Behind the Bourbon Bar in Atlanta, Georgia
By Hope S. Philbrick
In 2012, Clay Livingston was named the “Most Imaginative Bartender in Atlanta” by GQ magazine, Bombay Sapphire and the United States Bartender’s Guild.
The native of Louisville, Kentucky, completed renowned bartenders’ Tony Abou-Ganim and Dale DeGroff’s “Finnishing School,” and earned the title of “Master of Vodka.” He also participated in a bourbon cocktails master class with Johan Svensson of the Cobden Club of London.
What sparked your interest in becoming a bartender?
I actually started out as a line cook and enjoyed creating new dishes and whatnot. I just wanted to get out of the kitchen and moved into the bar and that was that. I enjoy creating new stuff and getting to talk to people. In the kitchen, I’d missed the human interaction.
How long have you been a bartender?
What inspires you as a bartender?
Really, most of the time it’s people saying ‘I like this, this and this.’ Interacting with people helps me create drinks.
What’s your goal for the bar menu at Bourbon Bar?
First and foremost is to always make yummy drinks. We don’t just want it to be just bourbon; we’ve got gin, vodka, tequila, mescal on the last menu. We mix it up and give it variety.
What are your favorite ingredients?
As far as spirits, rum and gin are my favorites to work with. As far as ingredients, it’s seasonal. There will be a lot of berries this spring. It kind of goes along with the time of year.
What’s your favorite cocktail?
I actually have two, and both are rum based. One is a daiquiri and the other is a mai tai. I like them done the very traditional way. The daiquiri is shaken and served up simple: it’s lime juice, sugar and rum—a very simple drink, but very tasty. The mai tai I like is the way Victor Bergeron did it in 1956—though he was using 17-year-old Jamaican rum that we can’t get, so I have to mix aged rums to get that flavor profile for that drink.
Is there a signature drink at Bourbon Bar?
I’d say we have two: the Old Fashioned, which is done in a very traditional style and is different than what most people have had, and the Sparkling Sapphire which is the drink I’m personally known for since it’s been in GQ twice.
How is your Old Fashioned different?
A lot of people use muddled fruit and soda water. We are actually going back to the original recipe where it’s just water in the form of ice and the bourbon spirit with bitters and sugar. So it’s very traditional and simple but a lot more flavorful than people may be used to.
And what’s in your Sparkling Sapphire?
It’s ginger simple syrup, lemon juice, lychee liquor and Bombay Sapphire gin with some muddled cucumber and topped with champagne. I first won “Most Inspired Bartender in Louisville” with [a version of] that recipe and then added champagne to it and won “Most Imaginative Bartender in Atlanta.”
What’s the balance of creative and classic cocktails on your menu?
We actually have two sections on the menu. There’s a small section for classics like Old Fashioned and Manhattan. The larger section of our menu is for the original cocktails.
How do you get customers to try something new?
Actually, quite a few people do come in for the classics. They’re people who’ve maybe had a Manhattan and want to try our version so they go right for that. Then a lot of people search out more craft original cocktails, and it doesn’t take much selling.
What distinguishes your bar from others in Atlanta?
We’re doing traditional cocktails and original craft cocktails. And that approach sets us apart.
Why does vodka get a bad reputation?
I look at it as all the other spirits have some inherent flavor whereas vodka is designed to be a flavorless spirit.
What’s your favorite ingredient to work with?
I love working with gin. Gin is essentially flavored vodka. I like to play off the flavors and create new things with multiple layers of flavor.
At Bourbon Bar are most consumers looking for bourbon?
It’s about 50/50. We do get quite a few people looking for bourbons to try or who have never had bourbon. But we get just as many people coming in to see the cocktail list. We do have very good bartenders who are able to make drinks correctly and make them taste good. We do offer flights of bourbon, there are five selections featured every Monday. And we do carry some bourbons that normally get overlooked—we always have some real gems.
Southern Art and Bourbon Bar
3315 Peachtree Rd. NE
-Photo courtesy Bourbon Bar / The Reynolds Group