Most of the time, bar-going Nashvillians seem perfectly content with the hastily pulled pint, the top-popped longneck or the nondescript chardonnay in mass-produced stemware.
But in an uncertain economic time, when staying at home for entertainment doesn't seem like such a bad idea, new and different enticements need to emerge for folks to feel like they're getting something extra for their discretionary spending dollar.
Enter Nashville's new "cocktail culture."
Oh, sure, most restaurants and bars have some sort of specialty drinks section on their menus. But so many of those, especially in the chain places, rely too heavily on mixes and frozen concoctions that take the intended spirit out of the spirits.
But as ambitious restaurateurs and bartenders expand their offerings, they're finding willing customers eager, if initially cautious or skeptical, to sample some drinks that may be new to them, but have been around for decades, if not centuries.
The biggest problem initially is getting customers to take that first step . . . or sip.
"When people come in and they know what they're getting themselves into, they're very interested," says Matt Tocco, a bartender at Patterson House, Nashville's current big-buzz cocktail destination. "If people don't know what we do, then at first they're very hesitant. You have to really work with them and be patient with them and get 'em to understand. But once they do, they're hooked."
So what kinds of things on a drink menu tend to trip people up? Beyond a noticed trend against gin, Tocco says, people can get weirded out by the presence of absinthe ("everybody thinks they're going to hallucinate and trip and run around the streets like a lunatic") and the use of egg whites for foaming and to create a smooth drinking texture.
Sometimes bartenders just have to step up and ask the patrons to trust them and the recipes to help expand those patrons' cocktail horizons.
"We wanted to showcase the cocktails the way they were supposed to be made," says Shawn Courtney, one of the owners of Past Perfect on Third Avenue downtown. "I'm leading them where I want them to go - or that's my goal, anyway - instead of only reacting to what the customer thinks they want."
Past Perfect's bluesy, New Orleans-style feel and ambitious food menu enhance the litany of infused spirits (vodkas, rums and brandies) and selection of classic cocktails drawn from historical sources and Courtney's 16 years as a bartender, first in Chicago and for the last three-plus here in Nashville.
Courtney says he's noticed a definite uptick in the number of customers who come in looking for something different.
"The cocktails are starting to take off, now that word's getting out," he says. "My goal is to mix it up, make it better and pay homage to what the original flavors are supposed to be."
That seems to be the situation at many establishments that have expanded their cocktail selections. A recent weekday night at City House, Germantown's nouveau-Italian open-kitchen eatery, found bartender Gary Jindrak fielding orders for classic cocktails early and often, even in light of the restaurant's deep and reasonably priced wine list.
Jindrak says City House's commitment to fresh and unique ingredients easily extends from the food menu onto the drinks, where small-batch rum and gin from regional distiller Corsair Spirits reside alongside your familiar full-bar mass market liquors.
So it really comes down to customers being willing to step out of the beer-and-wine comfort zone and to trust the fusion of the artist's heart/chemist's head that these and other of the city's bartenders are reveling in with the current trend.
At the same time, Patterson House regular Joe Calabrese, a well-traveled audio engineer by trade, hopes bartenders will continue to stick to their well-trained guns and not veer too far away from the classic cocktails' well-researched origins.
"I just want my drinks to taste like booze," Calabrese says.