Alec Bales approaches bartending with the dedication and aptitude of a scholar. A true student of the craft, he learned cocktail builds and researched techniques years before he could legally work behind a bar. “I read every bar book that I could get my hands on,” says Bales, lead barkeep at Atlanta’s Ticonderoga Club. “It was a quest to know everything.” When he was 19, he watched early YouTube tutorials hosted by PDT owner Jim Meehan on how to make classic cocktails. “Once I watched those, I was hooked,” he says.
The time-honored formulas that commanded his early studies inform his current approach to original cocktails, which rarely stray too far from the recognizable. “In cocktails, history is so important to what we still do,” he says. “Classic cocktails stood the test of time for a reason.”
His natural predilection for timeless blueprints has only been reinforced since joining the opening team in late 2015 at Ticonderoga Club, an Inman Park bar that favors the familiar over the obscure, low-tech over high-concept. According to Bales, “the overarching theme of all of our cocktails is simplicity.” With years of restaurant experience under his belt, but no prior time behind the bar, Bales interviewed for a position a week after his 21st birthday and was hired as a server. Over the course of five years, he worked his way up to his current role as lead barkeep. He credits his swift development to the support and guidance of co-owners and mentors Paul Calvert and Greg Best. “Ticonderoga Club is the bar where I unlearned everything I learned and then relearned everything from the ground up,” says Bales.
Though his bartending education has come almost entirely at the hands of just one bar, Bales has managed to hone a distinctive style over the years. “Greg and Paul have done a great job of steering me in a direction that is wholly my own,” he says. “They never forced me to fit a mold.” True to the Ticonderoga house aesthetic, Bales’ cocktails are never showy, but, as he explains, “there’s usually a little bit more under the surface.” In the case of his More Supreme, this is quite literally true. The Daiquiri-inspired cocktail contains a quarter-ounce of Campari, which Bales sinks to the bottom of the glass in order for its signature bittersweet character to arrive as the last sip, almost like a built-in palate cleanser. His Rainmaker, meanwhile, marries unaged rum with pineapple cordial and lemon juice in another Daiquiri spinoff that benefits from the unlikely addition of Benedictine, a liqueur rarely paired with white spirits. “This was just trying to revisit a classic in a slightly modern template,” he says.
Bales’ cocktails reward, in equal measure, those who want nothing more than a reliably delicious drink that asks little in return, and those looking to dive deeper, to dissect and analyze the minutiae of the build as they would an Old-Fashioned or Martini. His drinks are, in Calvert’s words, “simple and elemental; they feel like classics waiting to happen.”
The first drink Bales landed on the Ticonderoga Club menu, the More Supreme hews closely to the Daiquiri blueprint, but opts for a base of aged rhum agricole for a rich, almost savory rendition. A quarter-ounce of Campari sunk to the bottom of the cocktail offers an unexpected last sip. “The idea was, if I had to have one cocktail right before eating a meal and I couldn’t decide between a Daiquiri and a Negroni,” says Bales.
A spin on a pineapple Daiquiri that calls for lemon juice in place of lime, the Rainmaker also sees the unlikely addition of Benedictine, an ingredient rarely encountered in the sour format. “Everyone knows Benedictine from the Vieux Carré, which is delicious, but it’s always associated with brown spirits—it’s not typically used in light and refreshing drinks,” explains Bales. It adds a layered spice note to the formula, complemented by the easy-to-make caramelized pineapple cordial. A dusting of locally made lime salt adds a zesty finish.
Bales describes his Future Water alternately as a “low-ABV fruit punch,” “refreshing berry sour” and a “fruit bomb.” The motivation was to create a spritz-like cocktail that was, in his words, “very fun and not sugary, but that gave that perception of being sweet.” Dubonnet, a French aperitif wine, forms the base, complemented by lime juice, pineapple cordial, sorghum syrup and a few dashes of Angostura bitters, made tall by the addition of dry sparkling wine. According to Bales, it’s “the closest thing you could get to sangria at the [Ticonderoga] Club.”
“This is definitely the weirdest drink I’ve put on the menu at Ticonderoga Club,” says Bales of his shaken mixture of Paranubes Oaxacan rum, lemon juice, Drambuie and blueberry honey syrup. An unusual amalgam of ingredients, which even Bales admits is “not my normal speed,” the combination nevertheless works. “I had these four different things that all were not commonly used together, but when we mix them together in the right balance, it just created this really fun drink, almost like a Margarita,” he explains. “It’s one of the few drinks I’ve made that people come back and ask for years later.”