It's about 6 o'clock on a Friday evening, and Ben Clemons, 35, is making me a signature drink off No. 308's menu. The Monster Kazoo, with Bulleit Bourbon, pineapple juice, walnut liqueur, and Fino Sherry, will turn out to be the best drink I've had Nashville. And that's not damning with faint praise. Nashville doesn't have the cocktail clout of D.C. or New York, but No. 308 is now the third bar in town--along with Patterson House on Music Row and Holland House just down the street in East Nashville--with mixology cred, the too-cute term fancy bartenders use to distinguish themselves from their less hifalutin brethren.
Clemons, who made his first Manhattan for his dad at age nine, doesn't like the word. "I think there's an air of pretension among some young bartenders now. They start making Pisco Sours and they think they're above calling themselves bartenders anymore," he says. "They don't go out to bars to enjoy themselves, they go out to critique and dissect other bartenders." (Interestingly, this is actually a criticism you frequently hear about music and musicians in Nashville.)
"As far as I'm concerned, the only difference between a bartender and a mixologist is a curly mustache."
And that's the driving philosophy behind this place, No. 308, the Gallatin Road spot Clemons and his fiance Alexis Soler opened in December. Bring good drinking to the masses. Drop the airs of the cocktail scene, but still foster a taste in the corner pub crowd for something more ambitious than tequila, ice cubes, and store-bought sour mix, or Jack & Coke happy hours.
"I think Patterson and Holland House did a great thing by bringing higher-end cocktails to Nashville, by getting people interested in them," Clemons says. "But I think there's room for a next phase, now. A place like Patterson is great to visit with some friends, you know to sit, sample some great drinks, and leave. But you don't drink there. It's not a place that's going to become your favorite, everyday sort of bar. We want people to drink here. We want to serve original, creative, great-tasting drinks, but without the stuffiness. You can cut loose a little. Go ahead and unwind. Get loud."
Patterson House, a popular after-show destination for big music acts in town, has an amusing set of rules posted in its lobby (also, it has a lobby). Among them, "No starfucking". There's also a peculiar rule preventing men from chatting up women who didn't accompany them unless the woman initiates the conversation. "So yeah, I'd say that here we would definitely encourage men to introduce themselves to women. Go ahead and take a shot," Clemons says.
The tabletops at No. 308 are lined with pages from Clemmons' and Soler's favorite books. The main bar is all Charles Bukowski, which sort of fits, and sort of doesn't. On one hand, if you had bellied up to a bar with Bukowski and ordered something called a Monster Kazoo, he'd probably have punched you in the mouth. But then there's also something appropriate about the words of a guy who became an art house crowd darling because of his frank depictions of blue collar drinking, fucking, and fighting papering a bar where tattooed lit buffs sling house-made liquers and top-shelf gin to a gentrifying East Nashville neighborhood. It's a sophisticated place, but with a populist finish.
In the back of No.308, you'll see a live Meyer Lemon Tree looking over the bar from behind a full-length window. "I've always liked the idea of having something living here that grows up with the bar," Clemons says. "I like the idea of someone coming back here in 10 years, seeing the thing poking through the roof, and saying 'I saw that tree when it was just a few feet high. Plus Alexis' middle name is Meyer."
That again would Soler, 28, Clemons' fiance and co-owner. And here's where the story gets sappy. Ben and Alexis met in New Orleans at Taste of the Cocktail, the annual confab of the country's top bartenders. Keeping with the Craigslist theme: He was the disarmingly charming, noticeably tattooed, bespectacled lad who tended bar and did some liquor consulting in New York. She was the flirty, sultry brunette pulling the same gigs in Miami. They fell in love. Thirty days later, she proposed to him at the Ace Hotel in New York City. In room number 308. He said yes. They went out for matching "No.308" tattoos to mark the occasion. Hence, you know, the name.
So why Nashville?
