H. Harper Station may just have it all. Designed to serve as a modern neighborhood watering hole, this latest venture by the Lush Life Group is quickly becoming a favorite destination restaurant as well. Located in the rustic, restored Atlanta-West Point train station in Atlanta’s Reynoldstown district, H. Harper Station serves up terrific southern flavors with a modern flair.
But what really drives the menu is the page after page of inventive cocktails, each well-balanced, fresh, and masterfully served. Of the 40 plus libations offered, the majority are original creations. The rest are beautiful takes on old classics. Jerry Slater allows his love and study of literature to spill over into his cocktail creations with many of them bearing names stemming from literary references.
Knowing that we would be facing a lengthy cocktail menu, we brought along research assistants Petra, Roman, and The Piper. And so with great determination we set ourselves to the task of drinking our way through as much of the menu as possible.
The Drinks: Round One
Timothy, our gracious and convivial server for the evening, recommended “The Bufala Negra” (Buffalo Trace bourbon, fresh basil, brown sugar, balsamic vinegar, house-made ginger beer). A great way to start off the evening! Slater created this back in his Louisville days as director at Seelbach’s Oakroom restaurant. The cocktail brings together two great Italian flavors: balsamic and basil. Slater uses a satisfyingly spicy house-made ginger beer. The sweet bourbon mixed with the tangy balsamic and the biting ginger beer is cut nicely with the fresh basil. There seems to be a trend in using vinegar with cocktails, marrying the sour tang of vinegar with different sugars. Nicky and I will be exploring this idea in the lab soon, I’m sure.
Nicky kicked things off with a “Calexico,” a blend of Don Diego Reposado, pineapple, jalapeno syrup, and Aztec chocolate bitters. An original concoction, the drink wasn’t quite as strong on the jalapeno bite as we had hoped. While a smooth blend, it was a bit sweet. The lingering taste of the chocolate bitters were a nice touch, but would have been nicer with more bite from the jalapeno. Made us wonder what could happen if we attempted a mole cocktail one day.
Roman went the traditional route and began with a Sloe Gin Fizz (Plymouth sloe gin, lemon, sugar, egg white, soda water). Perfectly crafted, this has always struck me as a terrific drink to sip out on the deck in the summer. Light, fluffy, and easy to enjoy.
Petra had the winning drink for round one: “God’s Little Acre” (Booker’s bourbon, Fernet Branca, sorghum syrup, bourbon barrel bitters, flamed orange). This creation takes some of the best flavors of the south and puts them together for one fabulous drink experience. This may have been our favorite drink of the night.
I especially appreciate the connection of two southern staples (bourbon and sorghum) and a literary classic. The 1933 best-selling novel God’s Little Acre by Erskine Caldwell chronicles the decline of a poor white family in rural Georgia, and examines the industrialized South, specifically the worker strikes of the textile mills. In addition to being censured by the Georgia Literay Commission, the New York Society of the Suppression of Vice took Caldwell and Viking Press to court for of pornography. The court case is considered a landmark case in the establishment of artists’ First Amendment rights of freedom of expression.
We should point out that we enjoyed a hot bowl of Georgia boiled peanuts with this drink. H. Harper Station boils their peanuts with some pepper and ham bone. Too good to miss. The Piper passed on the boiled peanuts and continued to enjoy his Laphroaig.
The winner of round two was an incredible cocktail, The Alchemist. In Paulo Coelho’s landmark novel, The Alchemist, the young Andalusian shepherd boy is told, “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” Well, whether it was the universe or just Jerry Slater that conspired, the result is an amazing blend of CB Spice Tree, Olorosa sherry, allspice dram, and apple butter that embodies the whole Morocco-Southern Spain experience. The allspice, nutmeg, apple, cinnamon and herbal flavors of the scotch complement the warmth of the Spanish sherry. You get a hint of the sweetness of the apple butter, but just a hint. It definitely is magical and mystical, much like the journey of the young shepherd boy. Slater practices his own alchemy of sorts by turning this collection of unusual properties into cocktail gold.
An interesting note: The Compass Box Spice Tree caused quite a controversy a few years ago when the Scotch Whisky Association took issue with the methods used to produce this blended scotch, specifically the use inner French oak staves versus the traditional French oak barrel heads. Three years later CB developed a new maturation process using the French oak barrel heads and has re-released the second generation of The Spice Tree. The new product has a bolder, stronger oak taste, and more pronounced dried spice tones of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, vanilla, and red currant. Not as subtle as the original, but a rich blended whisky none-the-less.
