Kellie Thorn Dishes On Five Hot Topics In The Bar Biz

By B.E. Mintz |

As Beverage Director for the celebrated restaurant and bar, Empire State South, Kellie Thorn has seen plenty of fads come and go. Ever the consummate professional, she’d rather avoid the notion of “trends” altogether. However, with a little journalistic nudging, she agreed to reflect on some hot button issues that Neat Pour has noticed at bars as of late.

Botanicals, Gin, and Vodka

Botanicals are a buzzword in the industry currently. London’s Dandelyan was showered with critical praise following their ‘Modern Botany’ and ‘Modern Life of Plants’ menus. Likewise, New Western Gins with their botanical forward flavors are pushing the spirit to the front of the backbar.

Thorn believes that the shift in gin serves as a good marker of a larger change. “Looking at our bar, when we first started, every [gin] cocktail could be substituted with vodka. But, as people’s knowledge and palates progressed, it changed,” she recalled. “Now, they ask, ‘What gins do you have? What gin cocktails do you have?’ The botanicals are really about a progression of palates.”

The example prompts another question: Where does gin end and flavored vodka begin? The Beverage Director believes that answer can be found with consumer and the producer.

“As far as what I personally drink, I’m pretty traditionalist. I drink London Dry Gin in my martinis. But, I think that’s a discussion left for people that are in that industry of creating spirits,” she offered. “I respect a well made spirit and as far as what I’m looking to get out of a cocktail… or what my guest is looking for—because frankly a lot of guests do not want something that has that much juniper forward and want something more floral or citrus driven—and if that’s a way for me to get them to drink more gin in some form, that’s great.”

However, Thorn stressed that the answer ultimately lays with the producers. “The gin industry is not willing to put a law forward because that would hinder the plans of a lot of companies. But, as the rule stands right now, you need to have some juniper in it. There are lot of products out there that taste nothing like juniper, but you know it’s in there in some amount. So, where do you draw that line? I don’t know.”

Aesthetic Garnishes

Empire State employs a miniature clothespin garnish in their sherry based The Gold Cycle drink. As of late, there has been much debate about whether such aesthetic garnishes are frivolous. Thorn simply believes it’s a matter of keeping the customer happy. “People get really excited about tiny clothespins,” she explained. “It’s a nice way to find something to attach visually to a drink that doesn’t necessarily need a garnish.”

True to its name–The Gold Cycle (Photo by Neat Pour)

In addition, she argued that the technique is an effective marketing tool. “Some drinks don’t need a lift or citrus—or anything. But, it’s something to catch people’s eyes. This (The Gold Cycle) is one of those drinks that is not necessarily going to jump off the page to a lot of customers; it starts off with Amontillado Sherry and then aged cachaça,” Thorn elaborated. “So, we wanted it to be something that people would ask about, something that is photogenic.”

When pushed as to whether that answer means that she is in favor of aesthetic garnishes, Thorn quickly replied, “I’m okay with aesthetic garnishes.”

Low ABV

Empire State South was ahead of the curve on low ABV drinks. The bar program has received accolades for their low proof program since opening eight years ago. “We love sherry. We love aromatized wines. It’s great to see bartenders embracing the category. It offers guest a way to prolong their night,” Thorn added. “[Being in a restaurant,] they’re also cocktails that we can get our wine loving guests to embrace. Pairing cocktails with food is hard, but something like this goes well with food, lot of acidity and not too much heat.”

Plus, there’s an added bonus. “We’re in Atlanta, where people drive a lot. So, it’s nice to offer them a more responsible way to have a couple drinks.”

Kellie Thorn (Courtesy Empire State South)

Molecular Mixology

ESS’ program skews heavily towards traditionalism, but science is unavoidable. While the bar stays away from rotovaps, centrifuges, and their ilk, the program still does take advantage of the knowledge (and toys) in the back of house.

“I’ve been really fortunate to work with talented chefs here at Empire State South. It’s a very inclusive environment,” Thron stated. “[I consult them] when I’m trying to figure out how to really make a flavor shine without making a syrup—we often resort to sugar, which is fine—but when I’m trying to preserve a taste without doing that, You actually have these tools in your house like a thermal circulator, I’m really lucky to have that.”

The current drink list employs the thermal circulator to create a peach preserve or as the creator phrases it, “The ability to find flavors and really let them sing.”

Team Tastings

The entire ESS beverage staff voluntarily meets weekly (at 8:45am!) to taste together. Tastings once were the domain of the buyer, a briefing during lineup, or an occasional treat for a staffer. However, modern bars are increasingly adopting the model of team-wide tastings. Thorn told NP that despite the early start time, the attendance rate is about 99%. She attributes the success to the high caliber of employee at the establishment as well as a team-building vibe.

Takeaways from the tastings are crucial to better service. “You need to have a way to speak about spirits beyond ‘it tastes like gin.’ Cognac tastes like something other than cognac. Tequila tastes like something other than tequila. Actually, it could taste like lemon zest or orange zest or juniper,” she elaborated. “Those are true things about spirits; they don’t just taste like a thing; they taste like several things.”

By tastings as a group, those adjectives do not exist in the vacuum of one mind or a cheat sheet. Instead, an atmosphere for brainstorming and discourse ensues. The collective approach also allows for a variety of spirits to be tasted when participants share trophy bottles from their travels or homebars.

Other times, Thorn’s WSET certified bonafides are manifest and the group attacks the backbar with a ‘benchmark’ system. “If we’re going by category, we’ll set a benchmark first. This is Beefeater. This is what London Dry Gin is. Now, let’s taste all the other gins on our backbar,” she provided as an example.

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