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Couture Cocktails

Cheers to new craft cocktail bars in Memphis

Article by Margaret Ledbetter

Photography by Sarah Bell, Sélavie Photography

Originally published in River City Lifestyle

Memphis may have been late to the craft cocktail party, but a few new local watering holes are catching up quickly with wildly creative drinks and thoughtful small plates. There is an air of speakeasy in all these haunts and so much to drink! Spirits overtook beer as the world’s largest alcohol category during the pandemic according to the Wall Street Journal. Even as the global economy struggles, high-end spirits remain an affordable luxury and lifestyle indulgence. And since the world re-opened, people are looking for inspired gathering places.

Recent newcomer, Cameo, tucked into The Citizen in midtown, was conceptualized by veteran bartenders Paul Gilliam, Mary Oglesby and McKenzie Nelson. The first-ever restaurant in Memphis designed by bartenders, its décor is moody but playful with cozy banquettes and plenty of seats at the bar, making it the perfect spot to sip a classic cocktail or try one of the wildly creative house specialties like the gin-based “The Right Amount of Rodeo” or the mysterious “Rage Quit.” Asked about the inspiration for the names, Paul says, “It’s just stuff that is random and amusing to us.” The cheeky names aside, the bartenders take their mixology seriously with select spirits and fine wines. True to their slogan, “Fancy Drinks Party Time,” the bartenders deliver a playful bar experience. “Bars should be fun,” Paul adds, “but also treat everyone with equity and respect.”

Sabine Bachmann, known for her multiple River City restaurants with her signature European flair, opened Tonica this year just down the block from her Overton Park restaurant Ecco. She transformed the corner space with a stunning new bar and Mediterranean décor. Her inspiration was a trip to Spain where cocktails and “fun little appetizers” is how people start their evening. A “gin y tonica” in Barcelona is a popular aperitif and doesn’t even necessarily include gin, Sabine says.

Among her young and dedicated staff is mixologist Mary Connor Jones who uses herbs and spices and housemade bitters to create original concoctions. In addition to four distinctly different gin and tonics, the menu features multiple Sangrias, Spanish wines and specialty cocktails. “We keep adding on and changing the menu with the seasons,” Sabine says. And this fall they are introducing live flamenco music on Sunday evenings.

New downtown is Bar Ware, opened by Libby Ware Wunderlich on South Front Street. “It was just a great space,” Libby says, who with Natalie Lieberman of Collect + Curate Studio, built a gorgeous bar and inviting patio to offer cocktails and a dreamy menu. “This is not your average bar food,” she adds. Chef Kevin Quinnell is getting creative with small seasonal plates to complement the sexy and sophisticated drinks like the “EmerGINcy Helicopter.”

Drink up Memphis, the cocktails are waiting and like Paul of Cameo says, “Everyone needs to find a bar they care about.”

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