Greg Best, a co-owner of Atlanta’s Holeman & Finch gastropub, is now considered one of the top bartenders in the unofficial capital of the South, but he had humble beginnings, growing up in Poughkeepsie, in New York’s Hudson Valley. He attended SUNY Purchase, majoring in Advertising and Commercial Art, and worked in radio and theatre before starting behind the bar at Delmonico’s Steakhouse at the Venetian in Las Vegas. After leaving Emeril Lagasse’s restaurant group, he moved to Atlanta and started managing the bar at Restaurant Eugene for owners Linton Hopkins and Gina Hopkins, who became his eventual partners, along with fellow bartenders Andy Minchow and Regan Smith, in Holeman & Finch. We recently spoke by phone, where Best better explained his background and approach.
How did your first bar job come about?
My brother was a chef for Emeril for quite awhile. I was working in radio and theatre back north, the radio station was purchased by Clear Channel and they were cleaning house, so I tried something new, moved to Vegas and worked in the kitchen. I fell in love with it. I worked my way around the kitchen, floor, briefly, and worked behind the bar and realized that was where I wanted to be. That was 13 years ago, and I’m still going.
What was the moment where you knew you’d bartend for a living?
The first night I got to bartend, and not fill in or barback. I remember standing behind the bar and making a Manhattan…the theatre geek in me had a captive audience. The artist in me – I had gone to college for art and advertising – and it appealed to the artist in me as a means of expression. The history got me into this amazing and arcane tradition, and ritual of cocktail and spirits production. It hit me over the head like a mallet.
I was working with a couple other great bartenders and we were really interested in the history of cocktails, researching old books and finding obscure cocktail recipes and celebrating them. It continued to evolve, integrating our love of what was into present day applications. Over the years, working with a lot of great chefs and great creative minds in the restaurant business, it become more and more involved and evolved, into experimenting with flavors and ingredients that were off the beaten path, making our own bitters, tonics, tinctures and spirits, which was happening across the country. When we found out we were part of this movement, it was really exciting.
How did the opportunity come about at Holeman & Finch?
When I left the large restaurant group, I went to work for a independent in Atlanta, Restaurant Eugene. The owner operators are a husband and wife team – [Linton Hopkins and Gina Hopkins]. We met a couple times and geeks out for 40 minutes on rye whiskeys…I went in to run their bar and did that for four years. At the same time, two of my business partners – [Andy Minchow and Regan Smith] – were putting together a business plan for a bar in downtown Atlanta…Our project fell through, the landlord pulled the spikes on it, got cold feet. At that time, a space opened up next to Restaurant Eugene, and they weren’t in the position to do it themselves, so we fused the idea of a really crazy small plates driven regional bar menu with our cocktail culture. Right place, right time, right people.
Do you have a first cocktail memory, good or bad?
The first time I had been reading about these cocktails, getting geeked out on classic cocktail culture. When I grew up, I spent a year in New Orleans, so I had this underpinning of what cocktail culture should be…In Atlanta, I went into this bar that was renowned and asked for a Sazerac and they said there was no such thing. I realized this was a lot smaller movement than I thought it was. Fortunately within months there were nine places to find a decent Sazerac.
Did you become interested in spirits or cocktails first?
Spirits first. The cocktails were a little overwhelming for me. For someone with no formal training in the industry, I felt you had to get a handle on blocks before you started building. When I started learning about spirits, they became very interesting to me, all the proprietary idiosyncrasies.
Would you say that you have any mentors?
I wouldn’t say mentors, but I would definitely say influences. I took a Spirits 101 class with Francesco Lafranconi…I remember hearing that guy talk about spirits and cocktails. I thought, “This is so exciting. There is no limit to how hard you can geek out on something and still be representative of that culture.”
Who are some bartenders you haven’t worked with that you admire, and how come?