A hip bowling alley, restaurant, bar, lounge, coffee shop and general all-day hangout on the Cumberland River, Pinewood Social was an early adopter in Nashville’s cocktail renaissance. Though cities like New York and San Francisco were well over a decade into a cocktail renaissance when Nashville pioneer The Patterson House opened in 2009, it was still a few years before the city started to up its cocktail game.
Matt Tocco got his bartending start as a barback at The Patterson House in 2009, opened by Nashville-based Strategic Hospitality group and Alchemy Consulting. Three years later, Matt went on to become bar manager at Nashville’s acclaimed Rolf & Daughters restaurant in Germantown. In 2013, he was back with Strategic Hospitality as the company beverage director. His first project? Develop the cocktail program at the new Pinewood Social, which opened that year.
Offering changing menus both seasonal and classic, Matt is one of those beverage directors who marries an easy sense of drinkability — welcoming every kind of drinker — with precise perfection that appeals to drink geeks and aficionados. While his Pinewood team makes their own bitters, syrups and juices and chisels their own ice from a 300-pound Clinebell ice block, Pinewood is anything but fussy, given its massive space and all-purpose menu. It takes a skilled hand to balance a vision this broad, but Tocco and team have done so ever since Pinewood opened, ensuring its place as a Nashville bar fixture (read more about Pinewood Social under our top 10 Nashville bars).
Matt has gone on to develop cocktail menus for other Strategic Hospitality properties, four bars within the group’s newest Downtown Sporting Club and menus at now legendary The Patterson House.
Here, in his own words, Matt talks to us about what led him into bartending, how he decides what spirits to stock at his bar and what is exciting him now in the craft-distilling world.
What led you to get into the drink world?
I took some time off before grad school and got a job as a barback at The Patterson House. I ended up really enjoying it. I did that for a while between visiting potential schools and ended up deciding I wanted to make a career out of bartending. The work behind a bar is so tangible, and that is something that really appealed to me. That has changed over time now that I’m focusing more on training and putting menus together. But for a while, there was a distinct start and end to service. School was a lot less tangible and, for me, that caused a lot of anxiety. It wasn’t until I decided to stop working service that I knew I wanted to help with menu creation and teaching.
How does living in Nashville influence your bar’s style and operations?
I was taught how to bartend from people in New York, so obviously my favorite bars tended to exist in NYC and San Francisco. I was able to look at what those folks were doing while also taking into consideration where I am, what the guests in front of me want and what my bartenders are able to do. It’s become an ebb and flow of how to take those values from a 72-square-foot room like at The Patterson House to a massive bar on Broadway. And how to create really good, quality, high-volume cocktails.
What is your philosophy in deciding what brands/bottles to stock and to invest in?
There are two things to consider here. I really enjoy new products from small producers that are truly great — and not just for the sake of novelty. Those new and unique spirits that you can’t find other versions of, those are what I love, like Lake House Spiced Rum from Cardinal Spirits. That rum is full of cardamom and sharp spice flavors — it’s great.
That said, I also have to hit liquor cost, so it’s also about working with those bigger producers. There are ones I really enjoy that can also offer support on pricing that those small ones cannot. So there’s a lot of fun in working with new things that are unique, but we have to bear in mind those bigger names that are also really good and can support high volume and pricing.
How do you and your team educate customers on new and quality spirits?
It’s all about finding really great ways to introduce spirits that may be new to people. We create cocktails using rums and brandies, alongside more approachable spirits like whiskeys and vodka so guests are more open to experiencing something new.
What advice would you give to distilleries looking to be represented in quality bars like yours?
It all depends on what they want. If they want to see a lot of volume, they need to focus on pricing to allow for inclusions on cocktail menus. If they want to be an elite, premium brand and only go through a few bottles every so often, then it just depends on the value. Do you want to be a workhorse or a show dog?
What are some microdistillers/small-batch brands that are exciting you right now?
Cardinal Spirits: So first off, I really like them as people. And the products they are making are awesome. Their spiced rum is unique: It doesn’t taste like any other spiced rum I’ve had. It has cardamom and a sharper spice flavor than most.
Maggie’s Farm Rum: This is a really cool producer of rum with a great ginger-ready spiced rum. They have different applications for different cocktails but they’re unique from the large brands we are used to.
Chattanooga Whiskey Company: These guys have really great malted grain bourbons. They blend New World and Old World styles of whiskeys. I also really like that their master distiller worked in beer for as long as he did; he has a really interesting knowledge of grains. Their approach is unique in that they source their whiskeys and slowly work on their recipes as the whiskey develops.
Besides your bar, what do you think are some “can’t miss” food and drink spots when people are visiting your city?
Rolf & Daughters: I helped to open Rolf & Daughters in 2012 and it’s still one of my favorite restaurants in the city today.
Duke’s: They make really delicious sandwiches and it has this great rock-n-roll vibe.
Attaboy: I love Attaboy because Toby Maloney taught me how to bartend and that’s the closest thing to Milk & Honey as you’re going to get. And now it’s in my own city.