By Clair McLafferty
For the past seven years, Kellie Thorn has been slinging drinks at Empire State South in Atlanta. These days, she's more likely to be selecting wine or spirits to stock a new bar or change up an existing one, but she's still killing it as a bartender.
Four years ago, she took over as the beverage director for all four of chef Hugh Acheson’s restaurants across Georgia. But before that, she'd spent 13 years in different roles in the service industry, 11 of them behind the bar, and three of them behind the bar at Empire State.
She did not begin 13 years ago by working as a full-time bartender. During the day, she was working in commercial film production. Though she loved film (and still does), she quickly found that bartending made her happier than anything else.
"That controlled chaos and that amazing energy, that interaction with guests, hosting the party every night and creating memories with people, for people, was really appealing," Thorn says.
In her 14 years bartending, she's worked in almost every type of bar, starting in restaurant bars and high-volume nightclubs.
"I worked in a dive bar on top of a pizza restaurant that was really punk rock," she says. "I would pull PBRs and Jager shots all night, and yell at stinky punk-rock boys."
About nine years ago, her craft cocktail education began in earnest. Though she was working in a beer-focused bar at the time, she was curious about all parts of the restaurant and tried to absorb all the knowledge she could on food, beer, wine, and spirits. At that job, her manager had taken an interest in her, and offered to pay for BarSmarts, a cocktail-intensive series with online modules and in-person classes. But it was also a different world then.
"There were [only] a few people in Atlanta at the time who were doing these [drinks]," she says. "It wasn't something I'd gotten in touch with yet."
The class reaffirmed her love of hospitality, and also showed her a new side of the industry.
"Being able to pair my love of bartending with my love of learning and creativity and cooking and all those things started coming together," she says. "It was like, I can combine so many things that I love and make them my career. I'm still one of those weirdos who, 16 years in, still really loves taking care of people."
Not all of those years were spent in Atlanta. When she was growing up, her family moved around a lot.
"I was born here, but I was raised all over the coastal Southeast," she says. "I went to 11 schools growing up, and would joke that we were pirates or in the witness-protection program. The truth was that my dad was in the maritime industry." Where she's lived covers most of the major Southeastern port cities: Jacksonville, Charleston, Savannah, Mobile, and New Orleans. Or, as she puts it, "All over and up and down the coast."
Her path through the drinking world has mirrored the Atlanta scene's development. She has moved from the cheap beers and candy-sweet shots of yesteryear to great beers from small breweries and the craftsmanship of the cocktail scene today. Thorn believes a restaurant today has to have a solid cocktail program to gain recognition.
"It doesn't have to be over the top, but it has to be good," she says. "[Whether] you have a good classics program, or [something] a little more farm-to-table, or something that's super-high production like the Aviary [in Chicago]. But at this point in the evolution of cocktails in history, you kind of need to know what you're doing."
Outside her nights at the bar and daytime beverage-director work, she also keeps up a busy and full schedule. When she's not hanging out with her son, you might find her kickboxing. If she's out, she's likely to be sipping a gin martini, champagne, coffee, or cognac, or may be enjoying the art and music offerings around Atlanta.
But the South has her heart.
"Maybe it's harder in the South to get recognized on a national level because our markets are considered smaller, but Southern cocktail culture is its own thing," she says. "It's not like anyone else. It may be hard for some people to see that it deserves recognition. But there's just this natural, genuine hospitality and lack of pretension. We're all hustling, and we're all supportive."