Scoping out Nashville’s Craft Cocktail Scene

Rolf and Daughters
Mrs. Wonk and I recently spent a fab week in Nashville. When we weren’t attending concerts or touring distilleries, you’d find us at one of the city’s many craft cocktail establishments. Prior to our departure I’d done my research and come up with a punchlist of Nashville bars – some well-known and beloved, others up-and-coming and deserving of your attention, should you visit:
  • Rolf and Daughters
  • Holland House Bar and Refuge
  • Patterson House
  • Husk
  • The Sutler
  • No. 308
  • Pinewood Social
Along the way were some unexpected serendipitous moments and a few surprising disappointments. Before getting to the reviews, some general observations on the Nashville cocktail scene.

Many of the most recommended cocktail bars serve as the bar portion of nice restaurants, rather than a standalone bar that may offer a food menu. This detail is important to understand if you’re planning to experience as many cocktail dens as possible. In our experience, if the restaurant closes its doors at 11 PM, so does the bar. So it behooves you to plan ahead and visit restaurant bars earlier in your evening, rather than showing up an 11:30 PM only to find a locked door.

It warmed my spirits-loving heart to see the products of many smaller distilleries represented at nearly early bar we visited. I can’t remember a single bar that didn’t have something from local Nashville favorite Corsair. Supporting your local distillery is great, but the same was true of St. George Spirits out of Alameda, CA—not exactly in the neighborhood. Again, every bar we visited had at least one St. George Spirit bottle on the back bar. I also saw plenty of love for Prichard’s, a tiny distillery an hour or so south of Nashville, specializing in rum, whiskey, and liqueurs.

Something I noticed–and perhaps this was just a statistical anomaly–relates to glassware selection. Usually I can look at a cocktail description on a menu and guess what sort of glass it’ll be served in. Most spirit forward drinks, with the exception of an old-fashioned, are typically served “up” in a coupe. In Nashville I was surprised by how many drinks I expected to be served up were instead served in a double old-fashioned glass. Not that it’s incorrect per se, it’s just different than I’m used to seeing elsewhere.With the preliminaries out of the way, let’s get to the bar reports

Rolf and Daughters – CocktailWonk Rating: 7/10

 

Rolf and Daughters is a “New American” cuisine restaurant that happens to have a reasonably ambitious bar program. The restaurant is an open, rectangular space with the bar area along one wall taking up about a third of the total floor plan. The overall vibe is casual modern, communal tables and lots of wood, brick, and Edison bulbs.  The cocktails aren’t serious Tales of the Cocktail contenders, but the selection is cleverly named with solid bones.

Mrs. Wonk started with the Spiker and Sponge (rye, peach shrub, honey, lemon, IPA, Peychaud’s) followed by the Deep Pimmside (Pimm’s #1, applejack, ginger, lemon, soda). I first enjoyed the seductive Pearway to Heaven (gin, pear brandy, crème de cassis, lemon, egg), and finished with a dessert cocktail, the Don’t Meletti Me Down  (port, Meletti, Smith and Cross, cinnamon, egg). All were tasty and well-executed.

Being a bar in service to a restaurant, on busy nights (and even Sunday night at 8 PM was busy), you’ll find yourself competing for space with red-wine swilling diners waiting for their table. If you have only one evening to check out craft cocktails in Nashville, there are better options. Since we had dinner reservations elsewhere, we didn’t get to extensively check out the food, but based on the one appetizer we did order and from watching the plates emanating from the kitchen, we’d definitely make a dinner reservation there the next time we’re in town, and stop in early to spend more time at the bar.

Holland House Bar and Refuge – CocktailWonk Rating: 8.5/10

 
The Holland House wasn’t originally high up on my list, but on a Tuesday night after a long drive from Louisville we were looking for both cocktails and real food for dinner. Holland House seemed like the best option. And what a fortuitous choice it was! Immediately upon entering the restaurant you’ll see the showcase square bar, with bartenders on the inside, surrounded by patrons on four sides. Several Nashville bars we visited had square bars, something I rarely see in other cities I’ve visited. The restaurant is moderately upscale southern  and the bar staff is attired with the 1920s leather aproned, mustachioed craftsman look.

Within seconds of skimming the cocktail menu I knew that it would be a long evening as I worked through several intriguing selections. Meanwhile the ever practical Ms. Wonk was selecting food items from an abundance of options. We worked our way through several cocktails including the Tom Waits for No Man (Mrs. Wonk’s favorite witty cocktail name of the week), Agent Provocateur, and The Lady Vanishes. I started chatting about mixology topics with our bartender, Ben. Since Mrs. Wonk and I agreed all of our cocktails so far had been excellent, I felt confident to go off-menu. The result was the wonderful mezcal-based Don Maximiliano, and Ben was gracious enough to share his original recipe.

