In our Rising Stars series, seasoned beverage professionals spotlight five of the most outstanding up-and-comers in their city—and discuss the mark each is making on the drinks scene.
Ten years ago, Atlanta bartenders could barely persuade distributors to bring mezcal or vermouth to their nascent market. Today, the city is home to dozens of critically acclaimed beverage programs (including two past finalists for the James Beard Award for Outstanding Bar Program). At the hands of a dynamic and innovative crop of beverage professionals, Atlanta has achieved a generation’s worth of growth and change in the last decade, cementing its identity as a drinking town. A city where drinkers once rarely strayed from bourbon on the rocks or vodka tonics now features bars with vermouth flights, Chartreuse shot machines, and menus that prioritize creativity and fun over mass-market appeal.
The innovation and energy aren’t limited to mixed drinks, though; wine lists have become more daring, niche, and even rebellious, and the city counts among its wine professionals a growing number who’ve passed the Court of Master Sommeliers’ rigorous Advanced Sommelier exam. And with more than 40 new breweries in the works across Georgia (and an industry-wide legislative push to loosen the state’s distribution laws), the craft beer scene is booming, with little sign of easing up. In short, it’s never been a better time to drink in Atlanta.
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From a bartender redefining the hotel bar experience to a wine educator who pays it forward, here are five of the talented women and men working to raise the city’s profile even further.
The Innovative Hotel Bartender
Rising Star: Tokiwa Sears, bartender, Bar Margot at the Four Seasons
Nominated by: Tiffanie Barriere, independent beverage consultant
Tiffanie Barriere, who rose to prominence as one of Atlanta’s early cocktail innovators during her time at the award-winning airport bar One Flew South from 2008 to 2015, cites Tokiwa Sears’s work at Bar Margot as a preeminent example of the job of the modern hotel bartender. “Tokiwa knows how to serve it up with killer class and personality,” Barriere says. “She is so creative and suave with her approach to any spirit and customer.” Barriere draws attention not just to Sears’s creativity in drink mixing but to her innate knack for hospitality—crucial behind any bar, but especially a hotel bar. “She stands and builds within and beyond the craft,” says Barriere, “and I have nothing but respect for her.”
Behind the bar at Bar Margot, Tokiwa Sears is quietly redefining what a modern hotel bar experience can be. Sears, who has also tended bar at Atlanta cocktail standard-bearers One Flew South and Holeman & Finch, deftly balances the formality of a classic hotel bar with the ease and warmth of her own hospitality style. “A lot of classic cocktails came out of some of the most beautiful historic hotel bars in the world,” says Sears. “We’re focused on craft, and classics, but we took the edge off feeling uptight.”
The bar is inspired by fictional Wes Anderson character Margot Tenenbaum, and Sears says she enjoys the challenge of creating drinks that pay homage, such as Mordecai’s Revenge, a tequila cocktail with prickly pear and Chartreuse, garnished with a peacock feather. But beyond getting creative behind the bar, Sears enjoys the formal atmosphere and style of a classic hotel bar. At a high-end hotel, guests have high expectations, and Sears is thrilled by the challenge of meeting—and exceeding—them. “I enjoy the atmosphere at a hotel,” she says, “and I prefer that style of bartending. It’s a little bit more formal, but you can still have fun with the guests. You just read [them] and adjust your level of service accordingly.”
The Obscure Wine Sherpa
Steven Grubbs, who manages the much-lauded wine program at Hugh Acheson’s restaurant Empire State South, admires Stephen James for his passion in seeking out and sharing niche wines with buyers and consumers through Uva Imports, a small importer of Italian wines based in Atlanta. “Stephen is super passionate about what he’s doing,” Grubbs says, “and he’s turning on lots of people—both wine buyers and consumers—to some obscure but often very affordable Italian wines, mostly by virtue of his own enthusiasm but also because the wines are great, too.”
As the regional sales manager at a small, independent company, James finds that no two workdays look alike. He might spend two weeks in a warehouse fulfilling orders, or he might be leading a tasting at a retail store. It’s a far cry from his previous career: playing in a rock band. When James moved to New York City with his band in 2006, he landed a job waiting tables at the French restaurant Pastis, where he was first exposed to the world of fine wine. From there, wine began to supplant music as James’s primary interest—not that he sees them as terribly different. “Wine does for your taste buds what music does for your ears,” he says. “You just have to be willing to cultivate your attention to notice it.”
James’s path later led him to Athens, Georgia, where he worked with Grubbs as an assistant sommelier, and eventually to Staplehouse, one of the most critically acclaimed restaurants in the U.S., where he served as the beverage director from August 2015 to November 2016. In March 2018, James joined Uva, which seeks out quality Italian wines authentic to their regions—“wines that tell a story,” James says. In this position, he says, his mission is to get people excited about wine in a way that isn’t intimidating or off-putting. Again, he uses music for a comparison: someone who listens to pop may be curious to explore other, perhaps more complex, forms of music, and James wants to help guide them. “You can give people the low-hanging fruit and not show them anything else, and they’ll still be happy,” he says, “but when you’re able to give them something they can enjoy but also learn about in a non-intimidating way, you’ve created a culture people come back for.”
