Ten years ago, Nashville was home to notable dive bars and ever-excellent honky tonks (long live Robert’s Western World!). But it was not a cocktail city, just as it wasn’t a dining destination. Fast forward to today, and Nashville is one of the more thriving food and bar scenes in the South with newcomers opening at a rapid rate.
The Patterson House was the city’s pioneer back in 2009, upping the cocktail game in a region bereft of quality cocktails, hidden downstairs from the game-changing Catbird Seat (https://www.thecatbirdseatrestaurant.com/restaurant), which opened in 2011 and brought fine dining-worthy, experimental tasting menus to the city. By 2013, the cocktail scene was still small. It took others, like Pinewood Social, opening that year, to kick it into gear.
Nashville’s craft-distilling scene preceded its cocktail explosion by a few years. Phil Prichard incorporated Prichard’s Distillery (https://prichardsdistillery.com) in 1997, distilling rum and whiskey, opening their first distillery in 1999 in a historic schoolhouse in Kelso, Tennessee. Calling on five generations back to the early 1800s when his Granddaddy Benjamin Prichard distilled in Davidson County, TN, Prichard eventually opened a second Nashville distillery.
Childhood friends Darek Bell and Andrew Webber were homebrewing beer and wine, evolving to whiskey and opening Corsair Distillery in Bowling Green, KY, in 2008. Laws at the time did not allow them to distill in Nashville (see our 2014 interview with Bell in Distiller for the full story). But by 2010 that had changed and Corsair came home to Nashville, becoming the first craft distillery in the city since Prohibition. While they began with whiskey, absinthe and moonshine, they became known for their dozens of experiments in smoked and hopped whiskeys. They eventually grew to two Nashville distilleries.
Years of planning later, brothers Andy and Charlie Nelson (our distiller interview this issue, pg. 178 ) resurrected their great-great-great grandfather Charles Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery in 2014. In the late 1800s, Nelson’s Green Brier had been a leading producer of whiskey in the country, and their Belle Meade Bourbons tribute those days.
Whiskey tends to dominate in the region at distilleries like Leiper’s Fork (https://leipersforkdistillery.com/welcome), opened in 2016, or Pennington Distilling Co. (https://penningtondistillingco.com/our-brands), which also makes vodka and sipping cream. But you’ll find an array of moonshine at veteran-owned and operated Leatherwood Distillery (https://leatherwooddistillery.com) or spirits like gin, honey liqueur and sorghum spirit at Nashville Craft Distillery (https://www.nashvillecraft.com/).
Even as the music industry first and foremost defines Nashville, the city gains nuance as its food and drink range grows, bringing complexity and flavor well beyond beloved Nashville hot chicken and BBQ. Here are 10 of the bars — some in restaurants — making Nashville a good drinking town.
An industry favorite, hiding Nashville’s other great tasting menu restaurant besides Catbird Seat, Bastion (from the Strategic Hospitality group) is a laid-back, spacious bar in a huge warehouse space warmed by friendly service, little white lights and an extensive vinyl collection. Drinks read simple, sticking to three or four ingredients, but are well-crafted, created by bartenders who know their spirits.
Drink This: artender Seth Litzenberg created Little Hamilton Project, mixing Drumshanbo Gunpowder (https://drumshanbogunpowderirishgin.com/) Irish gin with apricot juice and herbaceous rosemary pine syrup, while other options might include Bonneville Bomber, a bright blend of bourbon, mango and white miso.
The OG (original) Patterson House from Strategic Hospitality (https://www.strategichospitalityonline.com/the-patterson-house) predated Nashville’s cocktail renaissance by years when it opened in 2009, eventually seeing Nashville’s casual fine-dining great, The Catbird Seat (https://www.thecatbirdseatrestaurant.com/), open upstairs in 2011. Patterson’s dim, chandelier-lit space exudes romance from cozy booths to its wraparound bar. Friendly bartenders know their way around classics, and cocktails are conveniently grouped by spirit. Though they retain tired speakeasy house “rules,” the bar blessedly lacks snobbery.
Drink This: ocktails on the changing menu can feature rare spirits like Scandinavian Baska Snaps or Zwack from Hungary, while house drinks step it up as with The Every Couple Moons, featuring Prairie (https://www.prairieorganicspirits.com/) organic vodka beautifully layered with pomegranate, grapefruit, aquavit, Clément Mahina Coco (http://rhumclementusa.com/mahina_coco.htm) coconut liqueur, Combier kummel and grenadine.
Opened in late 2017, you’ll find The Fox Bar & Cocktail Club hidden off busy Gallatin Pike by circling around the building to a backdoor entrance. Thankfully, this is no speakeasy-themed bar with rules or pretention. Vintage décor combines eras from Art Deco to pre-Prohibition in a dark, cozy space lined with velvet blue booths and leather chairs.
Drink This: hanging menus focus on local spirits and easy sippers like a Thai Mule, 19th Century Manhattan or “Fancy Mojito on Draft.” When they initially opened, The Appalachian Sour stood out, combining Tennessee’s Jack Daniel’s and local Green Brier white whiskey with lemon stock, charcoal, egg white, sorghum and a dusting of edible gold flakes.
