Written by Sam Prager
Photographed by Bethany Reid
Zach Nicholson’s Lucky Cat officially opened its doors in early 2019 after introducing the restaurant to the city by hosting several successful pop-ups over the past few years.
Lucky Cat initially grew to prominence through their ramen, but since opening their brick & mortar location the eatery now offers a variety of Japanese-influenced cuisine, including dumplings, rice bowls and baos.
Though Nicholson may be the brainchild behind the restaurant's food, the location has also become a hot-spot for cocktail enthusiasts as well.
General manager Paul Gilliam has been with Nicholson since Lucky Cat opened on Broad Avenue, and has since created one of the city’s most eclectic and nuanced cocktail menus.
Gilliam and bar manager McKenzie Nelson are constantly evolving their rotating seasonal drink menu, which is inspired by eastern-flavors and asian pop-culture.
Even though the cocktails feature ingredients like szechuan peppercorn tincture, pork belly-washed bourbon and sugar snap peas, Gilliam explains that it all starts with the basics and that almost every cocktail can be traced back to something else.
That’s why when Lucky Cat decided to refinish and open the bar upstairs as the Japanese spaghetti-western themed ‘High Noon’ this past January, Gilliam and Nelson wanted to serve just the basics, and at an affordable price as well.
I sat down with McKenzie Nelson and Paul Gilliam to talk cocktails, first drinks and more for this issue of Memphis Current.
Do you remember your first drink?
I was 14, and my dad gave me a Corona after painting the inside of my parents’ garage one summer. It was my first drink and I actually thought it was great. Very refreshing!
My first drink was after a birthday party I went to at the Raleigh Skateland when I was 15. It was in my brother's Mazda pickup truck, and it was a Smirnoff Ice. And I thought, ‘This is what beer tastes like? This is great’ I haven’t had a Smirnoff Ice since then. The next weekend I had my second drink. I was in the Covington Pike bottoms in the back of my dad's Vietnam-era Willy’s Jeep, and I had a Corona and almost threw up because I didn't know what real beer tasted like.
I thought all beer tasted like Smirnoff Ice! But, I had this Corona and I thought it was so gross but everybody made fun of me, so I kept drinking it. And I drank a bunch of them and got hammered drunk and I was bouncing around in this shitty Vietnam-era Jeep in the Covington Pike bottoms like the true redneck I am. On another note, one time before school my senior year in high school I drank a water bottle full of Goldschlager.
I did that one time in college but with Dr. Pepper.
You just drank a bottle of Dr. Pepper?
No! Goldschlager and Dr. Pepper. It was at a Halloween party.
Anyway, somebody came up to me before school and was like, ‘Man you know you smell like booze right?’ I was like, ‘Nah, I smell like gum. I'm chewing gum.’ They were like, ‘Dude you're so drunk right now.’ I was like ‘No, I'm fine.’
That Goldschlagger and Dr. Pepper really hit me the next day. It was a moment for sure.
First Restaurant Job?
Technically... my first food industry job was at Schlotzsky's Deli out in Wolfchase when I was 15. I worked there for about three months. They fired me on my day off like Craig in “Friday,” for showing up for a shift I wasn't scheduled for. I was totally fine. Then I worked in retail for 12 years, between American Eagle, FedEx, Guitar Center, Hollywood Feed and the Drum Shop. I ended up taking a part-time job at Rec Room the month after they opened and I worked there for a year before they opened up Loflin Yard. I helped open up Loflin yard and worked there for about two years and eventually became the bar manager. I got moved to Bounty where I became the front-of-house manager. I stopped working there in December 2018, and two weeks later, I got this job at Lucky Cat as the bar manager.
My first restaurant job was as a server at a Mellow Mushroom when I was 22-years-old back home in Atlanta. I ended up moving to Memphis and got a job at Railgarten, then got a job at Loflin Yard, then got a job at Bounty where I met Paul, and now I'm here at Lucky Cat.
What’s your favorite cocktail?
