Story by Bob Townsend
Bartender competitions have become a common feature at food and drink festivals. The lively, sometimes combative stirring and shaking, often centered around a particular spirit or ingredient, makes for good theatre. And for the winners, a strong showing can build a reputation or boost a career.
At Krog Street Market, the bars at two restaurants, Ticonderoga Club and Watchman’s, bump up against each other in a spirit of friendly competition.
When Ticonderoga opened in late 2015, the bartender team of Greg Best and Paul Calvert insisted that first and foremost it was meant to be a creative partnership with their three friends and co-owners: chef David Bies, and the front of the house duo of Bart Sasso and Regan Smith.
Ticonderoga has become known for its easygoing hospitality, with Bies’ inventive, internationally influenced menu drawing praise from critics. And the atmosphere is dark and speakeasy-like, mixing in whimsical nautical touches like a ship’s hatch fitted to the bathroom door. But the energy is most apparent at the small, three-sided bar, where Best and Calvert work their magic with cocktails.
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The drinks menu designates house cocktails as “Special Cups.” The star is the Ticonderoga Cup, a julep-inspired, complex remedy with Plantation Grand Reserve Rum, cognac, sherry, pineapple and lemon, served over crushed ice in a dimpled copper cup with a sprig of mint.
Before Ticonderoga, Best came to prominence as the beverage director of Holeman & Finch Public House. Calvert had been involved in beverage programs at the Sound Table, Pura Vida and Paper Plane.
Those experiences mark the duo as two of Atlanta’s most visionary bartenders, and their cocktail knowledge has become a conduit for younger bartenders who have followed in their footsteps.
One of those, Miles Macquarrie, opened Watchman’s in June 2018 with his partners from Decatur’s Kimball House, Matt Christison, Bryan Rackley and Jesse Smith.
Before Kimball House, Macquarrie worked at Brick Store Pub, where he met his future partners. And before he went on to open Leon’s Full Service as the bar manager, he served an apprenticeship under Best at Holeman & Finch.
Like Kimball House, Watchman’s features an impressive oyster bar menu, along with a special emphasis on sustainable seafood. Compared to Ticonderoga, the design is bright and airy, evoking a trip to the beach. At the bar, Macquarrie and his team lean toward rum drinks, like their classic daiquiri.
The signature cocktail is The Watchman, a martini variation made with gin, vermouth, verjus blanc and chartreuse, poured tableside from a chilled decanter and served with iced garnishes on the side.
One evening, I was sitting at the end of the bar, admiring the elegant ritual of The Watchman presentation. After taking a sip, I happened to look through the open back door, a few feet from the indoor “patio” that leads to the entrance of Ticonderoga Club.
Listening to the staccato sound of the bartender in front me shaking a cocktail, I could see Best and Calvert doing the same at their bar. Thinking back over years of enjoying their cocktails in so many different places, I thought it was remarkable that Best, Calvert and Macquarrie have converged to such close proximity.
“It was a long time ago, but I used to work at the Brick Store with Bryan and Jesse when I was a grad student at Georgia State,” Calvert says when I ask about this confluence. “I moved back to Boston for awhile, and when I came back to Atlanta, I met Miles, who was working at Leon’s, and we’ve all been friends since.
“Over a year ago, they all sat in my back yard with Greg and I, and asked us if they should open in Krog Street. I remember when we ended that conversation, I said, ‘Miles, as your friend, I’m very ambivalent. I don’t know if it’s a good idea. But selfishly, as a business owner, I would love for you to open up, because whatever you guys do, and what we’re doing, would become the epicenter of going out for good food and drink and service in Atlanta.’”
Asked the obvious question about competition between the two bars, Calvert thinks for a minute.
“I don’t know,” he says at first. “There’s probably some friendly competition. But, you know what, that’s not even really true. I just don’t think about it that way, anymore. I think competition is for the young. I know that what Greg and David and Regan and Bart and I do is really good.
“I’m so happy that Miles and those guys have opened, because I know they’re really good, too. When people come into our restaurant and tell us they just had some great oysters and drinks at Watchman’s, and now they’re coming to have something with us, that’s really cool.”
Asked the same question, Macquarrie shares similar thoughts.
“When we had that meeting in Paul’s back yard, we wanted to make sure that they felt comfortable with it, and that they had the same idea that we would benefit each other, and not be in competition,” Macquarrie says. “They’re already a destination. With us coming in, this back corner of Krog can be a great cocktail and beverage destination. It’s definitely working that way so far.
“We all sort of came up together doing this together. Greg was the original cocktail OG in Atlanta. And Paul was doing cocktails before I was, while he was in Boston. Now I know people who are fans of Kimball House, and people who are fans of Ticonderoga Club, and they’re all happy they can come here. It’s fun for them, and it’s fun for us.”
Macquarrie adds, “From a selfish point of view, it’s really fun to get off work and go over there for a cocktail.”
Ticonderoga Club. 99 Krog St. 404-458-4534. ticonderogaclub.com
Watchman’s Seafood and Spirits. 99 Krog St. 404-254-0141. watchmansatl.com
Weeknights at Watchman’s you can order from the oyster happy hour menu, which includes drink specials. And some nights, Ticonderoga offers bar-only food specials, such as a fried oyster sandwich.