Written by Andrew Woods
Photographed by Bethany Reid
When you find yourself sitting at Nick Lumpkin’s bar, you are immediately put at ease. Everything seems so effortless, from the music drifting overhead to the calm and collected demeanor of Nick, to the craft cocktail that really feels crafted just for you. Everything falls in line.
This seemingly effortless amity is one of Nick’s trademarks, and it’s not by chance. Nick is a craftsman of more than just cocktails, but of experiences. When you are in Nick’s hands, he wants to make sure that you’re not just having a good cocktail. He wants to make sure you walk out having a better time than you were having when you walked in. Nick is the Cocktail Program Director for the Across the Board restaurant group which includes Memphis favorites Sweet Grass, Next Door and 117 Prime.
If you have ever caught Nick on one of his Vinyl & Vermouth nights at Next Door, you might be surprised to learn that this laid-back twenty-something with a stack of vinyl records is the brain behind the bar of some of Memphis’ most popular restaurants.
Even though Nick started out at the bottom of the ladder and worked his way up to being the head of one of Memphis’ largest restaurant groups, he still doesn’t think of it as too big of a shakeup from what he always set out to do.
“It’s not much different. I am still behind the bar, which is the important part,” explains Lumpkin. “The cool part of it is that I get to be creative and also workshop cocktails with our other great bartenders. It has really filled a creative void for me.”
To Nick there is no aspect too small to consider. The entire experience of your night is lovingly crafted by Nick.
Like a jazz musician considering his next riff, Nick intimately knows the basics of making a classic cocktail but loves the chance to improv depending on the needs of the customer.
“Any great bartender knows that balance is the key to making great drinks. Once one understands how sour balances sweet, how sweet balances bitter, and how weak balances strong and so on, you can start substituting ingredients and begin adjusting accordingly,” Lumpkin says. “My philosophy behind making drinks is you need to listen to guests and create something for them that they’ll actually enjoy.”
There are a lot of great bartenders in Memphis, but few who prioritize guests as much as Nick. Lumpkin’s ego never flares. Because first and foremost he’s a fan of the cocktail movement, and a fervent one at that.
"When I travel, I choose where I eat based on how interesting and well curated the cocktail list is.If that much attention to detail is paid to the cocktails, I’ll be damned if the food isn’t stellar as well. "
“Cocktail culture in America is incredible right now. When I travel, I choose where I eat based on how interesting and well curated the cocktail list is. I usually don’t even look at the food menus,” explains Lumpkin. “If that much attention to detail is paid to the cocktails, I’ll be damned if the food isn’t stellar as well. I want to be that for our restaurants. Cocktail culture in Memphis has been rapidly progressing in the few years that I have been doing this and I’m really excited to progress with everyone and push each other to be better.”
“I think about cocktail balance the same exact way I think about the frequencies that make up music. I look at the liquor as the low end of a track. I think everyone can agree that bass is great. It’s what moves and vibrates the air around you. Too little bass sounds thin, but if you add too much bass, the song begins to sound muddy and muffled."
“I think about cocktail balance the same exact way I think about the frequencies that make up music. I look at the liquor as the low end of a track. I think everyone can agree that bass is great. It’s what moves and vibrates the air around you. Too little bass sounds thin, but if you add too much bass, the song begins to sound muddy and muffled. I see the juices and liqueurs as the mid-range instruments like guitars or horns that punch through everything and add texture to the mix. Things like bitters and aromatic fill out the missing space by acting like the high-end sizzle of a ride cymbal or the synthesizer playing almost imperceptibly soft in the background,” Lumpkin says.
“You can do without all of these things, (and many a great song does,) but to me, the most impactful and moving recordings have all of these elements sitting perfectly to where all of the sounds complement each other and none of them get in the way of the others.”
Nick’s creation for this issue of Memphis Current is “A Righted Wrong,” a cocktail that has just received a pop of prominence as it won 2nd prize as well as People’s Choice at this year’s Mix Odyssey, a fundraising cocktail competition that pits local bartenders head-to-head.
“It is a spin-off of a pineapple daiquiri. I wanted to add some complexity, so I added in a small amount of the super funky overproof rum and the Zucca, which gives it some refreshing bitterness on the back end,” Lumpkin says.
Like all of his cocktails, every aspect of the drink balances the next, while the improvisations of Nick allow a unique and funky riff on a classic.
Keep up with Nick by following him @the_bitter_bartender .
The Righted Wrong
1.25 oz El Dorado 3 Year Rum
.75 oz Lime Juice
.75 oz Pineapple Syrup
.25 oz Zucca Rubarbaro
.25 oz Wray & Nephew Overproof Rum
1 sage leaf
How to make Pineapple Syrup
Bring one cup of pineapple juice to a boil. Add a cup of sugar. Take the mixture off of the heat and stir until all of the sugar has been dissolved. Pour into a heat-resistant container and let cool. Keep refrigerated.
Add all ingredients to cocktail shaker with ice. Shake vigorously.
Double strain with a hawthorne and fine strainer into a chilled coupe glass. Garnish with fresh sage.
Batching it Out
To batch “The Righted Wrong” for friends. Follow this recipe. Yields 8 cocktails.
1 & 1/4 cup of El Dorado Rum, 3/4 cup of pineapple syrup, 3/4 cup of lime huice, 1/4 cup of Zucca and 1/4 cup of Wray and Nephew.
From Left to Right
Zucca Rabarbaro $31.99
Zucca Rabarbaro is an Italian aperitif. On the front it’s brightly bitter, with thick molasses flavors smoothing to a slightly smoky sweetness and a refreshingly spiced finish. With an alcohol content of 30%, it can be used as a modifier or spirit substitution for many classic cocktails.
El Dorado 3-Year
El Dorado 3-year rum is twice-filtered through natural charcoal before being aged for at least 3 years in ex-bourbon oak casks. The rum has an aroma of citrus and vanilla which is enhanced by notes of chocolate and raisins. The flavor is well-balanced and has hints of coconut. It finishes fruity, but dry. A great base for any rum-based cocktail.
Wray and Nephew Overproof Rum
Wray and Nephew is a renowned overproof rum produced in Kingston, Jamaica and sports a 126 proof. It is produced from a combination of both pot and column distillations of a 30-hour fermentation of sugarcane molasses wash and proprietary house yeast. The rum displays rich aromas of overripe bananas, molasses, walnuts, and white cake, with a notable signature funk referred to as ‘hogo’.