The first liquor I ever had was gin. As is often the case with first time drinkers, things did not end well, so I’ve spent the past decade thinking gin tastes like Pine Sol and regret. Austin Reese proved me wrong.
As the Cocktail Program Lead at Corsair Distillery, Reese knows a bit about knowing what people want, even when they don’t know what that is.
“If I’m working and someone doesn’t know what to order, I say, ‘OK: give me three words to describe what you want,’” says Reese. “It could be citrusy, herbal and carbonated. Or savory, dark and spiced. If you get people talking, you can guide them to what they want. You give me the words; I give you the drink.”
Tell me all about it
The talking part is key for Reese, whose passion for tending bar comes from the fact that he genuinely likes the people he’s pouring drinks for
“I really enjoy interacting with the people,” he says. “Nashville is where I was born, where I was raised, so being able to get out in Nashville and talk to the people, or get them into the distillery or take them through the tasting, is my favorite part of the job.”
In addition to the people, Reese has always liked mixing drinks, so bartending was a natural fit.
“I love making cocktails,” he says. “I was that annoying guy at the college party who was making a cocktail instead of drinking a beer. I may even have a briefcase of cocktail gear in my garage that I have whipped out on occasion.”
Reese’s first restaurant job was as a busboy at Big River Grille in Chattanooga. He worked his way through the ranks, holding every job at Big River except brewer and manager. He earned a business degree from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and decided it was time to get serious about cocktails.
“This restaurant — Table 2 — in downtown Chattanooga was looking for a bartender. I walked in and said, ‘Will you hire me and train me from the ground up?’ I guess they admired the moxie because they hired me on the spot.”
Reese moved from restaurant to restaurant, learning what he could and making friends in the industry. When he heard that Sapphire in Franklin, Tenn., needed a manager he jumped at the chance to get back to Nashville. He was managing the bar at Sapphire when Corsair’s Director of Sales, Jason Ingram, came in and tasted what Reese was doing with their product.
“I always carried Corsair,” says Reese, “one because they’re local and you always want to try to support the locals, and two, because it’s damn good.
That damn good product does not come easy. Corsair tried 100 different recipes before they landed on the gin they serve today — the one that won them Gold in 2009 at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
“We put incredible amounts of effort in before we landed on the one we have now,” Reese says. “For the most part, we’re not making anything traditional, but even the stuff that is traditional, we’ve made it our own.”
Describing their flavors as “nontraditional” may be putting it mildly.
“We’re the only ones making a Quinoa Whiskey, and the Triple Smoke was one of the first of its style,” Reese says. “Other people are making similar stuff, but ours makes a very different, unique cocktail. We always want to make stuff that nobody’s ever had before.”
Getting in the mix
For people who want to follow in Reese’s footsteps, his biggest piece of advice is more serious than you might imagine:
“Study, study, study. Get your hands on every book, every article, every tidbit of information you can. Read someone else’s cocktail menu. Talk to anyone who knows what they’re doing and who will give you five minutes of their time. Learn something new about what you’re trying to do every single day.”
Then comes the fun part:
“Experiment. Try stuff. It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun,” Reese says. “Then you’ll find things you like, and you’ll realized someone else has already invented that cocktail. But you’ll live.”
And one day, if Jesus loves you, you’ll get to work in a distillery as your actual job. But beware: it comes with some perils.
“We’ve had a couple people faint during the tours in the summer,” he says. “And there are always people who want to touch my beard.”
But more often than not, the connection Reese makes with people is more mental than physical.
“I love teaching people something,” he says. “You take someone who may know a little bit about cocktails, and you show them a couple simple things they can do that will change the way they drink. That’s a pretty satisfying way to spend your days.”