Thirsty Thursday: The SFA Guide to Cocktails

We created The Southern Foodways Alliance Guide to Cocktails because we believe that well-told stories complement well-mixed drinks. For two decades, the SFA has captured and shared narratives of barbecue, tamales, and gumbo. Of tacos, plate lunches, and boudin. The stories of these foods honor the men and women who grow, prepare, and serve them. We apply that same approach to cocktails. What we pour in our glasses, where we do the pouring, and with whom we do the drinking: Those matters reveal truths about our values and our identity in a diverse and changing region. 

Jerry Slater and I gathered recipes both classic and contemporary from more than twenty bartenders. They are men and women who span the region from Washington, DC, to Austin, Texas. Their tastes are as varied as their backgrounds. We added stories of spiritous lore to give you something to talk about at your next cocktail party. And recipes for bar snacks from Vishwesh Bhatt of Oxford’s Snackbar, because we don’t recommend drinking on an empty stomach. 

What follows is a taste of the book, available from UGA Press. Click here to purchase a copy (or three!) from our friends at Square Books. Cheers, and happy reading.  —Sara Camp Milam

PS-Raise a glass with us on book tour! 

Photos by Andrew Thomas Lee.

Ruby Slipper

recipe by Jerry Slater

A gussied-up Joe Collins, or Vodka Collins, enhanced by grapefruit and rosemary. The redder the grapefruit, the better. Created at H. Harper Station in Atlanta, this is a fantastic brunch drink and a refreshing departure from the standard Bloody Mary or Mimosa. Try serving it by the pitcher for a breakfast or luncheon: Combine the grapefruit juice, vodka, and rosemary syrup in a single batch, then top each drink with soda water before serving. 

Garnish: Rosemary sprig

Service ice: Cubed

Glass: Collins

Yield: 1 (6 12–7-ounce) cocktail


2 ounces freshly squeezed ruby-red grapefruit juice

1 12 ounces vodka, such as Cathead 

12 ounce rosemary syrup (see recipe below) 

3 to 4 ounces soda water

Pour grapefruit juice, vodka, and rosemary syrup into a shaker, add ice, and shake. Strain into ice-filled glass, top with soda water, and garnish with rosemary sprig. 

Rosemary Syrup: 

1 cup water

1 cup sugar

3 rosemary sprigs

Place water and sugar in a small saucepan, set over high heat, and bring to a boil. Boil for 3 minutes. Remove from the heat, add rosemary, cover, and steep for 30 minutes. Strain and cool to room temperature. Refrigerate in a lidded container for up to 3 weeks.

Yield: Approximately 1 12 cups

Bourbon and Gender 

Ordering a drink at a bar can be daunting. Maybe you only know of dubious highballs: rum and Coke, Jack and ginger, vodka and Red Bull. What tastes good? What’s cool? What’s affordable? What will allow you to clime out of bed the next morning? It’s enough to keep you muttering “Miller Lite” when the bartender deigns to look your way. 

Sooner or later, you mature. You evolve. And so do your tastes in booze. You learn the names of a few cocktails, and you adopt one as your signature. Eventually you order with confidence, and maybe work in a request for a certain liquor or a stylistic preference: “I’ll have a dry rye Manhattan.” And boom, you’ve arrived as a grown-up drinker. 

If only it were that simple. Ordering a drink in a bar is a performative act. Your preferences, your values, and your very identity are on display in front of your companions, the bartender, and the other patrons. 

Perhaps no liquor carries more confounding and contradictory implications than whiskey, especially what it says about the gender of the person who orders it. Since its infancy around the turn of the nineteenth century, domestic whiskey distilling has associated itself with the archetypal American man. “Whiskey reflected the strong streak of independence ingrained in the character of the frontier South,” Robert Moss writes. And that frontier ideal was inextricably tied to masculinity, valuing physical strength, self-reliance, bravery, and rebellion. “If we need it, we’ll make it ourselves” might have been the motto of early rural America. That extended to its first distillers of rye in the Mid-Atlantic states and bourbon in the Appalachian South. Men still buy into this frontier fantasy when they savor a sip of bourbon—even if they left an office job downtown and drove to the bar in a luxury SUV.

Bourbon aficionado and novelist Walker Percy spoke to a similar phenomenon in the 1970s. He wrote of bourbon’s power to cut through the ennui that plagued the suburban office worker, husband, and father. He didn’t mention the millions of American women who had entered the workforce by the mid-1970s, nor those who stayed at home with the children and might have appreciated a nip of bourbon at the end of a long day. Percy associated drinking bourbon with male socializing, going back to his days as an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (Before that, he enjoyed bourbon from a Coke bottle passed around the boys’ room at high-school dances.) Often these social occasions involved flirting with or dating women, but it doesn’t seem to have mattered much to Percy whether the woman would actually drink the bourbon. 

More recently, another UNC graduate explored what drinking bourbon purports to say about one’s gender, racial, regional, and class identity. Seán McKeithan’s 2012 Southern Cultures article “Every Ounce a Man’s Whiskey?” turned a 1950s Early Times bourbon advertising slogan into a question, examining what it meant for McKeithan—a young, gay, white Southern man—to drink a liquor that has long been marketed as a symbol of heterosexual white Southern masculinity. Inspired by a college boyfriend’s taste for bourbon, McKeithan recalls, “I drank Bourbon in a spirit of transgression that I could not pin down but felt that, in so doing, I took some nebulous stand against the heterosexual assumption that women and queer men drink from glasses that came with umbrellas, instead of only with ice.” 

While the twenty-first century bourbon market targets a range of consumers “from the gentleman to the good old boy,” McKeithan finds it still relies on tropes of traditional white Southern masculinity. “In today’s South,” McKeithan concludes, “Bourbon remains a piece of masculine identity that Southerners can ‘put on,’ much like overalls, a seersucker suit, or a North Carolina twang.”

What happens when women try on the identity that bourbon conveys? Things can get complicated—and, frankly, a little icky—Courtney Balestier writes. “Few drinks have inspired the fetishization of women that whiskey (and its brethren, bourbon and Scotch) has,” Balestier argues in Punch. “In the pages of men’s magazines, where ladies appear with swollen busts and shrunken thighs, the woman who loves whiskey has become such a common trope (seriously, take your pick) that she’s already a cliché.” Balestier explores this idealized woman, whom she terms a “bro-girl archetype,” a sexy badass who drinks like a man while suggesting an unmistakably female—er, prowess. Like her soul sister, the rail-thin-yet-busty dream girl who eats rare cheeseburgers and knows her fantasy football stats, the whiskey woman is a carefully curated persona behind a façade. In all likelihood, she went to a lot of trouble to give the impression that she goes to none at all. 

Some of this is changing for the better. Women like Alba Huerta in Houston and Steva Casey in Birmingham are gaining recognition for their work behind the bar. Their drinks aren’t known as “girly” or “masculine”—they’re recognized as smart, and good. In Kentucky, Marianne Barnes of Castle and Key, a chemical engineer with a learned papate, now works as the Bluegrass State’s first female master distiller since Prohibition. She’s not even thirty yet. 

So what’s the drinker of any gender to do when trying to navigate the identity politics of the cocktail list? Order what you darn well please. If you enjoy bourbon, go for it. If you’re a burly gentleman with a thirst for vodka and cranberry, you do you. Life is too short to order a drink you don’t really love because you’re trying to be manly, womanly, cool, or “Southern”—whatever that means to you.

Excerpted from The Southern Foodways Alliance Guide to Cocktails by Sara Camp Milam and Jerry Slater, copyright 2017 by the University of Georgia Press.