Drinking is easy. Finding the right bar, not so easy. We’re here to help. As a public service to all of you thirsty explorers, every week we highlight the best bars in America and tell you what makes them so damn great. This week we’ve got an oyster and absinthe bar on the outskirts of Atlanta.
NAME: Kimball House
LOCATION: Downtown Decatur, Georgia
ON THE JUKEBOX: Jacuzzi Boys, King Tuff, Jacques Dutronc
WHAT TO ORDER (NEWBIES): Afternoon Delight (version 14): absinthe, watermelon, garden basil, lime and cava
WHAT TO ORDER (REGULARS): Chartreuse Tonic (on tap): Chartreuse, Génépy, lime-infused gin, malic acid and Jack Rudy tonic syrup
WHY WE LOVE IT: In most large cities it’s easy to find a bar or restaurant inside a centuries-old building. But not so in Atlanta. One of the few is Kimball House, located in a train depot (circa 1891) in nearby Decatur. “Almost all of the old buildings here burned down during the Civil War,” says Kimball House owner Miles Macquarrie. “Then in the ’60s and ’70s, a lot of the stuff that was still there got torn down to build strip malls.”
The same is true for Atlanta’s drinking history: Not much of it exists on paper. So when Macquarrie and his friends decided they wanted to open their own bar, which would focus on cocktails and oysters, they started digging. They found the train depot (jackpot!) and some information about a historic Atlanta hotel called the Kimball House. That Kimball House had dining halls and saloons and took up an entire city block, but was torn down in the mid-1900s. “We found an old menu where they were pairing Blue Point oysters with Manhattans,” Macquarrie says. “We were like oh my god, this is so cool. This is what we’re into! We thought this was our chance to preserve this little piece of history.”
They named their bar Kimball House and set about making the space look grandiose, which wasn’t too hard. The train depot already had high ceilings and lots of windows. They turned the old ticket booth into an oyster-shucking room and built a long, 19-seat bar with a marble drink rail. They took to calling the bar the heartbeat of the space and designed the dining room so that every table had a view of it.
Macquarrie designed the cocktail menu with mature palates in mind. It has a mix of big, boozy drinks like Sazeracs and bright, elegant stuff like French 75s. And then there are the odd one-offs, like the Herbsaint Daiquiri made from Herbsaint, rum, sour oranges and tarragon oil. “The ingredients we make are more involved, but the drinks are more simplified,” he says. “Somebody might come in and say this is the best Aviation that they’ve ever had. And they don’t know why, and they shouldn’t have to know why.”
One bar favorite is the seemingly simple, three-ingredient New Orleans French 75. It’s made with cognac, clarified lemon juice and Muscadet wine, which are carbonated together three times. The drink is served in a mini Champagne bottle and comes out crystal clear, with tight, effervescent bubbles and a slight orange tint from the cognac.
Kimball House has an on-site garden and prints a new menu every day to account for what ingredients are or are not available. “The quote-unquote seasonal menu that a lot of people do is impossible,” Macquarrie says. “It’s more like nano-seasons. Certain things are only available for a month or a few weeks. Some stuff we have in really small quantities, because we grow it ourselves, so we may only be able to run a drink for a few days.”
This was the case with the bar’s recent Satsuma Mai Tai. Their Satsuma tree didn’t produce much fruit this year, so that specialty tiki drink was only on the menu for four days. But with each new year, the plants get bigger and produce bigger yields. Right now the garden is producing 10 kinds of basil, four types of mint, fig trees and blackberry bushes, among other things. Blackberries are so plentiful right now, in fact, that they are making a homemade crème de mûre (French blackberry liqueur) from them and selling it separately, as an aperitif. To make, they puree the blackberries, clarify the juice and then add rum and sugarcane to it.
Kimball House also does absinthe service. “A lot of us think that from a flavor perspective, a glass of Champagne is probably the perfect pairing with oysters. But from a historic perspective, it was absinthe,” Macquarrie says. “We thought absinthe service was cool and something that wasn’t really happening that much in the South.”
Twelve different absinthes are on the menu (that’s everything available in Georgia) and the bar serves them in the traditional drip preparation. It comes out of an absinthe fountain and paired with sugar and water to open it up and make it more sipable. Without water, the 136-proof spirit would just taste like fire. During the summertime, people like to drink it frappe-style over crushed ice, like an absinthe snow cone.
“We are always evolving to keep people interested,” Macquarrie says. “If you’re not constantly trying to get better, you’re only getting worse.”
Alyson Sheppard is the resident hangover specialist at Playboy.com. Find her on Twitter: @amshep