Mercedes O’Brien is the cocktail director at Gunshow in Atlanta.
Better Bartending: What was your first bartending job?
Mercedes O’Brien: My first real turn behind the stick was at H. Harper Station [in Atlanta]. I moved from server to garde manger and was looking to progress further. My mentor Jerry Slater recognized my curiosity and offered me a turn at learning bar. HHS was an iconic, classics-focused bar, and I learned an irreplaceable foundational knowledge there.
BB: How often does Gunshow’s cocktail menu change?
MO: There is no set formula for how the bar menu changes, as we are focused on what is being made available from the farms around us and successes in experimentation. The cocktail menu matches the pace of the kitchen, resulting in new creations at a moment’s notice.
BB: Where do you get inspiration for new drink recipes?
MO: I find inspiration primarily from food and cooking. I can try a dish or read a cookbook and get inspired to try a new flavor combination or technique that can be applied in a cocktail format.
BB: What is your favorite spirit to work with at the moment?
MO: I always like to say that I hold no preference towards any one spirit, as I love them all. Heading into the cooler months, I am always partial to aged spirits. This can go from the obvious whiskey tree and extend to the gins, agaves, etc. I will say that one time I do look forward to is winter citrus season, and a favorite paring of mine is aquavit.
BB: Do you make all the drinks tableside at Gunshow?
MO: We make half the drinks from the cart and the other half from our kitchen bar. Our kitchen bar acts as our service bar and also holds equipment not suitable for cart preparations.
BB: How is that guest interaction with the cart different from making drinks behind the bar?
MO: The experience that guests share with the bar cart is unique in the fact that every single guest is greeted by the cart and its bartender. This can create an engagement between the bartender and guest to really give a hands-on explanation of the drink and help guide them to what could best suit their current palette.
Making the drinks on the cart allows other diners around the room to see the action and possibly change their mind or become more inclined to order once they see a particular cocktail made.
BB: What’s been your most popular cocktail at Gunshow?
MO: The Toasted Old Fashioned is the only permanent cocktail on our menu and is always the most popular.
BB: What is the Atlanta cocktail scene like now?
MO: The Atlanta cocktail scene to me is such a hub for the South and beyond. Everyone here is so talented, yet so supportive of one another that we are able to hone in on our styles and appreciate others. I think this creates a really special dynamic for our city to be able to try a variety of styles in a short distance.
BB: What’s your go-to cocktail at the end of a shift or long day?
MO: Nothing tops a Negroni at the end of a long day. I may switch it up every once in a while, but the Negroni always reigns supreme in my eyes.
BB: Would you share one of the most popular or one of your favorite drink recipes?
MO: Here’s a recipe representing all Atlanta and Georgia based ingredients in a New York Sour format. F.I.L.A. stands for a “Forever I Love Atlanta” and is a song from my youth.
1 ¾ oz ASW Fiddler Bourbon
1 oz. Lemon juice
1 oz. F.I.L.A. syrup*
¼ oz. Leopold Brothers peach liqueur
¼ oz. Muscadine Georgia red wine
Combine first four ingredients to a cocktail shaker. Fill shaker with ice and shake until well chilled. Strain into a large rocks glass with a large rock. Next, using a bar spoon or eye dropper, carefully float your Georgia red wine on top of your cocktail.
*For F.I.L.A. syrup
1 qt. Peach juice
1 qt. Kola nut reduction**
80 g. Fried kaffir lime leaves
6 cups Sugar
Working in batches, combine the first three ingredients into vitamix and blend. Fine strain mixture into large container, add sugar, and immersion blend.
** For Kola reduction
1 ½ qts. water
8 tbsps. Kola nuts
2 Cinnamon sticks
8 Allspice pods
½ tsp. Vanilla bean paste
Add all ingredients into a small pot under medium heat. Bring to a simmer and allow to reduce until aromatic.