Let me start out by saying that Kellie Thorn is one of the most amazing people I have ever had the opportunity to talk to. She is such a fun and loving person filled to the brim with experiences and knowledge. She graciously allowed me to take some time out of her day to ask her questions about her time behind the bar and what some of her thoughts were about being in the spirits/hospitality industry. I left the conversation filled with all of the feels and an enormous amount of inspiration. I felt all these feels again as I wrote out these words. I hope you take the time to read what Kellie has to say. I guarantee you will leave with some things to ponder and will be planning your next trip to Atlanta just so you can sit at the bar at Empire State South to have her mix you a drink (in high heels, I might add) and soak up some of her knowledge. Without further adieu, Kellie Thorn.
TWW: So let’s start out with a little bit about yourself for the folks at home who haven’t had the pleasure of sitting at your bar.
KT: Okay, so I started in the hospitality industry sixteen years ago behind a host stand, and I began bartending thirteen years ago. Wow, I feel old. I’ve been over the program at Empire State South for almost five years and just over two years ago I took on the role of Beverage Director for my boss, Hugh Acheson. In addition to work I love to find opportunities to use my skills to give back to my community and I am currently helping to organize talent, product donations, and recipes for two charity events that will raise money for the likes of Wholesome Wave Georgia and Community Farmer’s Markets. Things outside of the beverage world that I love, i.e. hobbies and such: Yoga, Dance Parties, Travel, Teaching myself to cook complex cuisines like Indian, Reading, and of course, hanging out with my ultimate roll dog and son Finnian. Also, I have it in my head that I will learn how to knit or crochet this year…
TWW: Empire State South has an incredible menu. What dish should everybody try when they come to ESS?
KT: Empire State South is a very seasonal focused restaurant so we change the menu a lot. However, one dish that seems to stick around often is our Farm Egg. I guess you could call it our “flagship” or “signature” dish, however cheesy that may be. The farm egg does change seasonally, but the base idea is always there. Texturally, it’s amazing and overall it’s just a really nice comfort food. Another dish to try would be our Charcuterie. We make it in-house so all of the curing, fermenting, and aging is done by our chefs at Empire. Everything on the plate is very unique and definitely worth trying. Empire State South is a very involved placed as we are open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as such we do a lot of stuff in house.
TWW: Atlanta is one hell of a town. What drink do you think best represents your city? Not necessarily its history, but where it is today and where it’s going.
KT: This is a really hard question to answer and to be honest, I don’t really know. The thing about Atlanta is you have a growing city with a lot of people. However, there is a running theme that people are very open to cocktail culture these days. It is very easy to walk into a bar or restaurant and get a good cocktail at a lot of places. 5 years ago, putting Absinthe in a cocktail was a really hard thing for us to do and get people to try it. Now, it’s no big deal. There may not be a cocktail specifically that speaks to Atlanta, but the culture is awesome. People love their bourbon.
TWW: What drink do you make for your best friend when she comes over?
KT: As a working bartender, and after a long shift, its rare for me to mix at home. When we are playing Cards Against Humanity, we are passing around Mezcal. Recently, while watching Broad City, we were drinking Weller neat. If we are in the mood, a 50-50 Gin Martini. What a great cocktail, right? I love making a big pitcher of those with lemon twist to start things off right, but often its a bottle of mezcal or whiskey that we pass around the table.
TWW: How do you develop your recipes?
KT: This is always an interesting question. In general and as far as formulas go, I turn to the classics. The balancing act is all there. Take a sour, it’s 2 part spirit, 1 part sour to 3/4 sugar. Of course you can change this- its not set in stone, after all- especially when using liqueurs that are sweet or if you are trying to pull off a certain texture. But I always start with a classic and move from there. I work in a hive with a lot of ideas, a lot of ingredients, farmers, chefs, etc. Sometimes I get inspired eating Indian food and will come to the bar and see how to incorporate those spices. Right now, I’m using a lot of Eucalyptus at Empire State South, but I was inspired while I was working at our bar in Savannah. The summer air in Savannah is thick with the scent of Eucalyptus and Jasmine. I would ride my bike around the city and think about how I could capture that in my cocktail. Typically though, always start with the classics and work your way from there.
When starting out, its about reigning it in. When starting a drink and there are seven ingredients, it becomes about how to bring it in and cut things out. Complexity and simplicity. Or better yet, complexity through simplicity. Sprits are already complex flavors, even something like Vodka. You can put seven different vodkas beside one another and they will all taste very different and it’s extremely important to recognize that. You can be simple and put out a lot of complexity. It’s all about the ingredients you use and how you enhance it.
To end, try to never do more than 5 ingredients in a cocktail. Your goal is to pull out certain flavors of certain ingredients and make those ingredients make sense. Ask yourself, ‘Do I really need this ingredient?’, ‘Does it matter to the drink?’, ‘Am I only putting this Green Chartreuse in there because its the cool thing to do?’. Sometimes you can, and a lot of ingredients can come together, but most of the time it becomes scattered and you go to brown town and are like, ‘What am I drinking?’.