Mrs. Wonk was particularly enamored by Ben’s very lumbersexual bar apron–all heavy-duty waxed cotton canvas, tanned leather, and silver clasp hardware– and asked him about it. Amusingly, the aprons are made in our hometown of Seattle. Who knew? Not us!  And Ben, our savvy Nashville bartender?  Originally a native of Spokane.  Left coast represent!

Cocktail Wonk’s advice: Don’t miss the Holland House. Go for dinner, sit at the bar, and say “Hi” to Ben for me.

Patterson House – CocktailWonk Rating: 6/10

 

The Patterson House is the big daddy of the Nashville craft cocktail scene, the bar on everybody’s short list of must-visit establishments. It’s often described as speakeasy style, although not particularly difficult to find (it’s right next door to the oh-so popular Catbird Seat restaurant), and no secret phrases or walking through refrigerator doors is required. What you will find upon entering is a small waiting room and a host stand. Beyond a curtain to the right, you can occasionally glimpse the bar. While you wait you can read the house rules, which boil down to: Don’t use your cell phone, no standing, mind your manners, be patient, and don’t hit on people. In short, a civilized bar that won’t get too crowded or too noisy, even on a busy Saturday night.

Yes, Patterson House gets a lot of love in the press and from the locals. However, I’m going to swim against the tide and state that Patterson House didn’t rock me like I was hoping for. (Update 11/2015 – Be sure to read my update on Patterson House at the end of this section below.)

The bar interior is 1920s speakeasy themed. Dimly lit, tin-ceilings, vest-wearing bartenders, flickering candlelight, all the things you’d expect. The rectangular bar sits in the middle of the room, while booths line the walls. A review of the spirits on the back bar got my nod of approval. So far, everything matched up with the glowing reviews I’d read.

The cocktail menu is very well executed, design-wise. House cocktails are broken down by spirit categories, and within each category ranked from most accessible through most challenging. (I applaud that bit of guidance for folks who want to try out new spirits but aren’t necessarily wonky about it.) The second portion of the menu is a lengthy list of classic cocktails. I’d vouch for everything on the classics list. Patterson House cocktail menu: Thumbs up!

So what’s my issue with Patterson House? The execution. We visited twice on a Wednesday night, before dinner at Catbird Seat and then several hours later after dinner for a nightcap. We spent a total of three hours at the bar, so I had plenty of time to observe the bartenders. I can write off one underwhelming drink or interminable wait as an unfortunate aberration. Unfortunately, there were multiple issues.

As someone who spends a lot of time in bars, observing bartenders, it was painful watching the drink construction at Patterson House. The first drink I ordered was a cognac-based cocktail stirred with ice. After depositing the mixing class with ice cubes in front of me, the bartender left and worked on other drinks for over ten minutes before returning. This was just one incident in a general start-stop-start-stop pattern I observed. Bartenders seemed to batch up tickets from several parties and then make eight or ten different drinks at once, with each shaker getting a brief moment of attention every few minutes. I’m not suggesting that drinks should be made one-by-one, but I think it’s good form to complete one party’s ticket before moving on to the next. I also noticed that our bartender was frequently referring to a menu reference. Perhaps he was new – fine, but even more reason to knock off the tickets one at a time.

I always seek out surprising, oddball spirits and flavor combinations in my cocktails, hoping to learn new tricks and expand my own horizon. You name it, I probably own it or have tried it. My first drink was one of the “challenging” Armagnac based cocktails (Armagnac, vermouth, rye, Amaro Nardini, mint), which I had high hopes for it. I’m familiar with each of its ingredients, but the drink was monotonic and mediciney. Interesting spirits combinations don’t always work out, and a good bar manager weeds out drinks that don’t make the cut. That didn’t happen in this case. A second, gin-based cocktail had the possibility of greatness except that the flavors were out of balance, as if the bartender made it haphazardly.

In fairness, Mrs. Wonk had a solid first drink prior to dinner (Piece of My Heart:  Pimm’s No.1, lemon, Amaro Albano, Earl Grey syrup, egg white, and strawberry) and enjoyed her nightcap of a Ramos Gin Fizz and took one for the team, continuing to imbibe until I had an enjoyable third drink.

The elements of a really good craft cocktail bar are present, and I’d recommend you try it out. However, I really wanted to enjoy Patterson House more than I did.

11/2015 Update: We re-visited Patterson House almost exactly a year later, and had a radically improved experience.  The bartenders were on top of their game, and all of our (too many) drinks were at least very solid, and several were exceptional. We also enjoyed a few off-menu spirits like brown-butter washed Plantation 5, combined with vermouth. Divine! I still stand by my original comments on my earlier review, but our repeat visit highlights that the bartender is a critical part of the experience.

