Little Rock’s craft cocktail scene is on the rise, thanks in large part to the talents of Gene Lee, Michael Peace and David Burnette. Here, more about the masterminds behind the cocktail revolution.
Michael Peace | 109 & Co.
How do you go from being an IT consultant to owning your own bar? Just ask Michael Peace.
“I’ve always wanted to open a cigar bar since I was a teenager, and I was fortunate enough to have a good career that allowed me to save up the money to do that,” he says. “I’ve also always enjoyed coming up with my own cocktails. Over the years, I kept my favorite ones that I came up with, and in 2012, when I finally had barely enough cash to pay for the startup costs, I opened up Maduro Cigar Bar & Lounge at 109 Main Street. Although Maduro was very successful and fun, I wanted to focus more on the cocktail program.”
This inspired Peace to close Maduro and re-open the space as the smoke-free 109 & Co. “I knew I wanted it to be very dark, most of the light coming from candles, more intimate, a larger bar, and have a modern-day speakeasy type of feel to it,” he says. “I wanted it to be a bar that would be more couple-friendly and at the same time be a favorite amongst our hardworking friends and family in the bar and restaurant industry.”
The menu at 109 & Co. features 30 signature cocktails, including drinks like The Cardinal, Amaro Amante, Regaliation, Midnight Fix, and Kiss Me Deadly, all of which showcase 109 & Co.’s expansive liquor selection. “More than being an owner, I’m a bartender. Seeing someone’s reaction when they take that first sip of one of my cocktails, seeing friends and couples come in smiling and laughing, and when someone puts their faith in you to recommend a cocktail, is what I enjoy,” says Peace.
NORTH ST. POINT OF VIEW
|2 oz||Bols Genever|
|1 1/2 oz||Gran Classico bitters|
|1/4 oz||Kina L’Aero d’Or|
|Dash of||Dutch Colonial bitters|
|Orange zest||to garnish|
|Directions:||Put all of the ingredients in a mixing glass and stir for about 30 seconds with ice. Strain into a large Old Fashioned glass with a large ice cube. Cut a thin piece of orange to zest over the drink and then use as a garnish.|
David Burnette | South on Main
Most folks know David Burnette as the man behind the bar at South on Main. But before that, he spent five years honing his skills in Nashville, followed by three years at The Capital Hotel. There, he met Lee Edwards, who soon became his manager at Capital Bar & Grill.
“He really helped me fine-tune my bar skills, and helped me further my beverage education. He pushed me to get better and made sure I began to get recognized for my work. Without him, I’m not sure where I would be in my career,” says Burnette.
As bar manager of South on Main, there really is no such thing as a typical night for Burnette.
“South on Main is interesting because of the huge variety of events we host. It often seems that each night poses a unique set of challenges with very diverse people who have equally diverse tastes,” he says. “One night we will have a basic dinner service where we have the pleasure of serving our neighbors and friends, the next we’ll have a packed rock concert with high energy and loud music, or perhaps a mellow jazz series show where one can hear a pin drop, and the simple sound of a cocktail shaker disrupts the ambiance. It keeps things really fresh.”
While it’s almost impossible to top Burnette’s version of an Old Fashioned, he also aptly recreates several southern classics, like the Sazerac, Vieux Carre and Mint Julep, along with creative new drinks like the Sweet Potato Lemonade.
SWEET POTATO LEMONADE
|1 1/2 oz||vodka|
|1 oz||sweet potato syrup (see below)|
|1 oz||simple syrup|
|1 oz||fresh lemon juice|
|Directions:||Combine ingredients in a shaker with ice and shake hard. Pour into a double Collins glass over ice and top with a lemon wheel and cinnamon.|
SWEET POTATO SYRUP
|1||sweet potato (roasted)|
|2||cups brown sugar|
|2||cups hot water|
|Directions:||Roast one medium sweet potato until it begins to carmelize. Peel it, and put in a blender with brown sugar, hot water and cinnamon. Blend until smooth.|
The attention to detail, like making ice from Mountain Valley Spring Water for many of his drinks, is part of what makes Burnette so popular, and it helps to keep a loyal customer base. “I love my regulars ... I’ve gotten to build some great friendships with the people I serve. Restaurant work isn’t always glamorous. It’s tough on your body, the hours are opposite of most of my friends and family, and sometimes I have to deal with intoxicated people, but I wouldn’t want to do anything else,” he says.
That’s great news for Little Rock.
Gene Lee | The Pantry and The Pantry Crest
If you’ve ever been to The Pantry or The Pantry Crest, chances are you’ve not only chatted with bar manager Gene Lee, but have also partaken in one of his craft cocktails. Gene’s been with the restaurant group for almost six years, three in his current role, and he’s never had to look very far for the major influences on his career.
“Shane Parker, the former bar manager at The Pantry, was the person who trained me, so I’ll always have respect for him. As far as around town, I’ve looked up to David Burnette. Not only does he know what he is doing, but he also carries himself well behind the bar, and makes people feel welcome,” he says. “I always appreciate that from a bartender more than anything.”
When it comes to a job description, Lee’s role isn’t a typical one. Overseeing bars at two locations can, at times, provide a unique set of circumstances. “The biggest challenges are keeping track of two different inventories and juggling my time at both locations,” he says.
If you do happen to catch Lee behind the bar at either location, one of his signature cocktails to request is The Vagabond, one of his personal favorites. “I love simple, strong drinks, so this fits the bill,” he says. It’s equal parts reposado tequila and pear brandy, with a little lemon juice and honey syrup.
|1 1/4 oz||reposado tequila|
|1 1/4 oz||Trimbach pear brandy|
|1/2 oz||honey syrup (two parts honey, one part hot water)|
|1/2 oz||fresh lemon juice|
|Directions:||Build the drink in a glass, add ice and stir. Brûlée lemon wheel for garnish (optional).|
If handcrafted cocktails aren’t your thing, Lee recommends going with a St. Bernardus, a beer they have on tap right now at the Hillcrest location and as large format bottles at The Pantry, or even opting for a Czech spirit called Becherovka. “Thanks to our owner Tomas Böhm, I have been introduced to this amazing spirit and I want everyone to learn about it as well,” he says.