TWW: Any advice for the novice at home or freshly starting out bartender?
KT: I think that you should get to know your classics and your formulas. We all say that, but its true. Our entire opening menu at Empire State South was classics and small riffs on classics. The reason we reserve them, and the reason that they are classics, is because they are executable, timeless, and great formulas to build off of. Trust your instincts and your palate, but build off of people you respect and admire. I work with chefs, sommeliers, and coffee people and each and every one of them help me a lot with flavors. After tasting six different cocktails your palate is wrecked and you need those people to help you reign it in.
TWW: Where do you draw your inspiration from when mixing new cocktails?
KT: All kinds of places. I’m friends with a lot of farmers and people who forage so I definitely get a lot of inspiration from them. Sometimes it comes from a feeling that I am trying to encapsulate — childhood or a Wednesday. So I take that feeling and figure out what kind of flavors remind me of my childhood and how I can capture that in a cocktail. Being inspired by other bars, chefs, and getting to work with amazing food. When it’s what you do, there is so much to be inspired by.
TWW: Who inspires you? Did you have a mentor or are you self taught?
KT: I’m self taught because I started bartending 13 or 14 years ago in nightclubs and punk rock bars making Purple Hooter Shooters and throwing whiskey shots and PBRs at punk rockers. About seven years ago I went to BarSmarts. I knew this was my career, that I loved hospitality and bartending and all of the people, this is something I always came back to and that is when it all started clicking. I started studying online and was working on my Cicerone. I got into reading a lot of cocktail books about spirits, started playing around with those formulas, and started going to bars around town doing the same thing. No one really taught me, and I fell on my face a lot, but I always looked to my community and learned from therm. There is such a great community of bartenders in Atlanta who support each other, are excited for one another, lift another up and give back just as much. I am forever thankful to Hugh Acheson who gave me an amazing opportunity to run the program at Empire State South, that put me in the world of professional and talented people in our industry that continue to inspire and teach me on a daily basis.
TWW: There are a lot of trends these days in the industry. Are there any you aren’t specifically keen to and wish would just go away?
KT: I’m not a big fan of meat in a cocktail, but that’s a personal thing. I love using olive oil in cocktails, especially with egg since it emulsifies very well and creates a cool texture. I just never jumped on the meat bandwagon, cereal too. I would rather figure out how to create those flavors through certain ingredients rather than infusing it. It’s more of a challenge to make a cocktail meaty than the infusion. Again, it’s all personal preference, but I am not into those things.
Another thing I am not particularly on board with is this, “It’s going to take 15 minutes to make this cocktail, deal with it.” trend. I think its our job to figure out a way to create great, craft cocktails and move as swiftly as possible. Ultimately, we are here to curate and facilitate great service.
TWW: Any trends that you particularly love?
KT: Tiki is huge and I LOVE Tiki cocktails. Not taking ourselves too seriously is key, we need to be more whimsical and fun. Honing craft and being professional is important, but don’t be snobby about it. I love Tiki because you can take it into your own style. We don’t do a lot of crushed ice here at ESS, so I have to find a way to make it in our style which is not subdued. Last year we had a drink on the menu that was served up in a coupe with three flowers floating in it. You don’t have to put it in a mug, but you do have to find the whimsical in it.
TWW: What are you most looking forward to in 2015?
KT: I have so much happening and I am excited about it all! I get to do a lot of charity work and one special dinner that I am excited about is called Spring Tonic to benefit my friends who are urban farmers and foragers. We all go foraging together and create meals and cocktails using wild things.
I just returned from France where I did a Cognac education program and became a certified cognac trainer. I’ll also be participating in Bar5 this year which is a huge honor. Bar5 is a certification program that is the next level up from BarSmarts, it’s kind of like getting your masters. It incorporates spirits knowledge, cocktail knowledge, and there is a practical invovled— super cool program. It’s a 5 day intensive in New York.
Finally, Empire State South will be 5 years old! I feel like it has become an established part of the community and our Sommelier is on the long list for a James Beard award.
TWW: Where are your favorite places to grab a dram or a cocktail in Atlanta?
KT: Kimball House, they are incredibly accommodating to my little bot and will make him kid mocktails. Last Word is awesome, Paper Plane, Lusca, and Grain, just to name a few.
TWW: What drink did you make for The Whiskey Women and why?
KT: I made the Circuit Hymn, and it is currently on our menu at Empire State South. While creating it, I pulled from the existing flavors already present in the bourbon and focused on enhancing them.
TWW: What advice do you have to give all of the ladies out there?
KT: In general, I think its important to be a professional in this industry. It’s a very interesting profession to be in; you don’t have a degree and there is no one out there actively looking for you. You have to propel yourself forward which means you have to be a self starter and commit yourself to further education. It’s important to think about that kind of stuff.