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How Eight Local Bartenders Are Representing Nashville With a Single Cocktail

Festivalgoers will choose the winner Friday night

Squeaky Wheel/Hemingway’s cocktail by Christopher Weber

Music City Food + Wine Friday night festivalgoers have plenty to look forward to this weekend, and one highlight includes the new Official Drink of Nashville Competition. Eight talented local bartenders compete at Bicentennial Park to create a libation that festivalgoers will vote best represents Music City.

Eater interviewed eight bartenders who’ll compete, chatting about how they chose and developed their cocktail, how they began bartending, and what they love about Nashville. From a love of the farmers market and Peach Truck peaches to devout Tennessee Whiskey fans and a universal love for the diverse, creative culture of Nashville, it’ll be exciting to see these cocktails come to life at the festival.

Andrea Behrends/Gertie’s Bar and 404 Kitchen

How do you plan to capture the city of Nashville’s essence in one drink?

Jenny Woods (Gray & Dudley at 21C Museum Hotels): Upon first glance, our drink appears very understated. It’s a clear cocktail, which doesn’t allow the drinker to really know beforehand what they are about to experience. Most people have a preconceived notion about Nashville. It’s so much more than what it’s known for — country music. It’s an eclectic blend of people from all over the world coming together to make interesting things happen. Both are more than what meets the eye!

Gabriel Fuenmayor (Bar Sovereign): As far as Nashville goes, we’re a mixed bag now. I want to showcase not a traditional whiskey cocktail, but something a bit different. I’ve chosen gin, amaro, citrus, and herbs married with pure Tennessee honey from Adam the Bee Guy’s beautiful hives all around the state. This concoction topped with a Spanish cava brings it all home to the grounds we will stand on in the next few days that was known as Sulphur Dell. Sulphur Dell was an old ballfield where the Nashville Vols baseball team played years ago. My grandfather actually played on these when he attended North High — I don’t think it gets more Nashville than that.

Jacob Strawn (Gertie’s Bar): The drink is called “Dulcimer Splash,” which was the name of the log ride (water ride) at the former Opryland USA, the theme park that used to sit where Opry Mills now lives. Dulcimer Splash, or, as many may remember it “the flume zoom,” was a popular attraction inside one of the city’s former jewels. Opryland, the history and culture it built — to me, as a native — is Nashville. The ongoing legacy of the Grand Ole Opry, the radio program, and its massive outreach are how many learned about Nashville. They heard our music and they wanted to be a part of it. People come from all over the world to this day to not only experience this legacy! Opry is the Nashville dream.

Christopher Weber (Hemingway’s Bar and Hideaway): By using the blood of our fine Southern culture: bourbon. In addition to the spirit itself, I am using local products.

Joshua Doolan (Rosemary & Beauty Queen): I plan to capture the city of Nashville by combining untraditional ingredients to create a familiar flavor profile. Nashville’s cocktail scene has been blooming for years, and even the more casual cocktail drinker knows what a good Old Fashioned should taste like. I wanted to venture outside of whiskey, and I think the combination of the base spirits I chose, including inspiration from Southern recipe traditions, creates a cocktail that’s bold yet balanced.

Akinde Olagundoye (Skull’s Rainbow Room): When I saw that the competition was for the “Official Drink of Nashville,” I knew it wasn’t just any cocktail competition. For it to have such a big title, it would have to truly be representative of the city. I researched and consulted with my GM, Morgan Kincaid, and my bar manager, Brian Buscher, who is a native. Tennessee whiskey was an obvious starting point for me. I decided to incorporate fruit tea, a Nashville classic. Hot chicken is the signature dish, but that would be a tricky addition. So I snuck some cayenne pepper and brown sugar into it. I paid homage to the Tri Star, a symbol of unity of the “Grand Divisions” of the state: east, middle, and west Tennessee. Lastly, I had to get creative and make it fun, because this is Music City!

J.A. Harrison (Noelle): Since moving to Nashville from Colorado Springs, Colorado, I have come to learn that Nashville is a very diverse, thriving, creative city, and there are few better examples of that than at the Nashville Farmers Market. I love wandering around and feeling the energy and passion for the produce and wares that people from all different backgrounds and walks of life have come together to share as a community and to take pride in co-creativity and the fruits of hard work. It was at the Farmers Market that I first had a Peach Truck peach and have since come to know it as a Nashville icon. I think most of us can pretty happily get behind a glass of fine bourbon, which is fortuitous when you live in one of the two states that produce the most and best bourbon in the nation. When I first tasted Heaven’s Door Tennessee bourbon — even as a brand-new company without the assistance of years of clout to stand behind — I knew they were going places, and I foresee them becoming the quintessential “Nashville” bourbon in the near future. When you combine great bourbon with the world’s best peaches and add a healthy dose of tea (I heard a rumor somewhere when I was moving from Colorado that the South loves their tea) I think you’re well on your way to experiencing Nashville in a glass!

