Happy Hour with Mercedes O'Brien of Gunshow
Atlanta's queen of the cocktail cart talks early beginnings, guilty pleasures and mobile mixology
When Mercedes O'Brien first got into bartending, at the cherished but now-shuttered H. Harper Station, she had no clue that she would soon be regarded as Atlanta's queen of the cocktail cart. But then chef Kevin Gillespie opened Glenwood Park's Gunshow in 2014, and O'Brien signed on as "cocktail cart conductor" in chief. In the years since, she's brought Gunshow's signature interactive style of cookery to the liquid side of the menu, with innovative spins on the frozen Negroni and her famous Toasted Old Fashioned.
You can still find her most nights mingling among the tables at Gunshow, her decked-out cocktail cart in tow, ready to mix up a mean drink. And mix it up she does, with verve.
How did you get into bartending?
For all intents and purposes, I wanted to be a chef. I spent my formative years pining over cooking shows, notebook in hand, feverishly writing down recipes and techniques. My first break into the industry was at 15 at my neighborhood Moe's, where I was continuously reprimanded for merely "mouthing" the iconic greeting phrase. From there I worked FOH and BOH for an assortment of establishments, my favorite being a Chinese food delivery girl. All helped pay the college bills, but it wasn't until I found cocktails that my plans started to change. I was lucky that my coming of legal drinking age coincided with the initial cocktail scene resurgence of Atlanta. My first "drinking" experiences were spent sipping classics at the cocktail institutes of the city (Leon's, Holeman & Finch, Pura Vida, Top Flr). Itching to learn, I landed a job at the newly opened H. Harper Station. After serving and working garde manger, my mentor Jerry Slater lent me a spot behind the bar. On my first day behind the stick, he sent me home with The Craft of the Cocktail Dale DeGroff's seminal book on how to be a master bartender. I ended up spending more time studying books from Harper's library than my college studies. I eventually graduated, but I had found my home and passion behind the bar.
The cart approach at Gunshow is really unique. What makes it work?
Being on a mobile bar allows you the opportunity to break through some previously staunch boundaries with guests. I don't have that hard, physical barrier that can sometimes isolate the two parties at play. Also, not everyone is a bar person. The cart allows us to hit the floor, so that everyone's first interaction with the drink menu is guided by the person who has a hand in making the drink. It's a key Gunshow philosophy that we mirror from the kitchen to the bar interacting and catering your cocktail/dining experience from beginning to end.
Your Toasted Old Fashioned is kind of a big thing. Are you stuck with that forever now?
The success of the Toasted Old Fashioned a signature spin on the classic cocktail involving a flamed orange peel and brûléed cinnamon stick is both ironic and humbling. Being the first cocktail I made for Gunshow, it holds weight for me. That cocktail allowed me to grab the attention of guests and reel them in to what I had to offer in an otherwise bustling restaurant.
Nowadays, it's like a gateway for an otherwise novice cocktail drinker to possibly explore something else they may have not otherwise been open to. Our 10-item cocktail menu rotates as frequently as the food, but the Toasted Old Fashioned will always have a permanent spot. It's safe to say that as long as Atlanta keeps drinking them, I'll keep making 'em. I've flamed enough orange peels at this point in time to create a permanent singe mark on my manicure.
First time you tasted a cocktail?
Like I said, I was obnoxiously spoiled in that I kind of skipped the lemon drops ... My first cocktail was a "Death & Company" by Miles Macquarrie at Leon's, or a Manhattan at Holeman & Finch.
First one you ever made?
I think the first cocktail I ever made was a Tom Collins, and it was concocted a la Sandra Lee: a magnum of gin, no simple syrup, maybe a squeeze of a lemon and a splash of seltzer. I coughed so hard I knocked over the glass and gave up. So yeah, not great, but bright side is that it left so much room for improvement.
Any particular guilty pleasure spirit or cocktail?
I've learned over the years that it's only a "guilty pleasure" if you let the guilt sink in. The dirty martinis at the Colonnade do a pretty great job keeping that from ever really registering. I also have a ruthless draw to neon colored frozen drinks that always comes back to haunt me. Shout out to Bahama Breeze and Daiquiri Factory. We have a tradition of Daiquiri Saturdays at Gunshow. As Taylor Swift comes on overhead, our universal signal that it's the end of the week, a bartender is placed on "Daq Duty." It's not so much an obligation as it is a chance to explore the back bar and take care of the ones you love.
Favorite drink to relax with?
Amaro and soda: Nonino, Topo Chico, a twist of lemon and a comfortable seat anywhere is my most basic of pleasures.| Joeff Davis
Want to try making a signature Mercedes cocktail at home? Give it a shot ... and if you fail, you can always pop into Gunshow to get one made from the queen of the cocktail cart herself.
1.5 oz Great King Street Artist's Blend or blended scotch
.75 oz fresh lime juice
.5 oz pandan + ginger syrup
.5 oz coconut miso reduction
.25 oz Great King Street Glasgow or Islay scotch
4 drops 1821 coconut lemongrass bitters
Add all ingredients to shaker tin, ice down and shake until well chilled. Double strain into coupe glass. Garnish with dehydrated pandan strip and black garlic oil.
Pandan + Ginger Syrup
18 oz ginger juice
20 g grilled pandan leaves
10 g Thai basil
1/4 tsp ascorbic acid
50 g ice
Add all ingredients into blender, and blend until smooth (don't go too long, blade will heat up herbs). Chinois strain. Add 13 oz sugar. Blend until smooth. Keeps for 2 weeks in refrigerator.
Coconut Miso Reduction
2 cups unsweetened coconut milk
2 cups coconut water
4 tbsp white miso paste
Add all ingredients into a pot under medium-low heat and reduce by half. Let cool. Keeps for 1 week in refrigerator
Black Garlic Oil
1/4 cup grapeseed oil
5 black garlic cloves
1/4 cup sesame oil
1/4 tsp salt
Add all ingredients into pot and cook under medium heat for 10 mins. Add mixture to blender with 1/8 tsp activated charcoal powder, blend until smooth. If too thick, thin with more equal parts of grapeseed and sesame oil. Strain through fine mesh strainer or cheesecloth. Keeps for two weeks in refrigerator.