The One-Woman Show
Miles Macquarrie, a partner at the Beard-nominated Kimball House and the newly opened Watchman’s, admires the sheer amount of thought—and work—that Mercedes O’Brien pours into her drinks at Kevin Gillespie’s Gunshow. “You can tell that she’s working alongside the chefs in the kitchen, putting lots of prep hours in,” says Macquarrie. And while much of O’Brien’s early work at Gunshow involved roaming the restaurant’s dining room with her dim sum–style cocktail cart, Macquarrie says he’s excited about following O’Brien’s work behind the bar at Gillespie’s next project: Cold Beer.
O’Brien joined Gunshow nearly five years ago, and in that time the cocktail program she oversees has evolved from a “one-woman show” with only three cocktails a night to a fully staffed operation and a 10-drink menu. “With a completely open kitchen, and [my] childhood ambition to cook, my cocktails represent the fluid relationships we’ve established between chefs and bartenders,” says O’Brien. “This means a constant exchange of ingredients, techniques, and ideas between what could be seen as two divided working worlds.” That exchange is manifest in drinks with ingredients ranging from sunchoke-infused vodka to green peanut oil to brûléed cinnamon (the latter of which is found in O’Brien’s most popular drink, the Toasted Old Fashioned).
“The fact that I’ve been nominated [as a rising star] by Miles is full circle and extremely humbling for me,” O’Brien says, adding that Macquarrie’s creations at Leon’s Full Service in Decatur opened her eyes to the possibilities of craft drinks. “There is a direct line from his constant curiosity and ease of hospitality, past and present, to my current ambitions in the cocktail world,” she says. “As a constant admirer not only of his work but also of his support in the overall Atlanta community, I am beyond thankful to be held in his praise.”
The Homebrewer-turned-Medal Winner
Because the Wrecking Bar is a brewpub, its beers don’t often leave the pub, explains Molly Gunn. “But whenever we’re lucky enough to get a keg of Neal Engleman’s awesome brews,” she says, “we are thrilled.” Gunn is the founder and owner of The Porter Beer Bar, which lists over 800 beers on its menu and has championed the regional craft beer movement since 2008, when it opened. “The level of excellence of Neal’s beer is unusually high for a brewpub,” Gunn says, “and he seems to have mastered all styles, from trendy milkshake IPAs to the classic Kölsch.”
Engleman’s first foray into brewing craft beer was prompted by a gift 10 years ago, he was given his first homebrewing kit. He joined the staff at Wrecking Bar Brewpub in 2011 as a server, just a few months after it opened, and he brewed his first batch of beer for the pub that November. In January 2013, Engleman was promoted to his current role—brewmaster—but he still looks to his homebrew roots for inspiration: the constant fine-tuning, the attention to detail, and the tiny adjustments that make each batch slightly better. Says Engleman, “That attention to detail—every time you brew, you’re trying to do something better, even if it’s a small adjustment. You’ll notice it. It can be a small upgrade, a different piece of equipment, that makes the beer that much better.” But in the end, he adds, “if we’re not happy with the beer, that’s what floor drains are for.”
In the near future, Engleman plans to maximize Wrecking Bar’s barrel capacity, experiment more with mixed fermentation and wild brewing at the restaurant’s farm property outside Atlanta, and increase the brewery’s canning production. He also wants to continue advocating for his peers in the Georgia beer scene with events like the Strong Beer Festival. “The beer scene in Georgia has gotten much better, and I feel like we’re a small part of that,” he says. “Knowing that it can still get better is what we work toward.”
The Pay-It-Forward Mentor
Justin Amick first worked with Tim Willard at the Spence, Richard Blais’s now-shuttered Atlanta restaurant. Amick served as general manager and sommelier there, and it was at the Spence that he helped Willard prepare for the Advanced Sommelier exam, which Willard passed in 2013. Amick characterizes Willard not only as a savvy, sharp wine professional but also as charismatic and passionate about the industry. “But what sets Tim apart,” says Amick, “is that he is approachable to those curious about wine, and he has a dedication to education and mentorship. He is a great educator, but beyond that, he dedicates much of his time outside the office to mentoring young professionals, helping others study for the Advanced Somm exam, and working to elevate the level of expertise in Atlanta’s wine market. He is no doubt going to continue to do great things in the world of wine, and he is definitely a rising star.”
Willard has worked in the service industry since his first dishwashing gig, when he was 14. He didn’t plan on shaping that into a career at the time; as an undergrad, Willard studied animal science, and he later earned a master’s in environmental science. That background, he says, formed the foundation for his love of wine. “I think there’s a really natural jump to wine when you’re interested in science,” Willard says. “The science of viticulture is amazing.” That passion feeds nicely into his work as the director of education for European Cellars. “With consumer tastings,” he says, “it’s a great opportunity to make sure laypeople who just like wine can understand a little bit more about the magic of wine—which is science, but you have to put it in a way that gets them excited about it.”
For Willard, sharing that magic at every step of the chain—whether by walking consumers through a tasting or introducing somms to a family of vintners who have been making excellent wine for generations—is what fulfills him the most. “Passion is contagious,” he says, “and turning on just one person to a wine or producer creates endless connections and opportunities. This is the most valuable stock in our business.”
Gray Chapman is an Atlanta-based journalist who writes about spirits, beauty, and culture; she was formerly the managing editor of Tales of the Cocktail. Follow her on Twitter.