Sally Gatza (L.A. Jackson): I was creating the cocktail around local ingredients and thinking about the spirit of the city and realized I had to call my drink the 615: six local ingredients, one delicious drink, five sips to finish.

What made you interested in bartending? Was there a defining moment for you?

Jenny Woods (Gray & Dudley): Bartending gives me the opportunity to meet people who are out to have a great time. It’s an amazing feeling when you create a cocktail that they will want to tell their friends about.

Gabriel Fuenmayor (Bar Sovereign): Well, I love booze and had to find a job to pay for school. I grew up helping in my mother and father’s restaurant in Cartagena, Colombia, and have always had a passion and found pleasure in the hospitality industry. So I thought, why not mix the two towards a common goal?

Jacob Strawn (Gertie’s Bar): Money! Truly, to feign some other story would just be a lie. I began my bartending career in NYC. I was working as an account executive in cosmetic sales, but that just didn’t quite pay the rent. I began bartending at a nightclub in the financial district and my focus quickly pivoted, fueled by the resurgence of classic cocktails. I began to focus on building my knowledge in that direction. My career truly changed in Savannah with Scott Marshall, formerly of Drink in Boston. We began a cocktail program that focused strongly on classic recipes, but we used these foundations to build something new. The goal was to use the foundations of the godfathers of booze that came before us and to write new recipes that paid homage to the work they had put into the industry, all while creating something new.

Christopher Weber (Hemingway’s Bar and Hideaway): I grew up on Top Gun, Die Hard, and Cocktail. I never signed up for the Navy, never got into a battle with thieves in LA, so bartending it was. Every day is a defining moment in this industry if you’re still here at my age. The joy I can dispense one glass at a time is a reminder of why I love this profession.

Joshua Doolan (Rosemary & Beauty Queen): I became interested in bartending through my love of cooking and baking. I had gone to craft cocktail bars for several years before ever considering it was something I’d like to do myself. My defining moment as a bartender was after I released my first menu at Rosemary. It was a fun, creative, stressful, and terrifying experience. I had help from a wonderful team, but in a sense, I felt like I was making my creative and professional self so vulnerable for the first time. Of course, some people raved about the drinks. I had a somewhat regular say one of my drinks was the worst cocktail they’ve ever had. My lightbulb moment was that regardless of the finished product people are presented with, they keep coming back for an experience, for an interaction. That regular made sure to let me know about their experience with that particular drink, but gave me the opportunity to replace it with something beautiful because they trusted me.

Akinde Olagundoye (Skull’s Rainbow Room): I worked as a server at a cocktail lounge during a time when jiggers weren’t commonly used for measuring. I remember watching the bartenders work and I saw that there was a method to what they were doing. They poured each ingredient for varied amounts of time in order to create these consistent drinks that always filled the glasses just right. It fascinated me. My defining moment was when I left more corporate-style establishments and went to a place where I was allowed to create my own cocktails. At that point, it became my life’s passion.

J.A. Harrison (Noelle): I started out as a bouncer at a bar called the Downtown Tavern and watched the goings-on behind a bar for months. I approached the owner and told him I was interested in learning and he started working me into rotation on the slow Monday shifts and over time I started getting more and more shifts and before I knew it I had become part of a family. I continued bartending there until my wife and I decided to move to Nashville, and even though it was just a small-town tavern, I consumed as much knowledge as I could, sitting behind the bar on slow nights reading Dave Arnold’s Liquid Intelligence and others, and practicing what I could from everything I was reading, becoming the best bartender I could be. I started out doing it to help pay rent in college, but soon realized that my career may lie in this direction. I love the creative process and art of crafting a well-balanced drink, and I love the guest’s interactions and hearing the life stories from people of all backgrounds who came to me from anywhere and everywhere to get a drink.

Sally Gatza (L.A. Jackson): One night, as a teen, I was out to dinner with my parents and watched in awe as a gravity-defying creation hit the table next to us (of course, a Ramos gin fizz). When I later started bartending, I was obsessed with learning how to make them as tall as possible, which sparked an enthusiasm for pushing myself in my creativity and abilities. I am proud to say my Ramos gin fizzes are now very tall.

What’s the recipe process been like for you?

Jenny Woods (Gray & Dudley): The recipe process can be a real struggle. You get ideas for drinks that in your head you think will be fantastic and in reality, they are absolutely terrible! It takes a great team and a creative head bartender to make magic happen.

Gabriel Fuenmayor (Bar Sovereign): Just like everything else, trial and error, with the end goal of a refreshing drink the fine folks at the festival can carry around and enjoy all evening.

