The craft cocktail renaissance has planted its flag in Alpharetta

Restaurants in Alpharetta have adapted to the thirsty demands of bar patrons.  Craft cocktails have officially been infused into the DNA of dining.

By JONATHAN SMITH

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ALPHARETTA, Ga. – AJ Noegel used to walk into Ipp’s Pasta Bar and set up his station in about five minutes.  A towel at his hip, a church key opener and corkscrew were the only tools he ever needed in his arsenal behind the bar, but these tools simply won’t cut it anymore.

“Around 2015 I noticed more and more people asking for drinks that I had to look up,” said Noegel, a former bartender at Ipp’s in Alpharetta, Georgia.  “Jack and Coke must not cut it for regular folks anymore.  People always want something that wows them or something that they have never heard before.”

The craft cocktail scene has officially made its mark on Alpharetta.  In the past few years, restaurants have focused their efforts on higher quality bar programs to complement their food.

“I had to learn on the fly just to keep up with people,” Noegel said.  “I was doing homework for my job on top of my schoolwork just to try to impress people, but it paid off in the end.”

Noegel noticed that as his level of knowledge rose of his craft behind the bar, so did his tips.  Many people these days want an all-inclusive experience when they go out, and they seem to be willing to pay for it.

Dining as an experience

“I’ve always seen it as a balance,” said Christian Zak, head bartender at MADE Kitchen and Cocktails.  “If I go out and get good food, I want a good drink.  It’s a whole experience and when one thing isn’t up to par, it can throw the whole night off.”

Zak has made an effort to bring this experience to his bar.  At MADE Kitchen and Cocktails, he takes classic cocktails and throws in his own unique twist to give the guest a taste of something new.

“Bourbon is so hot right now that anything you can do to spin it, to be creative – it is just that much more in demand,” Zak said.

Personal flare

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Zak routinely makes his own bitters to mix in his drinks, typically adjusting the flavors based on the season.  He uses his winterberry bitters in his Fall Winter Manhattan, his go-to drink.

“The other day I had a nice young lady come in and ask for a Manhattan,” Zak said.  “I made her one of my custom ones and she gulped down three others before she left.”

Zak even makes his own liquors in the form of a seasonal “cello.”  As a spin-off of the classic limoncello, Zak makes anything from a strawberrycells, orangecello, peachcello and anything you can think of.

The cocktail renaissance in Alpharetta has also achieved the goal of making brown liquor more approachable.  Seeing passionate bartenders work with their ingredients to make something greater than the sum of its parts is what will drive customers through that front door.

Well-aged classic

MADE isn’t the only Alpharetta restaurant twisting the classics.  850F Barpizzautilizes something that everyone wastes: Time.

“We age our Manhattans in oak barrels for three months,” said Danny Shearer, the head bartender at 850F Barpizza.  “We make them in batches and store them on our liquor shelves until the time is right.”

The oak aging mellows out the cocktail and makes it more approachable for the untrained palate, which is a good change of pace to the elaborate whiskey menu at 850F Barpizza.

The menu features 261 different whiskeys, which gives them the sizable lead as the largest whiskey collection in Georgia.  At first sight, the hundreds of bottles may seem overwhelming to a whiskey novice, but Shearer can always give the guest a push in the right direction.  He did, in fact, hand-select the whole collection.

Drinking for rewards

Following up the concept of making the harsher liquors less intimidating is Branch and Barrel in Avalon.  Branch and Barrel recently started up their “Bourbon 101 Club,” a reward system based on the bourbons you try.

Guests are encouraged to try something new every time to expand their horizons, but if they want to sip on Buffalo Trace for every drink, they will still accumulate points.  These points can be redeemed from free drinks and even a dinner for the truly committed club members, and they do mean truly committed.

Club for social drinking

“I was never a big bourbon guy, but one of my friends told me that I could get free booze so I figured I would give it a try,” Chris Hayes said.  Hayes frequently visits Branch and Barrel for a bourbon after work most weekends and joined their bourbon club earlier this year.

“I usually cash in my points as soon as I earn them,” Hayes said.  “I always try to get friends to come out with me because it’s a lot more fun than drinking alone.  You learn a lot more.”

New watering holes

Because of the successful revival of the craft cocktail bars, many new ones are sprouting up all over Alpharetta.  With the revamped downtown area coming soon, this could be perfect timing for new restaurants to make a splash in the industry with unique drinks.

Chef Todd Hogan of Branch & Barrel is bringing Prairie American Kitchen & Hearth to the area.  Hogan described the restaurant as a flexible comfort food experience that can accommodate business lunches or family dinners, which complements the location well.

Vin25 is also expanding to downtown Alpharetta with the new Citizen Soul restaurant.  Vin25 is a classy dinner and cocktail spot in Roswell, Georgia, that features many craft cocktails and is expected to bring a similar vibe to the Alpharetta area.

How far can it go?

All great things come to an end, but the thirst for craft cocktails doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon.  With twisted classics, rewards clubs and even house-made bitters already in the fold, it’s a wonder what some bars will have to do next to keep the unique vibe.  Are cocktails just a fad that will fade away in a few years?  Maybe, but they should probably just be enjoyed while they’re here.

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