Eric Simpkins found success, and his calling, while tending bar in New York, but ultimately, the native Southerner couldn’t resist the lure of his home region. In 2006, he returned to Atlanta, the city where he attended high school, to work at TROIS. Three years later, he joined Sasha Petraske across town as bar manager of DRINKSHOP [Atlantans clearly like capitalization]. Simpkins is currently trying to help open a 10,000 square-foot lounge. In the interim, he’s been working as a “luxury bar consultant” and bartends private events as a member of The Last Scofflaws. We recently caught up with Simpkins by phone, where he further explained his background and approach.
What was your first bar job?
1996, Mozzarellas Café, which is part of the Ruby Tuesday Group. I grew up all over the south, but went to high school in Atlanta and lived there ever since.
How did the Mozzarellas opportunity come about?
It was really one of those where I had been waiting tables there, and I would occasionally go behind the bar and have to make drinks when the normal bartender wasn’t there, things like Bahama Mamas and Rum Runners in giant fish bowl glasses.
How did the opportunity come about at DRINKSHOP?
At the time, I was supposed to be moving to Nashville, talking to them about the Patterson House, but for a couple different reasons, it ended up not being the right time to be able to do that. I had been looking around for another opportunity, and it was someone on the W marketing team, who was a regular at TROIS – the bar I moved back to Atlanta to work at after graduating from culinary school. They told me they were teaming with Sasha [Petraske] on a bar. It was a chance of a lifetime. I thought I was the perfect fit, because I had worked with so many bartenders he trained. To work with him directly, I didn’t want to miss that chance.
Do you have a first cocktail memory, good or bad?
Messing around with an Old Fashioned before I was even legal to drink, I had fallen in love with Bourbon. One of the first whiskey drinks you hear about. It had a crappy cherry, muddled orange, I drowned it in soda and tainted it with sweet vermouth. It was kind of a mess. My friend, who’s now a chef and moved to New York with me – before I got into cocktails – we had an argument about the Old Fashioned cocktail. He was the one who said it was rye whiskey, bitters and sugar. He ended up being right, even though he never ended up bartending a day in his life.
Did you become interested in spirits or cocktails first?
Probably spirits first. It was really whiskey and red wine at the time. Those were the first two things I fell for. Before I was seriously into cocktails, I thought I would be a sommelier or vintner; I designed a lot more wine lists and wine tastings before I got the bug and fell for cocktail making.
Would you say that you have any mentors?
First and foremost, I would have to credit Audrey Saunders, and really that whole crew working in that first year at Pegu Club. That was a magical year. Toby Maloney took me under his wing. Sammy Ross, Phil Ward, Jim Meehan, Bryan Miller and Chad Solomon, working with them on a nightly basis, I had so many questions to ask, and they were so gracious and shared what they knew with me. Working at DRINKSHOP, getting the chance to work with Sasha directly, it was a revelation to see his way of doing things and all the minutiae he brought to making cocktails. His attention to detail was amazing, and the balance of sweet and sour. Then working with Audrey, we’d try 30 to 40 different ways of making the same cocktail, taking the cocktail, and changing all the proportions and changing one thing. Everything stays the same but a quarter-ounce of one thing or another. It really taught me about the dedication to perfection. Even though it works, you might try it other ways because you don’t know what you might discover by accident.
Was there a point where you knew you’d be a bartender for a living?
Coming to the end of my time at Pegu, I was just about to graduate from French Culinary Institute, started to think about what my next step might be. People were approaching me about bar jobs as opposed to culinary positions. I was bartending for about 10 years at that point, and to be able to use what I learned in culinary school, really appealed to me. Finding a place like Pegu, where people were creating and experimenting, and people were as serious about their craft as people as cooking, really inspired me…it was something I understood and had an aptitude and passion for.
Who are some bartenders you haven’t worked with that you admire, and how come?