We sat down with Kellie Thorn of Empire State South in Atlanta to chat about her work, brandy, and her drink for January’s Brandy, She’s So Fine Box, the Cherchez La Femme!
S&S: How did your journey lead to Empire State South?
KT: I was the lead bartender at TAP, a beer-focused bar, in 2010. I had completed the BAR Smarts Advanced in 2008, which had really piqued my interest in classic cocktails. I spent my days pulling and geeking out on craft beers and my nights at home experimenting with cocktails using produce I had picked up from my farmers market. When news came out that Hugh Acheson was opening a restaurant and bar in Atlanta and was in need of a bar manager, some co-workers of mine at TAP who were opening the project with him thought I would be a good fit. That was nearly nine years ago.
S&S: What are some characteristics of the Atlanta drinking scene these days?
KT: Due to liquor license laws in Atlanta, most great bars in Atlanta are also restaurants. Because of this, you see a lot of seasonality, local produce, and culinary techniques implemented in cocktail menus in our city. This also means that, unlike some markets where the bar is sometimes the lacking piece of a great restaurant, nearly all of our great restaurants are also a place to get a great drink.
S&S: Best of both worlds! How would you say the Cherchez La Femme represents your approach to developing a cocktail?
KT: There aren’t a lot of ingredients in the Cherchez La Femme, but all of the ingredients used are complex. I like to find complexity through simplicity. Those are my favorite types of cocktails.
S&S: Is there any specific food you would recommend pairing with the Cherchez La Femme?
KT: Honestly, I don’t think of this cocktail as a food cocktail. There is a little too much going on. Drink it to build up an appetite.
S&S: Good to know! What music do you hope people are listening to as they mix and enjoy it at home?
KT: One should listen to whatever makes them happy when mixing, but I was channeling the ladies of the yé-yé pop movement from the sixties.
S&S: Brandy has gone in and out of popularity over the decades. Any thoughts on the current profile of the spirit?
KT: Thanks to bartenders and the guests that trust us, its popularity is on the rise again!
S&S: What would you say are its strengths as a cocktail ingredient? It is such a versatile spirit.
KT: There is a typical florality and of course fruit, but in the aged expressions, there are also spice and oak characteristics. This provides a broad palate for the bartender to pull from and utilize. These spirits work just as well in bright refreshing sours and delicate aperitifs as they do in drinks geared towards the bitter and boozy crowd.
S&S: What’s your number-one go-to classic brandy?
KT: Cognac is typically the brandy I reach for when mixing. Its versatility makes it ideal, but it’s also the brandy that most classic cocktails utilizing brandy called for as well.
S&S: What have you learned from the time you’ve spent in traditional brandy-making regions of the world?
KT: That respect for the traditions is important. A lot of this is passed from one generation to the next. It’s not taught in a school, but instead passed from one skilled craftsman to the next. I’ve also learned there is room for innovation, and seeing new ideas in the approach to producing spirits in these areas is really exciting and refreshing.
S&S: Your bubbly, refreshing Cherchez La Femme really lifts up what some may regard as a warmer, more relaxed spirit. Would you say that brandy is a lot more versatile than its reputation may suggest? Is there, in your opinion, a brandy season, or are there ways to enjoy it year-round?
KT: All. Year. Round. As I mentioned before, the raw product, fermentation, and subsequent maturation practices lend brandy a myriad of flavors, making it an extremely versatile spirit with a wide range of applications.
S&S: Any rare brandy finds in your collection?
KT: I have a nice collection of older Cognacs and Armagnacs, I wouldn’t say rare, but they are a little pricier. From my recent travels in France, I brought home a handful of eau de vie from Strasbourg including a cumin eau de vie (J. Nusbaumer) and a lovely marc de Gewurztraminer that are really cool, and a Calvados Domfrontais (Pacory). Domfrontais is an appellation of Calvados that typically has a higher percentage of pears. We don’t have any in the market in Georgia, so for me it’s rare.
S&S: Besides traveling, what do you do when you’re not working?
KT: Hang out with my son Finnian. Kickboxing. Host dinners at my house (I love to cook and to entertain in real life too). I read often. I travel whenever I can. I work often, and I love what I do, so “off” time and “work” time is often blurred. Each year, I try to do something completely different. Last year I took DJ lessons, and this year I’m going to take an Herbalism course. I like to be busy.
S&S: So cool! Do you have a go-to drink for the holiday season?
KT: Right now it’s mulled red wine. If it’s fortified with brandy, even better. The aforementioned older brandies on my home bar. Oh and Champagne, but in reality I drink Champagne during every season.
S&S: As do we! Cheers!