Husk – 7.5/10

 
The bar at Nashville’s Husk restaurant is one of the rare breed that could easily stand on its own as a craft cocktail establishment. Husk serves elevated Southern cuisine by up-and-coming rockstar chef Sean Brock and is located in a converted multi-story mansion on a hill above downtown. Dining at Husk is very refined and stately, yet comfortable, with nothing out of place. The same applies to the bar.

On our first visit, we ate in the main dining room for dinner. While I had several excellent cocktails, I could only longingly gaze at the bar area as I walked by. It’s hard to write a bar review without visiting the bar! However, a last-minute opportunity for brunch at Husk a few days later allowed the opportunity to sit at the bar and observe like a wonk does.

The bar area is tucked away in the ground level and seats about twenty people. Looking through the bar I noticed that it was a moderately sized spirit collection, but every bottle up there was an impeccable choice for the slot it filled – exactly what’s needed, and not a bit more.

Just because the vibe of the bar at Husk is very refined doesn’t mean the cocktail menu is old-school and boring. Of the twelve or so cocktails on the menu (they change frequently), I found at least eight that piqued my interest, and all were well thought-out originals rather than rehashed classics with a fancy new name to confuse the civilians. Many of the drinks are guaranteed to be unique because they utilize ingredients made possible by Husk’s James Beard award winning kitchen. My personal favorite cocktails were the “Wild Aphrodite” (Pineau de Charentes, Manzanilla sherry, Amaro Nonino) and “To the Good, To the Bad” (embered-beet-infused mezcal, egg white, nasturtium cordial, lime, mole bitters). Look Ma! I’m eating beets!

Husk is a popular destination and, being a restaurant, isn’t open till the wee hours like a dedicated cocktail bar. You run the risk of a packed bar if you just pop by for a drink, but Husk is worth the effort to plan your visit in advance. (And Mrs. Wonk says don’t miss an opportunity to eat at Husk either—the pimento cheese alone is worth a trip back to Nashville.)

The Sutler – CocktailWonk Rating: 7/10

 

Let’s get the obvious question out of the way first: A sutler is a “…civilian merchant who sells provisions to an army in the field, in camp, or in quarters.”  The Sutler bar in Nashville came to us highly recommended by our bartender Ben at the aforementioned Holland House, although the Sutler couldn’t have been any more different in execution.

For starters, the Sutler (in its current incarnation, a “reimagined” version of the original Sutler, a longtime Nashville nexus for musicians, artists, and dive-bar aficionados, but located in the same restored theater building) is next door to a hotel in what feels like a strip mall on the outer edges of downtown Nashville. As I opened the door, I was blasted by honky-music coming from a band playing on a small stage at the end of a long, open rectangular room, with a large, well-lit kitchen on one side. Waitresses carrying around big pitchers of beer did nothing to assuage my inner voice saying, “This doesn’t seem like a place to get craft cocktails.”
A bouncer helpfully mentioned that the Sutler is two bars in one– The cocktail bar is downstairs, accessed via a curtained passageway just after the kitchen. On the other side, a stairwell leads down to a basement, the staircase ceiling jammed full of hanging cowboy boots. Ponder that for a moment. Arriving at the staircase bottom, still no cocktail bar in sight. Mrs. Wonk eventually poked her head through an unmarked door and discovered the bar area, looking like an old-fashioned brothel, a Victorian parlor, and a barber shop, all jammed together in a dark concrete basement.

The next surprise was the cocktail menu. Each cocktail is named after a song and described only by a name, base spirit, and a flavor synopsis, rather than a complete list of its ingredients. For instance, the “Fancy” is described as “Brandy – A full-bodied sour with the flavor of pecan.” Short of asking the bartender what’s in every drink, we were left to take a bigger leap of faith than usual when selecting a cocktail.

Our faith was well-rewarded. Everything we ordered was enjoyable. The Armagnac-based “Wildwood Flower” was a standout for me, while Mrs. Wonk particularly enjoyed the “Always on My Mind,” utilizing Corsair Ryemageddon. We struck up a conversation with Brad, the young bartender in charge of our drinks, and before long he was sharing drink recipe details and tips for other bars in Nashville to check out.

Long story short, if you’re looking for interesting cocktails in a quirky environment, the Sutler may be just the place you’re looking for.  Just don’t show up hungry—we arrived following a show at the Ryman downtown, only to discover that the kitchen had closed at 11 pm on a Friday.  After a couple of cocktails, the 24-hour Greek diner across the parking lot was a godsend.