Negronis… and I'll tell you why. I always hated that part of my palate—the bitter part—for a really long time. When I started at Loflin Yard it was my first introduction to Campari, and smokey or bitter drinks in general. I hated them, everything about them. But, the more I got into cocktail culture, the more I realized those flavors were such an integral part in building cocktails. So, I started to learn how to appreciate those parts of cocktails. I pretty much started forcing myself to drink Campari any chance I could. I put my palate in a chokehold until I liked it. I think my original distaste for bitter flavors originally stems from this weird childhood memory I have.
Where you thought beer was supposed to taste like Smirnoff Ice?
Right? But no. When I was little, my mom was eating this ruby red grapefruit. It was beautiful. I never had a grapefruit before, but it looked amazing. It was big and juicy and red. So, I asked her what it was. She was like, ‘Oh. It's a grapefruit.’ I was like ‘Grape... fruit? That sounds like it's going to be amazing and delicious.’ I took the biggest bite I could and remember almost throwing up. It was so gross. So from then on anything else that hit that part of my palate I hated. Campari did that, so I started drinking Negronis all the time because I needed to understand that part of my palate and build it up so I could utilize it more. Now I drink bitter things all the time.
I was going to say a Negroni, but so that it’s something different, I would say a Mai Tai. It was my idea to put a Mai Tai on the High Noon menu, but they are tricky. What seperates a good Mai Tai and a bad Mai Tai is the amount of lime juice. All of the spirits you use are sweet, and then you add the orgeat (a sweet syrup made from almonds, sugar, and rose water or orange flower water). Without balancing out the cocktail with the lime juice it’s just very sweet. You need to have enough citrus. You need to make sure there is a balance between sweetness and tartness. It's an easy drink to mess up.
What’s your favorite part about bartending:
I worked in the retail world for 12 years and had to convince customers to buy stuff from me for me to make money. It’s the worst job in the world. There's something about working in commision-based retail that builds your tolerance for people, but in the bartending industry people are already sitting at my bar, I don't have to convince them to buy anything. They're already here to spend money. They're already going to buy drinks. They're already going to buy dinner. My job is to guide them and teach them what they should be buying. I’m here to answer their questions and explain to them the nuances and differences between things. And if you’re making craft cocktails it’s especially exciting because it’s something you created yourself instead of a drum kit made in some factory, or whatever it is you’re selling. It's yours and you have ownership of it. You spend all of this energy and time transforming these different ingredients into this drink. Being able to sell that to other people and seeing their reaction, seeing them react the same way you do—with excitement. It’s awesome. They’re like ‘Damn this is really good!’ and you can be like ‘Yeah it is!’ Because you’ve spent a lot of time and energy creating it and you should be proud.
I love that at Lucky Cat it’s about the experience. You can eat food here that you won’t really find anywhere else. We structure the menu so that everything kind of looks familiar, but a lot of things are unfamiliar as well. For example, you have ajitama (half-boiled seasoned ramen eggs) on most of the menu items. Most people don't know what that is, so they're already persuaded to kind of eat and drink different things that they might be unfamiliar with.
They trust us.
It’s nice. You already have the guest halfway in the door already when you’re trying to introduce them to new ingredients or spirits. It’s really awesome and refreshing. It creates a great creative work environment. I just love the combination of being able to be creative at my job and being able to have the immediate gratification of watching somebody enjoy something I worked hard on. We also see the same people over and over again. It really makes it feel like a family. It doesn't really feel like work, it's just like hanging out with people and having a really good time on both sides of the bar.
I love our customers. I've definitely worked in places where people wanted what they wanted and that was it. They're like, ‘All we want to have is Martinis, Old Fashioneds, Cosmos’ and so forth, but because of the kind of food we're selling people who eat here just accept trying something different. They just trust us and roll with it. That definitely translates into the bar as well. Working at a place like this makes being a creative cocktail bartender so much more gratifying because everybody's already open to it. You don't have to sell them on it. If I had to try and push this menu, which has drinks infused with shitake mushrooms and barley infused tequila, at other places that I've worked at, customers would just stare at me and be like, ‘Why’d you make it so difficult, just give me a Bud Light, man.’ But here people are willing to explore different flavors. Which if I was working somewhere else, would be a lot harder to try to encourage people to do. I would probably kind of breakdown to be like, ‘Man, why am I putting all this effort into this when nobody gives a shit.’ But here, everybody actually does give a shit.
