parker. Absinthe with David Bowie. Anything with Barack and Michelle Obama — seriously, from coffee to whiskey, it would just be amazing to spend a day hanging with that powerhouse couple. Does that count as one or two?

Everything is about pairings these days. Can you pair a drink with your favorite author and book?

I love to read, so it is hard to pick a favorite. I recently read and thoroughly enjoyed Roberto Bolano’s “Savage Detectives.” With this book, you drink Tequila.

Bartender or mixologist? What do you call yourself?

Bartender, but I don’t correct people if they call me a mixologist. It’s just that, long before I honed in on making cocktails, I was popping PBRs and pouring highballs and shots of whiskey. I held that job in the same regard as I do the one that affords me the opportunities to wax poetic about the Crus of Cognac or which vermouth is the best match for your martini. Providing service for my guests (tending to the bar) was and is my first job. That being said, these days I think the word “mixologist” is a term that allows people to connect to you in a cocktail bar atmosphere. Since I am in the business of hospitality and connecting with people, I let them call me what they damn well please without correction.

Where do you find inspiration for winter cocktails?

Travel, the chefs I work with, the farmer’s market, childhood memories, music, books, art.

What’s your favorite drink to make?

Really, any and all. Someone’s night is really my favorite thing to make.

winter cocktails“Evening Prelude”

  • 2 oz Aylesbury Duck Vodka
  • 1 oz La Quintinye Blanc Vermouth
  • ½ oz Don Ciccio Finocchietto (Fennel Liqueur)
  • 3 drops of Bitter Truth Celery Bitters

In a mixing glass combine ingredients and stir long with ice. Strain up into a frozen cocktail or martini glass. Express a lemon peel up the sides of the glass and discard. Garnish with a fennel frond.

I love martinis, and while I think most of us associate winter with dark and bitter libations, I like the idea of being able to produce a clean and lighter cocktail still while using flavors of fall and winter-like fennel and celery. Aylesbury Duck is a rich and round vodka, which makes it a lovely base for this riff. The same goes for La Quintinye Blanc vermouth, which uses both white wine and Pineau des Charentes as its base, making it a little weighty with nice acid, the right amount of bitter, and a complex herbaceous profile.

Colleen Hughes

From the moment Colleen Hughes put together her first cocktail list for the Crepe Cellar in Charlotte’s NoDa, she was catapulted to the forefront of the city’s cocktail scene and quickly tasked with handling the cocktail program for the Crepe Cellar’s sister restaurants, Sea Level NC and Growler’s Pourhouse. Recently, Hughes has been busy getting the latest venture, Haberdish, off the ground, where she is lead bartender. Just opened in November, the new restaurant features a full-on cocktail bar where the program is about creating moments and moods with drinks — what Hughes calls “a sort of pick-your-destiny cocktail list.” There’s a drink to suit any moment of an evening, starting with mood-enhancing aperitifs, followed by bright and lively cocktails, then spirit-forward cocktails, and finally, digestifs and toddies.

Best cure after an evening of being over-served?

Milk thistle, vitamin B complex, an electrolyte supplement (I like NUUN), and a Bloody Mary.

Five essentials for the at-home bar?

Angostura bitters, a good bar spoon, different sized ice cubes made from filtered water, a great modern cocktail book, and some imagination.

Defining moment or recipe that made you fall in love with the craft?

I remember the first time I went to a craft cocktail bar. It changed my path as a bartender.

The first “truly” craft cocktail I ever had was a gin smash at Public Street Draft House in Atlanta. Before that, all I knew about cocktails were martini bars and vodka. I watched the bartender hand mill the ice and craft this (at the time) mind-blowing drink. After that I was hooked. I came home to Charlotte and started reading all the cocktail books I could find and working on my own recipes.

But the thing that truly makes me love my job is guest interaction. I feel like I get paid to hang out with my friends — what could be better than that?

If you could have a drink with three people, dead or alive, who would they be and what would you drink?

A classic gin martini with Audrey Saunders of famed Pegu Club (aka the godmother of female mixologists). Also, Jane Austin — I would imagine we would drink tea. And Queen Elizabeth I because she was a boss. I would drink whatever she wanted; she was the queen, after all.

Bartender or mixologist?

You pick. I’m fine with either. Typically I would say bartender.

Where do you find inspiration for cocktail recipes?

Seasonality. Moods. Sometimes it’s the base spirit and trying to let it shine. Other times it’s a mood or a thought that I want to convey. I am inspired all the time.

Does science or art play a role in your drinks?

Both. I think my creative side helps me to dream up new drinks, and then the science and technical side helps me make it a reality. That also works in reverse — I’ll learn about a new technique, and that will inspire a new drink.

What’s your favorite drink to make?

The one I make at home … because it’s for me.

“Smoked Maple Whisky Flip”

  • 2 oz rye whisky
  • ¾ oz Tipplemans barrel smoked maple syrup (a Charleston company that makes bar mixers)
  • ¼ oz simple syrup
  • ¾ oz lemon juice
  • 1 egg white
  • Finished with aromatic bitters dropped on foam

Combine all ingredients (except bitters) and shake with ice for 20-30 seconds, then strain out the ice and shake again for another 30 seconds, pour into chilled coupe and finish with bitters.

You can drop them through the foam, or I spray them on to make a nice effect and a lovely aroma.

By Abby Deering

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