The Weekly Mix: Shrubs, Scuppernongs, and Southern Tradition at Empire State South
- Empire State South
999 Peachtree Street Northeast # 140
Atlanta, GA 30309
"I come from a colorful family of people in the north Georgia mountains," says Kellie Thorn, mixologist at Atlanta's Empire State South. While some of us use "colorful" to glaze over an estranged uncle's recent conviction or a cousin's upsetting choice of tattoo, Thorn means colorful in the old school sense—people living vibrantly. Take Thorn's great, great grandmother, aka "Super Proud Old Elsie." "She was a midwife living in the Appalachian Mountains," says Thorn. "She grew and foraged herbs and would make medicinal tinctures with 'shine." That's moonshine, Yankees, something of a family legacy. "My great uncle learned to make 'shine from his parents," says Thorn. (In contrast, this writer's dad once let her have a sip of Rolling Rock when she was nine.)
But it's not 'shine that runs through Thorn's veins. It's a culture of preservation and using what's around you, be it corn mash, foraged herbs, or other. Skip a generation down and you have Thorn's aunt, "a huge preserver, she puts up all kinds of things," and then Thorn herself, who continues behind the bar what her ancestry began in the wilds of Appalachia. "It's something very Southern to preserve and capture the essence of summer and spring," she says. "It's integral to the Southern way of living."
Thorn might not be scrambling through the forest in search of her flavors, but she is keeping them distinctly Southern. Take her scuppernong shrub, a dual ode to a native Southeastern grape and the cool-down culture of the South, where the cure for a sticky hot afternoon might just be sucking back a tangy shrub on a shady porch. "It's a nod toward the old ways," says Thorn, whose list at Empire spans seasonal, culinary-inspired cocktails and their classic brethren. "We love taking any kind of product at the height of its season, finding some way to preserve it, and capturing its best essence right then."
In summertime, that's the scuppernong. It might sound like a Dr. Seuss villain, but scuppernong's actually a native American Muscadine grape variety, with thick green skins and, sighs Thorn, an unmistakable flavor. "You just don't know unless you have one. There's a musk in the smell of the skin," she offers. "I often say earthy or dusty or that kind of thing. It's a little tart, but also sweet. It's very much its own thing," which is to say, exactly the kind of romantic, wild flavor to capture in a shrub.
"Our general approach is to take the fruit and, for every four cups, add one cup of vinegar and one cup of water," says Thorn of Empire's process (they're currently working on strawberries). Aptly, scuppernongs get special treatment. "We don't add water to that one," says Thorn. "For every four cups of fruit, we add two cups of vinegar," and in this case a mix of Champagne and white wine vinegar. Give it a month-long bath, strain off the solids, add some sugar, and reduce, and you've got a tangy concentration of seasonal essence.
Thorn decided the best way to play up her shrub was by leaning into the flavors of the grape, thus The Sidoux Fizz. Cajun for "pretty little thing," the drink is a sideways wink at the French 75 (gin, Champagne, lemon, sugar), but "this was all about grapes, grapes, grapes," says Thorn. "The Cognac, the Dejeans—we even used white wine vinegar. It's tons of grape." She doesn't mean in the Welch's purple-splosion sense. If anything, the Sidoux is like a complex exhibition of the agility of all grapes. There's the fruity zip of the vinegar-spiked scuppernong shrub, the bracing ebullience of the Champagne, the elegance of Dolin blanc, and the curvy smoothness of the Cognac. "I felt like the Cognac just gave it a really great roundness," says Thorn, who balances the refreshingly tart grape symphony with a "heavy dash" of green, herbaceous, "almost minty" Bar Keep Swedish Herb Bitters, which play up some of the earth of the scuppernong skin, and maybe pay an unconscious ode to a certain foraging ancestor.
And that's what's special about drinking the Sidoux Fizz, or anything else Thorn makes with a shrub. It's as much about family history as the craft of the bartender or preserving the flavors of the South. "Growing up with these kinds of stories, and being immersed in that, it's something I care about greatly," she says. "Working with things at your fingertips, exploiting all that your local agriculture has to offer, and then finding a way to bring that to people." We never knew her, but we imagine Elsie would be proud.