Partner and barkeep at Holeman & Finch Public House, H&F Bottle Shop and Restaurant Eugene
By Hope S. Philbrick
Greg Best does not simply mix cocktails. He’s a self-described ‘mad scientist’ dedicated to freshness. His preference for homemade and from-scratch ingredients over shortcuts and ready-made mixers has gained him notoriety as partner and barkeep at Holeman & Finch Public House, H&F Bottle Shop and Restaurant Eugene.
Best did not intend to work in the restaurant industry. He studied advertising and commercial design, got into acting and then worked for a radio station in New York. His brother, a chef, encouraged a move to Las Vegas where he got a part-time restaurant job. After a couple of shifts behind the bar, “Everything changed,” Best says. He’d stumbled upon his perfect career: making drinks, interacting with people, and delving into the history of spirits and cocktails. He studied at the Academy of Spirits and Fine Service before moving to Atlanta, working at Emeril’s and then Restaurant Eugene.
Congratulations on the James Beard nomination for “Outstanding Bar Program.”
Thanks. It’s crazy; definitely overwhelming. We work our hardest every day and believe we have an amazing program, but it’s still insane to see it recognized in the scope of the James Beard Foundation. It’s an honor for sure, exciting, invigorating and frightening all in one.
How did you find out?
I was driving back from Asheville, N.C. I knew we were on the long list and my cell phone starting erupting to the degress that I thought the restaurant may be burning down. When reading text messages I realized it had been announced. It was pretty exciting.
Did you have to pull over?
I almost did. I had to specifically throw my cell into the back seat of my car so I couldn’t access it. I wanted to read all of the messages but was an hour and a half outside of Atlanta and thought it’s probably better for this stretch to focus on the road. I was really excited.
What sparked your interest in becoming a bartender?
It was one of those scenarios where I was working in the restaurant industry and found myself behind the bar—one of those classic issues of necessity where someone didn’t show up. I did a good job and the manager was like, ‘Hey, why don’t you try working behind the bar?’ The more I did it, I realized I just love everything about it. I grew up involved in theater, acting, radio and beyond that went to school for advertising and commercial design. I found in bartending every one of my itches was scratched, I have a stage with a nightly audience, create drinks which speaks to art, I’m a history nut and there’s all the great lore and tradition behind the bar. It just made so much sense and was so exciting. I just realized, ‘Wow. This is what I’m supposed to be doing.’ And that was 15 or 16 years ago.
After all these years what do you most enjoy about being a bartender?
To this day more than anything else I enjoy the social aspect of it. I love talking to people and helping people change their psychological state—not get hammered, but there’s a great medicinal property to the bar and it’s a very valuable social construct. I love having the honor of being an architect of that construct and maintaining it. It’s very meaningful to me to put smiles of people’s faces while they’re sitting at a bar.
What inspires you as a bartender?
Inspiration comes from a lot of places. Sometimes I might be listening to a particular song and I like the way that song had me thinking and I want to try to replicate that feeling in creating a drink. Sometimes it’s specific individuals and knowing what they like or want. Sometimes it’s trying to use an existing drink but look through a different lens and see where the boundaries of that drink can be. It can be a bunch of different ways.
The way we have it now is the most fulfilling in my career. We have a group of bartenders and I assign spirits to everyone along with general drink concepts and everyone creates their recipes and then we sit down and talk. We discuss the visuals, execution, taste as a group and get different perspectives on how the drink might be better, more balanced. It’s gone from me creating the drinks to this amazing group think. I know it’s made me a better bartender and I can’t imagine it hasn’t made everyone else one as well. It’s fun. That’s my biggest inspiration now: looking at the drink menu through the perspective of seven different people. It’s really cool.
How does H&F Bottle Shop complement the restaurants?
When we create cocktails a member of the Bottle Shop archives them and turns them into recipe cards. So you can go into H&F Bottle Shop and say, ‘I had an amazing drink at Holeman & Finch Public House last night.’ And any sales association there will walk you through the cocktail menu, pull out a recipe card and help you assemble the ingredients. The idea with our menu has always been it’s fun and exciting, but we want you to be able to replicate drinks at home. We want you to feel empowered and confident in creating them at home for yourself and friends. If the cocktail culture doesn’t fnid it’s way back to homes it will be a fun distraction for who knows how long until our industry turns in a different direction. We’re using the Bottle Shop to round out the experience, deliver that magic behind the curtain. Everyone who works at the Bottle Shop is trained a sommelier or bartender from our organization. And they’re part of that group think tank; in fact, two drinks on the menu now are from bartenders who work at H&F Bottle Shop.
How long have you had the think tank?
This is our third menu using that approach, and we change the menu every two-and-a-half months. This is the first menu that is completely from that process; previously we had some pieces but we’re finally at the point where everyone is comfortable with the process. This way of doing things has really worked.
What are some of your favorite ingredients?
I often get enamored by a specific ingredient and get lost in it awhile and then my mind changes. I’ve always been a fan of fortified wines, vermouth and low-octane mixers. I think until recently they were grossly misrepresented, but that’s starting to change fortunately. I’m a huge fan of sorghum syrup, it adds an interesting profile to cocktails. And I always find myself coming up with at least one or two gin drinks. I love all spirits but I find myself most comfortable with gin.
How do you classic cocktails fit into your menu?
I think classics are a great springboard for people to engage in cocktail culture. It’s why we have a specific number of them in our arsenal as bartenders. When you can share the story of a classic cocktail, it helps disarm people: By sharing tradition and history, people have more stock in the idea of trying a drink, whereas if you say, ‘You have to try this crazy dehydrated apple whisky drink with house-made bitters,’ they may think, ‘I don’t know what any of that means.’ Classic cocktails are a foundation you can build on. Just the nature of the word ‘classic’ says simplicity, approachability.
Is there a quintessential Atlanta cocktail?
The most unique thing about our city in comparison to other cocktail cities is that Atlanta has such a diverse breadth of styles. If you go to San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, there are different drink houses for sure but with an underlying aesthetic—like in New York for awhile it was pre-Prohibition cocktails and then agave drinks. I think the concentration of bars on top of each other fosters those underlying themes. We don’t have that in Atlanta, which is really exciting. Our city is broken into neighborhoods and that has done wonders to establish a diverse cocktail culture. There are houses that represent Atlanta rather than a drink that represents Atlanta. I can go to Leon’s Full Service and have something absolutely unbelievable and then go to Bocado and have something equally good that’s a completely different style of drink. Holeman & Finch also has its own personality which is really exciting.
So how would you describe the Holeman & Finch personality?
Wow, that’s probably the most difficult question I’ve ever been asked! I think it’s a very playful, disarming personality. Kind of like when you go away to college and meet the first person who is totally not like you but you get along with them and it’s a fun, exciting mystery but comfortable to be around and easy to talk to. Special. Different. Exciting energy. You don’t feel like you’re in a strange country and it’s not uncomfortable asking questions.
And how is Holeman & Finch different from some other bars in Atlanta?
I love The Lawrence. I love Eric Simpkins’ drinks and think he’s great. The personality at The Lawrence is like a sophisticated older relative—not off-putting and not condescending, but there’s an air of sophistication. I loved the bar at Pura Vida; its personality was very cerebral and literary and the way the drinks were written was very much like walking through a library where there were all these volumes and you could reach out and pick one up and learn something new. Seven Lamps is totally playful with homemade sodas, crazy elixirs and infusions—it feels like you’re going to a fun holiday party.
Holeman & Finch Public House
2277 Peachtree Rd.
-Photos Courtesy Resurgens Hospitality Group