Matthew McCain is head bartender at Bar Fontaine in Cleveland, MS.
What was your first bartending job?
I got my first chance to bartend at Crawdad’s in Merigold, MS, in 2013, and it was only by pure luck that I got the position. Most of the bartenders at the time had been working there for over 10 years and the turnover rate for the position was near 0%.
I was a serving there for almost two years when a spot behind the bar was open. My strike of luck was that the more experienced servers who already had bar training were all leaving around the same time for “regular” day jobs. I eagerly jumped on the opportunity and began the path that led me to where I am today.
What is your favorite spirit to work with at the moment?
My favorite spirit to work with at the moment is bourbon. It’s not quite as easy to mix with as vodka or gin, but not as complex and hard to pair with other ingredients as Scotch or mezcal, and with a high-proof bourbon, the flavor of the spirit is a lot more prominent in cocktails.
Bar Fontaine offers modern, European-inspired small plates described as Italian prepared in a Southern vernacular. How do the drinks reflect this?
When we first opened, the food menu was definitely European-inspired with a Delta twist. We have changed the menu a few times since then, and have decided to do a feature menu each month. Each month could contain dishes from any region in the world, and our cocktails and wine selection will be created with careful thought into each ingredient used.
Sometimes we will feature classic cocktails that originated in the same region that the dish was inspired by, cocktails that were first recorded in the same decade as the dish, or that use ingredients that pair well with a subtle flavor in the dish to bring that flavor out more. There are tons of ways we can pair our drinks with food and that makes my job really fun.
The cocktail program uses clever notes from the kitchen; can you provide some examples?
Working with [Bar Fontaine owner] Cole Ellis is really what inspired me to elevate my skills and knowledge. The most important words he has ever said to me were, “we will make it.” It might sound simple but it changed the whole way I see cocktails and running a bar program. Why buy ingredients from the store when most of the time you can make the same ingredients in house with better quality?
Just like the kitchens in both [sister concept] Delta Meat Market and Bar Fontaine, our bars make everything we possibly can, whether it be an easy, house-made grenadine with fresh pomegranate juice, or an infused spirit that we age in charred oak barrel. It takes a little more time in labor to prepare the ingredients and even more to research on how it’s actually made, but well worth it in my opinion.
What’s the most popular drink on the list at the moment?
The most popular drink on our menu right now is called The First Lady. It was created by one of our bartenders, Logan Callow, who has been with us since we moved over to the Cotton House Hotel back in July of 2019. It’s a sweet and sour cocktail with herbal notes of elderflower that is extremely crisp and refreshing.
How would you describe the current cocktail scene in Mississippi?
The cocktail scene in the Delta is close to non-existent. Not to say that we do not have people who enjoy a great cocktail; we just want everyone to enjoy a great mixed drink like us. I’ve served many Old Fashioneds, Manhattans, Margaritas and Martinis, but it’s rare that we get asked for lesser-known cocktails that are just as good if not better, like a Sidecar, The Last Word or a Vesper Martini. Alcohol has always been a part of our culture here, but we have never had a real craft cocktail bar in my generation. We are trying to change that at The Delta Meat Market and Bar Fontaine, and we hope that one day an order for a dry Martini will be just as common as a Michelob Ultra.
What’s your current go-to cocktail or beverage?
My go-to cocktail at the moment is The Final Word. It is a variation on a classic cocktail called The Last Word. The Final Word uses bourbon, Luxardo Maraschino, Green Chartreuse and freshly squeezed lemon juice. My go-to changes often though; I love trying new things, and you never know what you like best until you try it.
Would you share one of your favorite drink recipes [and photo of it]?
My favorite recipe that I’ve created utilizes bourbon and chicory liqueur both distilled in Mississippi at the Cathead Distillery. I was inspired by the legend of Robert Johnson to create this cocktail. Legend says that Robert Johnson sold his soul on a crossroad in Mississippi to the devil for the ability to play the blues. So I thought The Contract would be the perfect name for this cocktail that’s all Mississippi.
2 oz. Old Soul bourbon
¾ oz. Hoodoo Legba Reserve chicory liqueur
½ oz. Demerara syrup
3 dashes Angostura bitters
Add all ingredients into a glass mixing beaker. Then add ice and stir for 20 seconds. Strain into a highball glass over a large cube of clear ice. Express lemon oils over drink and garnish with the lemon peel.