It’s got a Dixie drawl, but The Land of Cotton cocktail isn’t just a salute to Stuart White’s sub-Mason Dixon heritage. It’s the best kind of eclectic Americana, where local products and borrowed ideas make sweet, multicultural magic. In this case, “the inspiration was to take a fun, tiki-esque approach to a Southern cocktail,” says White, Miller Union mixologist and legacy Southerner. The local twang is provided here by Black Maple Hill Kentucky bourbon—the “poor man’s Pappy Van Winkle”—and peanuts.
“Peanuts are almost as Georgia as peaches,” says White, who actually got the idea to give the local legume orgeat treatment from fellow ATL mixo (and displaced Red Sox fan) Paul Calvert. “At the beginning of the baseball season, he did a guest bar spot at Holeman & Finch with baseball-themed cocktails.” As White recalls, “[Calvert] took peanuts, rolled them in sugar, roasted them, and made orgeat.” You guessed it—“the drink tasted like Cracker Jacks.”
Peanut orgeat seemed like the perfect way to unite the deep South with the South Pacific, paying homage to the post-Prohibition efforts of Trader Vic Bergeron and Donn Beach (you may know him as Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt). White just needed to tweak the flavor profile. “I prefer to do raw blanched peanuts for this drink," he says. "They have more of that earthy, vegetal flavor.” From raw material to post-production, the peanut orgeat process is parallel to its almond inspiration: soak, soften, and purée raw peanuts, re-soak and strain hard with a cheesecloth, saving the water that comes out. Repeat multiple times; then add sweetener, orange blossom water, and reserve.
The result should have the silk and viscosity of classic orgeat. “The oily quality is what you want,” says White. “Orgeat in drinks like the Mai Tai adds viscosity.” Although many a Mai Tai bastardization has replaced orgeat with a rainbow of tropical juices and/or grenadine, White is talking about Trader Vic’s revered, if somewhat historically obscured, 1940s original. (His Land of Cotton is kind of like a bourbon-and-peanut Mai Tai lovechild.)
Rounding out the southern savor is small producer Black Maple Hill 12-year Kentucky bourbon. “They age these barrels in giant hothouses,” says White, “with whiskies at the top getting more heat, tasting completely different from whiskies on the very bottom.” Black Maple Hill is “a little spicier,” White says, with notes of vanilla, integrated stone and dried fruits, and a hint of smokiness—courtesy of the medium char on the barrels and that Kentucky summer sun. “The summers in Kentucky are so hot, a lot of the compounds leech out of the wood more than they would in Scotland.”
In the Land of Cotton, White plays 1½ ounces of these compounds against ¾ ounce lime juice, ½ ounce tart house-made cherry syrup (which gives the drink its purplish hue), and a creamy ⅓ ounce of that peanut orgeat. As for the name? “It’s one of those things,” says White. “Right as I was making it, I heard that song.” Not just ultra Southern, “Dixie Land” was the song White’s mom used to sing to him as a boy, adding another irresistible layer of bittersweet nostalgia.
“It’s the song of a Southerner who’s away from the South, who missed home and wants to go back,” he says. “‘I wish I were in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten, look away, look away, look away, Dixie Land … He wants to go back.’” Think of The Land of Cotton as White’s way of making sure old times aren’t forgotten, or new tastes overlooked.