I mention this because it is the oak and spicy nature of this particular whisky matched specifically with the Olorosa sherry (darker and nuttier than most) that make “The Alchemist” shine. And the addition of the Allspice Dram to the mix brings even more of the warm, spicy clove and nutmeg notes to this cocktail.
One of my favorite novels is The Great Gatsby, so when I first perused the menu and my eyes landed on the Daisy Buchanan (Basil Hayden, yellow chartreuse, lemon, grenadine, egg white) I was intrigued. Fitzgerald presents this description of Gatsby’s first kiss with Daisy: “Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete.” Well, I won’t go so far as to say that lifting this cocktail to your lips is quite that life changing, but the drink does possess many of the of the appealing characteristics of Daisy Buchannan.
Basil Hayden, a lighter bodied Kentucky bourbon, is a natural choice as a foundation for this cocktail, as Daisy herself is a fun-loving, flirtatious girl from Louisville, Kentucky. She is mysterious, intriguing and delightful, much like the complexities of yellow chartreuse. And her effervescences is reflected in the use of the egg white which leaves a fluffy decorative foam across the top of the drink. (Is it too much to assume that the use of egg in this drink is a reference to East Egg and West Egg locations in the novel?)
This is an easy, enjoyable, and attractive drink. However, in The Great Gatsby, the deceptively charming Daisy is responsible for the tragic events that unfold throughout the novel. The cocktail version of Daisy is also deceptively easy to consume, so be warned – too much of this beautiful thing could be your downfall!
Lila Lee was a prominent screen star of the silent film era. Perhaps her most famous role was in Blood and Sand (1922). So it is no surprise that “The Lila Lee” appears to be a riff on a classic “Blood and Sand” cocktail. While the “Blood and Sand” and “The Lila Lee” are both constructed around scotch, “The Lila Lee” replaces the sweet vermouth with Carpano Antica and the cherry brandy with cherry shrub and a bit of aperol. (Note that “The Lila Lee” uses Highland Park 12 year.) This will not be a drink for everyone, but only for those of us who tend to like the herbaceous, bitter concoctions that tend to be complex and challenging. Who knows, perhaps Ms. Lee was the same.
The two other single drinks for the evening were “Hope Floats” and “Amulet.”
When asked Slater to surprise us with a favorite drink of his to make or enjoy, he served up another of his creations, “Hope Floats (Redbreast Irish whiskey, Cynar, lavender honey syrup, Wray and Nephew white rum). Being a huge fan of Cynar, this was another favorite for me. The herbal tones of the Cynar with the lavender honey were perfectly matched, with the sweetness cutting through the bitter edge of the Cynar. I imagine this is a difficult recipe to balance, but it worked.
“The Amulet” was our second gin-based drink of the evening. Slater turns to Hendricks gin for this one. Good choice. The fuller tasting Hendricks stands up well to the apricot brandy, Dolin dry vermouth, and the grapefruit. The additional touch of Pernod did not overwhelm, but stayed in its place, nicely tying the flavors together.
The Grand Finale: Café Diablo Pu
H. Harper Station is one of the only (if not the only) bar serving full punch bowls. They have four different flowing bowls on the menu and we opted to end the evening with the hot offering – Café Diablo. I’m referring to this as the finale, because frankly it was a production in and of itself. The creation begins with bourbon, cognac, and triple sec poured into the cut-glass bowl. Slater then takes a long strip of orange peel (basically an entire orange) and inserts a clove every half an inch down the strip. The strip is then held over the bowl and the alcohol mixture is ladled over it coating the peel. The strip is then flamed. (How dramatic is that?) The final touch is the addition of fresh hot French-pressed espresso. Not being a fan of Irish coffee, I was afraid that the whiskey would overpower the coffee, or that the triple sec would not work with the hot coffee. No issues at all with any of the ingredients. It was beautifully blended and smooth. The essence of the cloves with the cognac and triple sec only added a different level of warmth and comfort to the hot mixture.
The elite clients who frequented Maxims in Houston back in the 1950s originally enjoyed Café Diablo. Few people today recall the recipe or make Café Diablo. It was great bar side magic and a terrific way to end an evening.
Nicky and I realized that we’ve only worked our way through about a quarter of H. Harper Station’s cocktail menu. Guess it is our duty to go back a few more times and keep working (or drinking) away!
H. Harper Station is located at 904 Memorial Drive, Atlanta. You can find them on the Our Libatious Nature Atlanta Hot Spots map.