We also have a much more dynamic relationship with the kitchen compared to other places I've worked at, and we (the bar) try to take a very culinary approach with our drinks. Most of the things that are in our drinks that people are unfamiliar with are things that we had to make in house. You can't necessarily go out and buy these things pre-made. It's been really interesting to learn these culinary techniques by working alongside kitchen professionals, and then incorporating them into our cocktail menus.
Whether it's fat washing, sous-vide, a week-long infusion or making home-made tinctures, we use these methods to not only create unique flavors, but also keep the cost low. I don't want to go to a restaurant or bar where I can buy everything on the cocktail menu at a liquor store. If I'm going to spend money on a drink I want to because I can't make it myself. I like drinking things that I feel somebody put a lot of energy into. It pushes me to want to become more creative. I try to think in terms of, ‘What could I make to make this drink better?’ Not, ‘What can I buy to make it better?’ Instead of thinking what weird Italian Amaro could I put into this drink to balance it out, which there’s nothing wrong with, I like to think of what kind of Southeast Asian herb or botanical could I Infuse with this spirit or syrup to balance it out to make it truly a unique Lucky Cat cocktail.
Inspired by Mary Oglesby’s cocktail ‘Thai On On,’ this boozy take on a Thai tea was created by bartender McKenzie Nelson who added the Japanese whiskey Suntory Toki, Old Forester Rye 101 and the Italian Averna Amaro to create a cocktail with one of her favorite non-alcoholic beverages. Traditionally, Thai tea is a spiced strongly-brewed black tea that is sweetened with condensed milk. The cocktail’s name, Golden Triangle, is also inspired by the tea’s history. The Golden Triangle is an area in Southeast Asia where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet at the confluence of the Ruak and Mekong rivers. The region was famous for growing the majority of the world’s opium. However, in more recent years, many of the farmers have turned to growing Thai tea leaves instead.
0.75oz Suntory Toki
0.75oz Old Forester Rye 100
0.5oz Averna Amaro
2.5oz Thai Tea*
0.5oz Sweetened Condensed Milk**
1 Coconut Water Collins Cube***
1 pinch Coconut flakes for garnish
* Thai Tea - add 4tbsp Thai tea mix (we use Pantai) to a cup of boiling water. Mix well and fine strain out. Let cool before serving.
** Sweetened Condensed Milk - add 1 cup sugar to 2 cups simmering milk. Cook low for 30min. Fine strain and let cool before serving.
* Coconut Water Collins Cube - Freeze coconut water (we use Vita Coco) in a Collins cube tray for 24hrs. Serve once frozen.
Place coconut cube into Collins glass.
Combine Toki, Rye, Averna, and Thai Tea in a shaker with ice.
Shake for 10 seconds and Hawthorne strain into Collins glass with cube.
Float sweetened condensed milk over mix.
Top with coconut flakes.
Averna has been around since 1868 and is made from a secret infusion of Mediterranean herbs, spices, and fruits It is sweeter than many other Amari and has notes of anise, citrus, juniper berries, myrtle, rosemary, and caramel.
Old Forester 100 Rye
Old Forester Rye’s recipe dates back to 1940 and features a mash bill of 65% Rye, 20% Malted Barley, and 15% Corn. At 100 proof, Old Forester Rye is a great addition to any cocktail with its subtle flavors of black pepper, cinnamon sticks, and baked apples.
Suntory Whisky Toki
A blended Japanese whiskey that takes its name from the Japanese word for time, this whisky has slight flavors of soft orchard fruits, honey and pink grapefruit.