Athens is a college town famed for its tightly packed bars. Yet beyond the long lines and cheap drinks are local bars with hand-crafted offerings.
The University of Georgia frequently makes it into the rankings of best “party schools” in the nation, likely due to the high concentration of about 80 bars in the city.
This concentration of bars gives the Classic City quite a reputation, one frequently backed up by the packed downtown area each weekend. Yet beyond those college bars and busy streets lies a different side of the city: A high-class cocktail scene.
The bars serving these cocktails aren’t as widespread as the “college bars,” and many are located inside restaurants, but local business owners have worked to create upscale offerings for those looking to explore a different kind of drinking experience.
The downtown destination
The National is popular for its Mediterranean-style cuisine, but the restaurant has a long-standing cocktail program. The team-based program allows each member of the bar team to create and submit a cocktail to the menu.
“We feel that they have just as much right to be as involved in the creative process and always bring an interesting perspective,” Erin Wilson, general manager of The National, said. “The program stays more creative and more vibrant and with what is on trend or what's classic by involving the different perspectives of all of our people.”
The downtown Athens establishment transitions its menus seasonally and will soon release a menu for the fall. Wilson said the upcoming drinks will involve everything from sherry-based offerings to an apple cider cocktail.
“We're pulling in those spirits and those mixers that feel fall, but we also like to keep them bright and fresh, so they never feel obvious,” Wilson said.
The team is given creative liberty to create what Wilson calls a “balanced menu,” but The National still aims to be approachable to a wide customer base, with drinks for those who may just be stepping into the broad spirits scene.
That approachability extends to the student clientele — of the legal drinking age — looking to learn about cocktail construction. Wilson said the cocktail scene has expanded in the past five years alone and offers plenty of room for patron exploration.
Wilson’s advice for novice drinkers? “ The best thing is just to get out and try.”
Normaltown’s neighborhood hangout
Tucked away in Normaltown is the city’s only dedicated craft cocktail bar, The Old Pal. Like The National, The Old Pal rolls out about four menus a year, but their cocktails primarily come from the mind of bar owner Matt McFerron.
The rest of the staff, like co-manager Clayton Hoffman, provide input and help execute McFerron’s ideas. Hoffman came to the establishment after years in the service industry once he realized his passion for the cocktails.
Hoffman hopes to deconstruct stereotypes around craft cocktail bars like The Old Pal, which he said people stereotype as “snooty” spots with the likes of the cliché bartender with a handlebar mustache and apron.
“We try to be the exact opposite of that … and kind of be like, a gateway for people who might want to try some new things but don’t want to feel silly asking about them,” Hoffman said.
The core philosophy at The Old Pal is accessibility, Hoffman said. That extends to its menu creation process, where the bar team prioritizes year-round ingredients that a patron could buy at the store. Hoffman describes it as “easy going” but still high quality.
The Old Pal’s clientele usually lean more towards the older residents of Athens, according to Hoffman. But he says students have started to frequent the destination more in recent years.
“It definitely keeps things interesting,” Hoffman said.
The duality of the collegiate population in Athens and the tight-knit resident community, Hoffman said, are what makes it different from other college towns.
“Athens is a small town feeling, but we still have the culture of a big city in a lot of ways,” Hoffman said.
The Italian eatery
In conversations about cocktails in Athens, both The Old Pal and The National spoke highly of The Expat. This high-end restaurant located in Five Points prioritizes its cuisine and cocktails thanks to co-owner Jerry Slater’s background.
Slater has been in the service industry for years. He’s owned restaurants, gained whiskey expertise in Kentucky and even collaborated on “The Southern Foodways Alliance Guide to Cocktails.”
He took that experience into the Expat, which he said is “based in classics, with riffs.” The cuisine was originally inspired by French cuisine, but they’ve recently transitioned to an Italian menu, with Aperol Spritzes and Negronis included.
Not only has Slater taken inspiration from the culinary offerings of Italy, but he’s also pursued the philosophy of Italian chefs.
“I've always thought about cocktails a little bit like an Italian chef, and that they don't really need more than about three or four ingredients,” Slater said. He said that too many ingredients hinder the taste of a cocktail, a craft he believes is all about subtlety.
Accessibility is a major theme for him as well. The staff doesn’t call themselves mixologists, like some establishments. At The Expat they’re all simply bartenders.
“Being able to have a conversation, keep a clean space, make it inviting,” Slater said. “I think those things are a little more important than having a good mustache or suspenders.”
Distaste for the “hipster” bartender is a common thread among the Athens spirits experts, who prefer to prioritize hospitality over an intimidating environment.
Slater said patrons may not know what a “Ponte Vecchio” is, but when a server explains it’s a riff on the Manhattan cocktail, the menu becomes more accessible.
The Expat offers options to reach the widest customer base possible. Rather than prioritize college students or longtime residents, Slater said they “try to keep a foot on both sides.” The restaurant offers expensive whiskey and wine for visiting parents, but it’s also open to college students looking to explore Athens' food and drink options.
Like Hoffman at The Old Pal, Slater believes the younger generation wants to start drinking better — and he feels encouraged by their enthusiasm. Ultimately, Slater said those new to the scene should just “keep an open mind” and not be afraid to like what they like.