Written by Sam Prager
Photographed by Bethany Reid
Up the spiraling red stairs of the Crosstown Concourse and through an unsuspecting alley between walls is one of the most popular, and certainly the most eclectically curated, bars in the city - Art Bar
Behind the glass bartop, which houses a changing art installation, is bartender Lauren Scearce. Patrons may recognize her from Hog & Hominy or Gray Canary, where she had worked the five years prior.
“I started bartending at Hog & Hominy under Aaron Hanna who taught me pretty much everything I know. He was a really classic bartender, very traditional and really into pre-prohibition style cocktails. So I feel that’s where my roots are. However, Art Bar has really brought me out of that. A lot of people here have lots of different insights on really cool and funky stuff,” Scearce laughs.
In an industry that is ever changing Scearce explains that though bartending does become convoluted at times, the true art of it lives within the small details.
“Personally, I think what makes a really great bartender is their attention to detail, their attention to the quality and freshness of every ingredient they use. From juice to herbs to the spirits they choose. Just paying attention to everything about the drink. That’s the defining line to me. A lot of people can make really good drinks but if every single thing in the drink isn’t of the utmost quality then that kind of defeats the purpose,” she says. “My least favorite trend when it comes to craft cocktails and bartending in general is batching everything and putting cocktails in kegs and barrels. I understand it, but it just really bums me out. It kind of takes away from the precision and the art of it. I get batching things in cheater bottles, but things can easily go too far and you just end up losing the show, which is my favorite thing about working in this industry. I love when somebody just walks in and they say, ‘I feel like I’m watching art!’ You should feel like that because it is a show. It shouldn’t just be 3 oz of this, shake and now you’re done.”
The art of the drink and the excitement of the show go hand-in-hand according to Scearce, and together they are what make the experience memorable.
She adds that introducing customers to flavors or spirits that they may be unfamiliar with or have pre-existing notions about is part of what makes a good bartender exceptional.
“Usually when someone says they don’t want to try something I’m just like ‘Let me just make you something.’ As long as you tell people ‘If you don’t like it you can throw it at me and I’ll make you something else,’ they’re pretty open. But I love when people are like ‘I really hate gin’ and I’m like ‘OK, cool, let me make you something’ and they love the drink and ask they what’s in it and I say ‘Gin.’ It’s my favorite thing in the world,” she laughs. “I hate when people say they only drink this or that. Just let me make you something in a way that changes your opinion on whatever you think you hate. It’s fun getting people to experience new things.”
Memphis’ cocktail scene has grown exponentially over the past decade. More and more people are beginning to embrace cocktails and outlier spirits as a serious part of the city’s culture.
“I’m glad to see people really getting into cocktails in Memphis. When I first started bartending it wasn’t really a thing. There weren’t a bunch of serious bars or bartenders, at least not like there are now. But in the past few years it has really become a thing and I think that’s really, really great for Memphis. I really like the fact that people appreciate cocktails and interesting wines instead of being scared by them and just sticking with a beer or vodka soda,” she says. “I think it gets people excited and it’s cool. It really brings everybody together and even people I know that have never worked in a restaurant before are like ‘Fuck yeah! Let me get a shot of Fernet or a Negroni.’ I just love it. I really love it. I love the fact that people are really into the art behind it and are also exposing other people to it.”
Scearce’s cocktail for this issue of Memphis Current is ‘Hybrid Moments,’ a dark-red boozy sipper that is slightly bitter with underlying notes of red fruit and spice. The cocktail shares its name with the Misfit’s song, which Scearce says she had been listening to on repeat while working on this cocktail list.
The four-ingredient drink is a riff on the famed Negroni, which was first stirred into existence in 1919 by Count Camillo Negroni in Florence, Italy. The drink is one of Scearce’s favorites, as it is to many, and is a stunning example of simplicity and elegance in the cocktail world.
“I found that most of my favorite cocktails are equal parts, though this drink isn’t that exactly. My favorite stirred drink is a Negroni and my favorite shaken drink is a Last Word, which is kind of typical, but I don’t care. Those are my favorites. I think there’s a lot of beauty in simplicity, and I think that kind of gets lost a lot of times with more complex drinks, but I mean people really do some cool fucking crazy creative things,” explains Scearce. “I think sometimes it’s good to go back to basics. I’m a simple bitch. I love simplicity. I appreciate everything everyone does, but when it comes to what I create, I just try and keep it simple.”
As with every form of art, there are many ways to start. When beginning to work on a new cocktail Scearce explains she typically starts with a spirit or a ‘base,’ as David Embury’s “The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks” would call it.
“I always start with an idea that’s usually spirit driven because I’ll find a spirit that I’m like ‘Oh my God! I love it! I want that in the cocktail.’ So, for me, the spirit is usually what drives the cocktail. Then it comes down to knowing what flavors will accentuate the initial spirit,” she says. “I always make stuff that I like. I’ve never really made what I would call a ‘people pleaser’ cocktail. I’m always kind of fucking with things that I like, flavors that I like and spirits that I like. It’s just a matter of trying things and testing things. Then getting other people to taste them because we all have different palates and perspectives.”
Perspective is something that Scearce says she is working on. She notes that she has only really been a bartender at two places and though she has the industry knowledge, she lacks the perspective that comes from working at multiple establishments and living in different cities.
However, the 25-year-old says she has learned many lessons while behind the bar.
“I’ve learned a lot through bartending. Unfortunately, the main thing is patience, with people but also with myself. I get really frustrated with myself when I think things don’t work out, especially with creating drinks. So I feel like patience is something that I’ve really learned in regards to myself. I’ve learned a lot about my palate and other people’s palates. The most important thing I’ve learned is how to make an experience. How to make something special for people when they sit at your bar. When someone comes in expecting the same beer, wine or mixed drink they’ve had a million times and you create something new and special for them and four cocktails later they’re like ‘Wow.’ But who wouldn’t be after four cocktails,” she laughs. “I just love bartending.”
From left to right: Papa's Pilar 7 Year Blonde Rum, Cappelletti, Cynar, Antica Formula Sweet Vermouth
1 oz Papa's Pilar 7 Year Blonde Rum
1 oz Cappelletti
1/2 oz Cynar
1/2 oz Antica Formula Sweet Vermouth
3 dashes of Angostura Bitters
Combine all ingredients into a mixing glass and stir vigorously. Strain onto a large ice cube in a rocks glass by using a hawthorne strainer . Garnish with a beautiful and robust orange twist. Consume responsibly.
All ingredients are available at Joe's Wines and Liquors
Prices are subject to change. You must be 21 and over to drink. Please drink responsibly.
Papa's Pilar 7 Year Blonde Rum
Inspired by the seaward adventures of Hemingway, Papa’s Pilar “Blonde Rum” is aged in Spanish Sherry and Bourbon casks before being blended. It has an exceptionally smooth tasting experience consisting of citrus notes, hints of almond and oak, and a creamy mouth feel.
In the same family as Campari and Aperol, Capalletti is an artisanal wine-based aperitif made mostly from Trebbiano grapes and is far less bitter than both of its cousins. The flavor is slightly bitter with notes of orange and lemon citrus peels.
First introduced in 1952, this Italian bittersweet amaro is infamously made from artichokes and twelve other herbs. It has a strong herbal and vegetal quality that ends with a bitter finish.
Antica Formula Sweet Vermouth
Originally developed by Antonio Benedetto Carpano in 1786, this sweet vermouth is a fan favorite in the craft cocktail world. With aromas of dark chocolate, berries, bitter cherries and marzipan, this very rich and concentrated vermouth is excellent for Manhattans and Negronis alike.