"I had a friend in Miami who got a job in the music industry here," Soler says. "Then, all of the sudden, like 17 or 18 of my friends in Miami picked up and moved to Nashville, too. It was kind of strange. But it seemed like a great city. I was working as a rep for a liquor company at the time, and I convinced them to send me here. Ben did the same thing." Once here, the two soon found funding from a friend, and started making plans to open the bar.
"We absolutely love it here," Soler says. "Business has been great. And there's just a great, laid-back feel to East Nashville."
As I'm talking to Clemons toward the beginning of the evening, the bar phone rings. He excuses himself to pick it up. So in the meantime I chat with a barback who looks like Andy Samberg (he's in a band, they're playing at the Exit/In this month), and Minas Kaliamouras, a cocktail consultant with a ferocious beard that could probably kick my ass by itself.
And what exactly does a "cocktail consultant" do?
"I open bars," Kaliamouras says. "People hire me to come down to help them set a menu, select spirits, train bartenders, all the things that go into opening a bar." So he flies from city to city, opening trendy cocktail spots, all on someone else's dime.
"It's a pretty great job."
Minutes later, Clemons returns from his phone conversation, giddier.
"I love when that happens," he says. "So we have this thing on the menu called the 'Leap of Faith.' You name a few flavors or spirits you like, and we build a drink around them. I had a lady in here the other night who brought in some Honeybell tangelos, so I made her a drink with them. She loved it."
"What did you call it?"
"She liked the drink so much, she's having a party tonight, and she just called me for the recipe."
"Did you give it to her?"
"Oh yeah. Definitely."
I ask Clemons what he thinks of the idea now making its way around mixology circles that bartenders should be allowed to copyright their cocktails.
"I think it's absolutely ridiculous. And I'm good friends with the guy who's pushing it. But it's just stupid. I mean take the lady I was just talking to. She's probably going to take my recipe and she's probably going to alter it based on what she has around the house. And you know what? She might make it better. She'll probably make it better. And if she does, I hope she'll come back and tell me about it. Pass on the knowledge. The bartending scene is exploding with creativity right now, and it's doing it without everyone copyrighting their drinks."
Clemons continues. "You want to cash in on a drink? Publish a book of recipes. Sell the printed recipes. But don't try to say no one else is allowed to make your drink. Back in the 1890s, there was whiskey, bitters, lemon, and lime. That's what most places had to work with. And that's what cocktails sprang from. Just altering the proportions of those ingredients a little bit here and there. Can you imagine if people had been allowed to copyright drinks back then?"
No. 308's good taste/appeal to the masses concept applies to its menu, too. Chef Duncan Pritchard was working at Firefly when he answered the ad Clemons and Soler put on Craigslist. He won them over with the dish I tried, a tasty small plate of pumpkin ravioli with bacon, apple, and Brussels sprouts.
"I think the menus at most places known for their alcohol serve up fried food aimed at getting you to drink more," Pritchard says. "We kind of take a different approach. I wanted to make food from scratch that compliments the drinks -- that you could almost pair with the drinks."
By about 11 the volume had picked up, both in bodies and the level of noise. At more formal speakeasy-style cocktail bars, it can take several minutes to prepare a drink. Here, they sling them quickly--part of the ethos is that you shouldn't have to wait for a good drink. And so by the time they're churning out drinks to a full bar, drinks like flips and fizzes that require vigorous beating or shaking, you get the sense that this isn't the job for Coach Ernie Pantusso anymore. There's a fitness requirement to make drinks at a place like this.
About halfway through the evening, a guy who reads my work at Reason magazine showed up. I had earlier posted on Twitter that I was trying the place out. He works for an insurance company. When there's a natural disaster, he hops in a van and drives off to survey what's left. It seems like the kind of job that would demand a drink now and then. He's never had a homemade liqueur, or flavored bitters, or drinks that are dressed up with walnut, and he at first seems skeptical when looking over the menu. But after two samples, including a savory drink that tastes vaguely like celery, he's on board. "That's really good," he says. "I never imagined alcohol tasting like that. Or that I'd enjoy it."
A few more photos below.