A Brooklyn Bartender Drifts Through the American South, Making Drinks Along the Way

Ryan and the Black Market crew shaking up some cocktails.

Join the Edible Collective and you’ll be joining the Edible Community. The Collective is made up of the people who make what we eat and drink.

The Collective‘s goal is to create a culture of collaboration up and down the food and drink chain. Think of it as a roundtable where bartenders, chefs, makers and farmers share ideas, education, enlighten and enhance skills. Our next event is coming up on June 27 at Van Brunt Stillhouse.

Seven years ago, my sisters photographed me wearing a dusty jacket and backpack, waiting on a train platform. “Oh my God, you look like such a drifter!” they exclaimed. This began my tradition of “drifting”—traveling from place to place with few comforts but a lot of curiosity—mostly with my sister, Jenna Herzog. She’s a rock climber; I’m a bartender. Compared to being stranded in Big Sur to riding a day-long bus to Bariloche, Patagonia, our spring 2017 plan to go road-tripping in her converted Mercedes Sprinter van would surely be a breeze. One van, two siblings, two weeks, and four
No Sleep ‘Till Brooklyn pop-up parties: What could go wrong?

I started in Las Vegas while Jenna was climbing in Utah. All my friends were working their shifts, and I was on my own. Matt Graham of Herbs and Rye and Keith Baker of The Sand Dollar were my hosts, so naturally I started there. To my surprise, Matt ushered me behind the bar at Herbs and I was instructed to make drinks. “Only real bartenders can use Boston shakers [a metal shaking tin paired with a pint glass],” I learned from Herb’s owner-operator Nectaly Mendoza as I fumbled to crack open their Boston shakers. With six cities and four pop-ups ahead of me, I was off to a great start.

This was the first of many lessons I’d learn while bartending on the road. But leaving the comfort of my Brooklyn home-bar, Sweet Polly, for new bars in different cities proved a risk worth taking to grow my skills.

Jenna and I reunited in Albuquerque for a feast and plenty of mezcal at El Pinto, then breakfast burritos at Golden Pride before hitting the long road to Austin. One thing we learned: All of Texas is closed on Sundays, especially Easter Sunday. There would be no barbecue for us.

But with help from Amanda Carto of St. Germain and Lana Lindsey of Diageo Reserve, Firehouse Lounge in Austin was the venue for the first pop-up, sponsored by George Dickel Tennessee Whisky.

“I’m sorry, please repeat that!” I projected to guests all night over the live band jamming out ’80s classics. With a full bar of tourists, locals and bartenders, bartending at Firehouse tested my speed, crowd-control and vocal cords while using the diverse flavors of Dickel in cocktails unique for whiskey. My sister and I spent the next day on the river, and blessedly we found barbecue at The Salt Lick. I’ll never forget that glimmering brisket slathered in spicy sauce.

After a stop at massive highway-side store Buc-ee’s, Jenna and I set off for New Orleans. But road closures in Louisiana made us late to Nola, and that had its price: It was Jenna’s first time there and her van lumbered down the dark, narrow streets, making tensions high. But once the sun illuminates the city, it’s given new life, and the taste of Cochon Butcher Muffuletta and Coop’s Place fried chicken—not to mention beers at off-the-grid dives like Bud Rip’s—relaxed our nerves.

The Cochon Butcher Muffuletta cures whatever ails you.

Pisco Bar in Hotel Catahoula, headed by Nathan Dalton, was the setting for No Sleep ‘Till Brooklyn in New Orleans. With WhistlePig Rye sponsoring the remaining parties, bourbon-cask-finished, 10-year rye was the backdrop for adventure. Pisco Bar boasts limitless selections of South American spirits, so pairing rye with pisco in an Old Fashioned variation seemed both ambitious and obvious. With C02 bubbles percolating in Angostura bitters, bartender Sam Perez and I got to work.

It was then off to Birmingham, Alabama, with Dave’s Pub’s Mudd Townley as our host and my former Friday-night partner-in-crime from Sweet Polly, Laura Newman, in tow, we were ready. In such a tight-knit community, support for fellow bartenders is high in Birmingham, so my pop-up at Black Market with Ryan O’Connor saw many of the city’s most talented bartenders coming through—and even a surprise guest from Chicago. Besides sour beers and an eclectic variety of international cuisines, the city offered us a southern staple at Irondale Cafe: Meat and Three. It’s pretty simple: one meat, three sides. I opted for fried okra, mac and cheese, and chicken potpie.

Between Birmingham and Chattanooga, we stopped at the Pilot station in Rising Fawn, Georgia, for barbecue. Suckling pulled pork made even better by conversation with the shopkeep: “We’ve been busy—served 12 people earlier!” as I try to pay him. “I told ya I don’t want yer dang money!” If Jenna hadn’t discovered car issues, we’d have stayed and listened to his life’s story. I didn’t leave her in Chattanooga before sampling its best offerings at Flying Squirrel, like Chattanooga whiskey in a jalapeño mule, and Main Street Meats’ draft cocktails and house-made charcuterie.

I had another bartender reunion in Nashville, with Ashley Danford of Puerto Rico, for the final pop-up at Bar Sovereign, where a slow start quickly snowballed and we hit capacity, requiring speed and efficiency behind the stick for some tiki-inspired cocktails mixing WhistlePig with rum. The hospitality knows no end in Nashville, from hip elegance and inventive cocktails at Henrietta Red, to live burlesque and classic cocktails at Skull’s Rainbow Room. It was hard to head back to Brooklyn.

Why drift? As a bartender, the ability to work, learn and make new friends along the way is an eye-opening perk that we should all try. Now I’m home, and thankful to be full of new knowledge.

You can follow Ryan on Instagram at @drifterpalate.