No. 308 – CocktailWonk Rating: 9

 
No. 308 was easily one of the highlights of our bar tripping in Nashville. Without knowing any better however, you might dismiss it as just another hipster/dive bar serving beer and cheap G&Ts. It’s located off the beaten track in a commercial part of East Nashville. The interior is sparse – not much in the way of unnecessary décor – but who needs that when you have big video screens playing movies with no sound while a mix of 80s/90s music thumps in the background.
The cocktail menu at No. 308 arrives as a single sheet on a clipboard, utilizing a faux typewriter font for a ramshackle look. The first think you’ll notice is the punny drink names – Rye ‘N Goslings (rye, Gosling’s blackstrap, ginger, egg white and lime) or the Chili Chili Bang! Bang! (mezcal, amontillado sherry, grilled pineapple, Ancho Reyes chili liqueur). Spend some times contemplating the ingredients and it quickly becomes clear that No. 308 draws inspiration from all over the spirits kingdom. Everything on the menu (even the vodka drink) was something I’d seriously consider ordering. I particularly enjoyed the Sherry Darling (scotch, spiced pear liqueur, amontillado sherry, Amaro Sibilla), and Mrs. Wonk was partial to the Bottle Rocket (tequila, green chartreuse, rosemary, lime and salt).
Here’s the thing: No. 308 is really two different bars – outwardly it appears to be a typical neighborhood hang in East Nashville. But spend some time communing with the cocktail menu, and you’ll see there’s cocktail wizardry hidden in plain sight. Owner Ben Clemons has competed at the national level at Bombay Sapphire and Appleton Estate cocktail competitions. It was a busy Saturday night when we visited, and he was plenty busy pouring shots and beers, but soon enough Ben and I realized we were fellow spirit wonks, and it was off to the races. Special bonus cocktail rounds magically appeared, one featuring a proprietary fruit-based spirit that Ben’s in the process of development for eventual release. Ben was a charming host, even in a raging Saturday night crowd, and we wished we’d had more time to stay.  High on our list for a return visit to Nashville.

If you’re truly wonky about cocktails, you don’t want to miss Bar No. 308. Just leave your fancy clothes and expectations about what a craft cocktail bar should look like at home.

Pinewood Social – CocktailWonk Rating: 7.5

 
Pinewood Social was an unexpected bonus stop on our last day while waiting for our evening flight. Usually 4 PM on a Sunday isn’t the optimal time to evaluate a bar, but you make the best of the situation at hand. Pinewood Social isn’t just a bar, rather, it’s a former trolley barn converted into a giant indoor/outdoor space featuring a six lane bowling alley, outdoor plunge pool and hot tub (for the warmer months), bocce ball court, full-service restaurant, coffee bar, and cocktail bar. It’s a relatively recent addition to the Nashville scene and owned by the same savvy brothers who own Patterson House.
Whereas Patterson House encompasses you in a dark cocoon, the vibe at Pinewood social is big and open with large windows that let the sunlight stream in. The cavernous space, high open-truss ceilings and bowling alley in the next room give it a high-end sports bar vibe as opposed to a dark, craft cocktail den. The bar area is large and square, somewhat like the Patterson House, but on a larger scale.

While you certainly wouldn’t be out of place ordering a pint at Pinewood Social, the cocktail menu is distinctly non-sports bar like. I had concerns at first, given the initial ambience, but a few minutes with the menu laid those to rest. I started with the Sword of D’Artagnan (Argmagnac, pear brandy, Laphroaig, and bitters), the followed it up with a Three Roots of the Tree (rum, dry curacao, lemon, falernum, and nutmeg). Mrs Wonk enjoyed her Meaning of Happiness (Pimm’s #1, cognac, lemon, spiced pear liqueur, ginger syrup). Three drinks, three winners!  (Mrs. Wonk also gives high marks to the specialty coffee that finished her Nashville experience, the Tennessee Pride:  a latte with fennel and rosemary-infused maple syrup, topped with sage-rubbed bourbon sea salt.  Sounds like a mess, but it was a tasty burst of caffeine before a long night of travel.)

—-
Nashville impressed me with what I saw of the cocktail scene, and there were several other bars that we didn’t make it to including the 404 Kitchen and City House (where we had dinner but were not able to spend time at the bar) that get great reviews. The city has a vibrant food scene and a cocktail scene to match. Oh, and that little music scene thing—from belt-buckle country to local rockers Jack White and the Black Keys– will keep you occupied between drinks. It will be interesting to see if more standalone bars with serious craft cocktail credentials arrive.Nashville these days a city on the rise–a little bit Brooklyn, a touch of Portland, a dash of LA (and maybe a little too much Vegas for our tastes, having seen the Broadway District in full blown Saturday night mode )—and growing fast by the minute.  It’s also an easy target for those who would dismiss anything in “flyover country” as having any redeeming value.  That said, it was a great experience for us on all levels—killer music, great food, friendly people, fabulous bar scene. Highly recommended for a long weekend or longer if you can—there is much to see.  Nashville, we will definitely be back!
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