Jacob Strawn (Gertie’s Bar): For me, the recipe process is not about a recipe, or a spirit, it’s an idea. I want to capture a moment or a feeling through flavor. Summers at Opryland are some of my fondest memories, as they are for the millions of people who also visited the park. I knew I wanted to make a cocktail heavily rooted in sparkling wine, as bubbles capture the essence of summer and remind me of that splash of water at the end of the log ride. That “ahh” moment when the bubbles first hit your tongue is how the water felt on a hot day. I used blood orange because it captures the essence of a hot summer day: refreshing, familiar, and immediately satisfying in flavor. It almost cools your body down just thinking about it. This is what the Dulcimer Splash was for me, and what I hope the drink does for new visitors coming to Nashville, keeping the memories of Nashville alive.

Christopher Weber (Hemingway’s Bar and Hideaway): The recipe process is always the fun part. Taking a blank canvas and creating something to be enjoyed is more rewarding than challenging. It also allows me to showcase what Hemingway’s is about: gathering around a fine cocktail and stepping back for a moment.

Joshua Doolan (Rosemary & Beauty Queen): The recipe process was fairly easy this time around. I had this idea of making something with scotch and Reposado tequila right off the bat. The idea of the caramel notes of the tequila blending with something a bit more unctuous and smoky sounded interesting to me. The rest was just tweaking ratios in the build and balancing the notes in the cocktail overall. I was doing this alongside fall menu preparation, so I felt a bit more prepared mentally.

Akinde Olagundoye (Skull’s Rainbow Room): Recipe creation is fun with the right attitude. First, I brainstormed ideas. Second, I prepared individual ingredients. Third, I combined them in different ratios. Fourth, I added and subtracted modifiers until I was ready for the hardest step. That is getting feedback. It has taken a lot of trial and error, but it will be nice to share the fruit(tea) of my labor.

J.A. Harrison (Noelle): Again, I do a lot of wandering around the Farmers Market and taking in all the smells and tastes and feeling the bustle and energy of organic commerce and community around me to find inspiration for a drink recipe. Every drink is different — sometimes they start with a spirit base, sometimes they start with a name, or a memory, or an intended flavor profile, etc. This drink definitely began with Peach Truck peaches, and everything else was built around that experience. The name of my cocktail, Oak Trotter, is a reference to the protagonist of James and the Giant Peach, whose full name is James Henry Trotter. It’s a subtle peach reference, but nonetheless an homage to the inspiration that galvanized the cocktail into being.

Sally Gatza (L.A. Jackson): I was inspired by Heaven’s Door whiskey and the focus on local ingredients. I had an idea that I wanted to do a whiskey smash with honey, so I found some local honey and infused it with dried passiflora leaves, allowing the Tennessee state wildflower to bring in a floral element. I also found some great local bee pollen, so sprinkling some across the top felt like the natural finish.

What do you like best about Nashville?

Jenny Woods (Gray & Dudley): I have moved more than 35 times in my life. Nashville is by far the best place I have ever lived. This is the first time I have ever felt a sense of community. The people are so nice. I feel like I’ve finally found a place to call home.

Gabriel Fuenmayor (Bar Sovereign): Every square inch and every wandering soul.

Jacob Strawn (Gertie’s Bar): I think Nashville’s strongest quality is that no matter how much it grows or how much changes, it’s always music, energy, a dream. Long before the South became the mecca it currently is for the country’s economic growth and before some of the mega southern cities we have today, Nashville was there, loud and proud. Nashville is a city of storytellers and that’s what I seek to do, through booze, which is the Nashville way!

Christopher Weber (Hemingway’s Bar and Hideaway): Aside from the exploding restaurant scene, I love the tidal wave of culture and awareness I experience daily in this city. We are all running the same race, and Nashville understands that it’s okay to be polite. The Beatles were right... we are all the walrus.

Joshua Doolan (Rosemary & Beauty Queen): The best thing about Nashville is the sense of community here. I felt so foreign when I first moved here. Nashville as a whole is rather friendly and open socially, but it was through this industry that I’ve really had a chance to network, make great friendships, and flourish both professionally and personally.

Akinde Olagundoye (Skull’s Rainbow Room): This may seem like a weird response, but I really enjoy bartending at Skull’s Rainbow Room. I’ve never worked anywhere like it.

J.A. Harrison (Noelle): The diversity and the camaraderie. I walk down the streets of Nashville and see every demographic, age, sexuality, ethnicity, socioeconomic background represented, and everyone from everywhere is flocking to Nashville to pursue dreams and make art. When you have such a vibrant, creative community coming together to make dreams reality, great relationships are bound to happen!

Sally Gatza (L.A. Jackson): The diversity, the culture — the fact that people are awfully nice here. You can wear jeans and a flannel to any occasion. I love that we have live music everywhere, at the airport, at Costco, and especially at the Farmers Market on Sundays (don’t sleep on it, it’s worth getting up for).

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