“Where to get a cocktail at 4pm?” I text my best friend from home.
“Be sure to go to the Artillery,” she says.
It’s the Friday before Christmas. I haven’t been home for a year, and–considering how quickly places open and close–I’m out of touch with local favorites. The National Landmark Historic District in Savannah, Georgia, is one of the largest in the country. It’s the pulse of downtown: twenty-four “squares” or parks arranged in a grid, the center of which is Bull Street. The Artillery is located here, at the corner of Liberty Street, in what for decades was a Christmas-themed gift shop. Outside, the historic facade is decadent, golden pillars and arches over rounded bay windows; inside, the space is cosmopolitan compared to others in the area: marble, gold finishes (taps and jiggers, sconces, bar lamps, and chandeliers), art deco tiling, and an exposed brick archway that’s part of the historic structure. Opposite, there’s a green banquet with marble cafe tables and call-buttons for service. Leatherbound bar books list extensive options at fair, but metropolitan, prices.
$17 cocktails at Attaboy in New York go down without a second thought, but I’m super-conscious of the $16 pricing in this small southern town. The locals don’t seem off-put by this; a crowd builds shortly after I enter. At 4pm, I am the second patron in the bar. But Savannah is a drinking town. There’s an open-container law here, and the locals indulge. I’m not surprised when more patrons come filing in shortly after.
Shocker: I am craving something super bitter. I go through the cocktail menu, interrupting myself to investigate the amaro options. They’re there. All the usual suspects are there; including High Wire Amaro ($10) which I don’t think I’ve ever heard of. Outside of major cities, I find that good amaro offerings are hit-or-miss; Artillery delivers. The bartender talks me through it. He’s knowledgable, conversational, good at his job. “I’m a negroni drinker,”I tell him, “But I want something different than a negroni today.” (Their house negroni is Oxley gin, Bruto americano, Cocchi americano, $14.)
“Do you drink whiskey?” He asks. Not really. But the two bitter-most cocktails on their menu are whiskey-based, so I surrender. I have the Jasper (Catoctin Creek Rye Whiskey, Yellow Chartreuse, St. George Bruto Americano, Scrappy’s Aromatic Bitters, $16, up).
Because I don’t normally drink whiskey, I get that right up front. Receding, the forestry flavors, the harmony of bitterness, herbal essences, melt into sweetness; it’s lovely. A strong start to the day, but a good one.
Everyone working here is great conversation; everything seems effortless and natural among patrons and libations. The overall experience is welcoming and communal; it’s a lot of fun to be here on my own.
Next, the bartender suggests Man the Guns (High West Campfire, Amaro Sirène, Absinthe, Lemon Juice, Egg White, Amargo Chuncho Bitters, $16, coupe), which I’d been interested in. He said it may be too much absinthe, but I like absinthe, so we go for it.
From the first sip: absinthe like a ghost surrounding, haunting my senses but not really showing up in the initial taste. Rather, smoke from the Campfire, is present like a just-fired gun, subtle beneath the pillow of egg white foam. Lemon mellows things out. Considering all of the elements involved, it’s an approachable cocktail, and one I enjoy through the finish.
It’s been a couple of hours; the sun has descended and the candles are flickering. The bar is mostly full after 6pm. I’m headed next door for dinner at Artillery’s sister restaurant, Public, but first, I order a Campari Soda. “I drink these all over the world,” I tell the bartender, “Whenever I travel. Sometimes, you just never know what you’re going to get when you order your favorite one-and-one.” The Savannah, Georgia variation is a heavy pore of Campari to the bottom of the glass, with a soda foat to the lip, garnished with an orange wheel.
“Artillery” by definition is a class of arms meant to fire beyond the small range of front-line ammunition. Metaphorically, it’s accurately named. The cocktail experience far out-fired any other I had while visiting Savannah.