Q&A: Longtime Atlanta bartender Kysha Cyrus talks cocktails, past and future

Kysha Cyrus has been a fixture of the Atlanta cocktail scene for more than 20 years, honing her skills under such bartenders as Greg Best and Andy Minchow. Recently, Cyrus talked with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Jamaica and came to New York City with my mother when I was 5. I grew up in Queens, and went to school in Long Island. I feel like I’m Jamaican by heart, but always a New Yorker, too.

When did you move to Atlanta?

I moved to Atlanta in 2000. When I first got here, I worked at a Red Lobster in Tucker. Then, I worked at Mick’s at Lenox Square. But, I really got into bartending at Emeril’s in Buckhead. That’s where I met Greg and Andy. That experience was great, because I got to learn about spirits, cocktails, wine and food, and I made some lifelong friends there.

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How did you end up at Repast, with chefs Joe Truex and Mihoko Obunai-Truex?

I went to Repast to work with Andy, because he was the one who trained me at Emeril’s. And, when he left Repast to open Holeman & Finch with Greg, I took over and became the bar manager at Repast. I worked there for four years. I was able to make cocktails with soju and sake, the food was so good, and Joe’s palate for wine was on a whole other level.

More recently, you’ve been at Joystick Gamebar and Georgia Beer Garden, with owners Brandon Ley and Johnny Martinez.

It’s been like steps, from one thing to the next, working, and doing a little bit of everything. Professionally, Brandon and Johnny know how I work, and how I like to make cocktails. I’ve been working at both Joystick and Beer Garden, and we’re working on a new project.

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What’s your cocktail style?

I like to stick to the traditional style of making drinks as much as I can. My style is simple, but delicious. It’s not super showy, but with great ingredients, the right spirit, and maybe a syrup I’ve made. I love shiso or sorrel. And, I like looking back to older drinks, like Peruvian or Mexican cocktails made with things like tepache.

What do you notice about Atlanta’s cocktail scene?

Lately, I’ve seen a lot of people going back to the classics. I don’t see anybody doing anything that crazy. At By Weight and Measure, Ian Carlson is using science and testing the boundaries. I went to Tio Lucho’s, the new Peruvian place over on North Highland, and just watching the bartenders make drinks was so fun, because I hadn’t done that in a long time.

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Have you made beer cocktails?

I’ve made a few. I’ve taken a stout and reduced it down to a syrup and mixed it with brandy and rum. It was sort of a nod to a black Manhattan. I’m also working on a beer cocktail that’s rooted in a Jamaican cocktail. It’s carrot juice, Dragon stout and condensed milk.

What about the new project you mentioned?

It’s called Mambo Zombi. Johnny tells people it’s a bar that, if Grace Jones and Telly Savalas met, they would have a drink together. The concept is the Day of the Dead, the river Styx, and passing as a celebration of life. We want you to come through those doors and celebrate that with us.

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What kind of cocktails will you be making?

You will see throwbacks, like a harvey wallbanger. You can’t get any more basic than that. It’s vodka, Galliano and orange juice. But I also made an elote drink with corn milk mixed with rum. I added Irish moss as a binder. ... Another thing we have is a sugar cane juicer, so that just opens up more things. Some will be light and easy, and then we have things like the margarita con tiki, with spices in the agave.

Is this the most involved you’ve been with a new bar?

Bartenders open bars all the time. You’re there with the owners, and you’re helping them. This is a little different. I have a stake in it, the drinks are mostly mine, and knowing it’s part of me, as well, I’m super excited.

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