James Beard semifinalist Henrietta Red is one of Nashville’s best restaurants with consummate service, a vibrant raw bar and dishes like fried avocado with garlic toum (Lebanese-style garlic sauce), Gala apples, lime and cilantro or a vadouvan-spiced pork sausage with tomato, cauliflower, butternut squash and peanuts. Bar manager Patrick Halloran comes from over a decade of bartending in NYC and Nashville, bringing elegant, balanced cocktails that pair well with food. Bonus: He has a deep knowledge — and a few pours of — Calvados and Armagnac.
Drink This: rinks change but look for sippers like 99 Lives, going local with Corsair barrel-aged gin, dry vermouth, Cocchi Americano aperitivo and Luxardo bitter bianco liqueur, or the Star67, a drink combining gin and St. George Spiced Pear Liqueur with lemon, sage and Cava.
Housed right on the Cumberland River, this massive bowling alley is also a restaurant, bar, lounge, coffee shop, all-day hangout and Nashville drink pioneer since opening in 2013. Matt Tocco (our bar manager interview this issue) was there at the beginning, ensuring Pinewood Social kept things crowd-pleasing (their simple but delicious Mezcal Mule remains a favorite) yet not dumbed down.
Drink This: ou’ll find complex beauties like Come One, Come All, mixing Combier (http://www.combierusa.com/products/kummel/) kümmel and mezcal with honey, lemon and a house pepper shrub of serrano, habanero and chipotle peppers. They also go brunch/daytime-friendly with drinks like Cut The Crust Off, featuring spiced rum, Nola chicory coffee, almond, cinnamon, cream, egg yolk and stout beer.
The important treasure of Woolworth on 5th opened at the end of 2017 in a historic F. W. Woolworth department store where lunch counter sit-ins were held during the Civil Rights era. The main dining room was restored to its 1950s-60s glory with long counter, tables and swing dancing on a big screen overhead. The space’s history is not forgotten as the bravery of African Americans who sat-in at that very counter are honored in photos lining the upstairs mezzanine. Order dishes like pimento-cheese corn cakes or Southern Caesar salad with country ham and fried okra. There is also an upstairs bar and a basement with live music and dancing each month.
Drink This: n the past, they featured drinks like a clarified Baby Doll Milk Punch with white and aged rum, Cognac, pineapple, spices, milk and a coconut green chai. Recent cocktails have included a Fifth Avenue Fizz, bubbly with creme de violette, lemon and Prosecco.
Tiny but powerful, No. 308 opened in 2010, marrying dive bar with friendly bartenders who make their own sodas and syrups. Under strung white lights and at tables lacquered with pages from books, the intimate party thrives with regular events like Vinyl Countdown or Sparkle City Disco. Hipster it may be, but drinks are well made and thoughtful with Writer’s Block shots tributing writers from Charles Bukowski (Four Roses and Miller High Life) to Dorothy Parker (Ford’s Gin, Angostura bitters and a sugared pineapple slice).
Drink This: he playful drink menu changes but it’s sure to include good times like a Platano Colada with tequila, plantains, brown butter, coconut and lime, or Lesson Learn’d, mixing bourbon, Coca-Cola syrup and peanuts.
Housed downstairs from Nashville’s pioneering The 404 Kitchen (https://the404nashville.com/kitchen/) restaurant, Gertie’s Bar is centered by a horseshoe-shaped bar, a deep whisk(e)y collection and a members-only whiskey society. Offering a more casual food menu than upstairs, fill up on gnudi pasta, scallop toast or braised rabbit and dirty rice paired with Scotch or American whiskey.
Drink This: hile Gertie’s past Nashville film- and music-centric menus were a bit more complex than current, simpler menus of house Vespers, Old Fashioneds, Margaritas and Manhattans, you can play bartender’s choice (here dubbed “the cocktail game”) or choose from changing drinks like Botherboot, mixing bourbon, rum, white vermouth and spiced cherry bitters with a sherry rinse.
Opened by owners Lyon Porter and Jersey Banks in 2016, East Nashville’s hip quotient was upped with Urban Cowboy Public House and its adjoining bed and breakfast in a Queen Anne Victorian mansion. The bar is housed in an arched wood-and-brick space lined with Southwestern fabrics. When the weather is nicer, the bar opens up to a light-strung outdoor courtyard with a 16-foot fireplace, vintage patio chairs and fire pit, aromatic with meats grilling on an Argentine grill.
Drink This: rinks are simple but well-made variations on classics, like their seamless Basil Gimlet, upping the usual gin, lime and basil with bianco vermouth and black pepper.
Housed in a historic Printer’s Alley building, Black Rabbit’s storied past includes being the offices of Jimmy Hoffa’s attorney and part of Nashville’s Underground Railroad tunnels that led slaves to freedom in the 1800s. The narrow, lofty, brick-walled space has been restored to its early 1900s glory while chef/owner Trey Cioccia turns out pork belly pupusas and vinegar pie alongside a deep offering of spirits and cocktails.
Drink This: hen it opened late 2017, Black Rabbit served drinks like The Charon’s Obol showcasing mezcal, habanero shrub and lime mixed with craft spirits, Bloomery Cré (http://bloomerysweetshine.com/portfolioentry/cre/) liqueur and Golden Moon (http://goldenmoondistillery.com/ourspirits ) crème de violette. These days, look for drinks like Thumper, a gin and Cynar cocktail enhanced by pink peppercorn, fennel and carrot juice.