Jerry Slater, proprietor of H. Harper Station, a standout new cocktail bar in Atlanta, has an unabashed bias for brown liquors. He carries about five dozen of them. He is also passionate about artisanal products—from distillers and winemakers all over, from organic farmers and fruit-preserve makers in the South and, especially, from a charcuterie or chocolatier near his own adopted up-and-coming neighborhood, Reynoldstown, where he chose to live and scouted out the historic Atlanta & West Point freight-line rail depot that houses this Modern Watering Hole, as he has tagged the bar.
As dusk lingers outside, take a table on the patio (seating for 50) or walk into the cool uncluttered space—it’s actually one long room, seating 100 total at a bar on one side, tables with a dark leather banquette for dining on the other and a few bar tables and stools down the middle—and the pleasures unfold slowly. Even slyly. “I got into spirits when I worked in Kentucky at the Seelbach Hotel,” says Slater. “The Seelbach Cocktail [made here with Old Forester Bourbon, triple sec, Champagne and bitters] goes back to 1917, a fun jumping off point to start exploring.”
And explore he did, documenting spirits history and tracking down recipes for pre-Prohibition drinks. “Thirty to forty percent of our list is classics,” he says, happy to explain to an inquisitive customer that a Manhattan is an Old-fashioned without sugar. “Within the Atlanta bar scene we are a fit with folks who are serious about cocktails. And that has created a comradeship among us. But in some ways we are just a neighborhood joint.” He’s devised wine and beer lists, but so far about sixty-five percent of beverage sales at H. Harper Station (the name honors Slater’s railroad-conductor maternal grandfather) are spirits, half of that being brown spirits. Among brands, they sell as much Pappy Van Winkle (23-year, $48; 15-year, $18 for two-ounce pours) as they can get; Buffalo Trace Bourbon, Rain vodka and Tito’s vodka are tops too.
A Mix of Guests and Offerings
The clientele—growing by word-of-mouth and—blog—includes a diverse demographic. “Black, white, gay, straight… At our communal table [for overflow] there might be three or four different groups and they end up sharing dishes.” Evenings usually break down in three waves—the after-work crowd; diners; and late-nighters. Being discovered as a dinner place and that families with children stop in came as surprises. “Our latest contingency is legislators—we are a straight shot from the State Capital—and even the ones from South Georgia are comfortable here.” Sure enough, by 7 PM on a weeknight they are holding court, drinks and stools gathered around center bar tables.
For newcomers, bartenders Tiffanie Barriere and Tony Hussain recommend a Ruby Slipper (Rain vodka, grapefruit, rosemary syrup and soda water), priced at $8. “It’s a nice entry-level cocktail. Then people trust us to guide them to others,” says Slater. Which, before long, is a Bufala Negra. “That’s our number one seller. We go through at least ninety-five a week—requiring maybe five pounds of basil. Customers return saying, ‘I had to come back; I had a craving for it…’” Slater calls it his take-off on a mint julep: balsamic syrup muddled with basil and a brown sugar cube; Buffalo Trace Bourbon and ginger beer, priced at $9. Cocktails range from $7 to $14, with punch bowls, serving up to six, at $40.
No surprise that, with refreshing lemony basil flavors and a sneaky heat factor, the Bufala Negra pairs splendidly with a Southern-inspired, relish tray—deviled eggs, pimento cheese and pickled vegetables. At an astounding $3.50, Slater says, “It’s the most popular dish. Who doesn’t like deviled eggs. Your favorite aunt would put this on the table when you’re waiting for Thanksgiving dinner.” Yes, but did your aunt know about Bourbon-smoked paprika to give the eggs a kick? And she probably didn’t boil her peanuts with a ham bone. Or concoct a platter of pork cheek and trotter rillettes with onion jam and arugula—and call it Head Over Heels, priced at $7.
“We are a little pig-centric,” Slater admits. He and chef Ethan Ray cure pork belly in-house. (And, yes, that is a butcher’s pig diagram tattoo on Slater’s right forearm.) Ethan’s wife, pastry chef Sarah Ray, even makes one of her trademark cookies-and-cream dessert sandwiches with lard and bacon—far more sublime and memorable than it may sound. And while being fussy about drinks recipes—Piper-Heidsieck Champagne because the tight bubbles hold up to mixing; only housemade syrups, ginger beer, tonic and vanilla cream soda; never any (heavens!) cranberry juice—the kitchen plays with its Southern-inspired food. “I don’t think in this day and age you can’t borrow ideas from anywhere.” Italian wedding soup becomes Shotgun Wedding Soup; chicken fried steak sheds its customary gloppy gravy coat (and all those calories) and the, uh, steak for that matter, reborn as Chicken-fried Chicken, a simple filet with veggie trimmings. Keeping the menu small and affordable (small plates from $6; bigger plates at $20 or less) required only some “finagling and choices to be cost-efficient.”
Jerry Slater, at once a creative spirit and old soul, has been on a fun journey with handcrafted drink and food. Most artisanal spirits produced in the South have boarded the lists at H. Harper Station and Atlantans with discerning palates are getting their tickets punched too.