Josh Habiger on the Magic of Fernet and Good Tequila

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When looking for a new watering hole, we prefer to get recommendations from arbiters of taste—food and drink professionals who know a great spot when they see it. To get a feeling for what’s happening in Nashville, we checked in with Josh Habiger, the culinary director for Strategic Hospitality, which owns of-the-moment spots The Catbird Seat, The Patterson House and Pinewood Social. Habiger is also the former chef at Catbird, spent time at Chicago’s Alinea, helped open Chicago cocktail lounge The Aviary and worked at New York’s Craft and the U.K.’s Fat Duck. He’s currently working on opening the group’s newest spot, Bastion.

What do you like to drink when you get off work?

I had a thing—and this goes back to, like, 2009 when we opened The Patterson House—behind the bar around 10 p.m. or so when we were between the normal time and the late rush, as I was learning spirits, and each night I’d pour something different. I got to Fernet-Branca and stayed with that one. So a shot of fernet over ice, and I’ll sip on it and feel it change with every sip I take. For me, it’s an interesting spirit. When we opened The Patterson House, we were the first ones serving fernet in Nashville, and it was a battle to get amaros in general and different vermouths here.

Has what you drink changed now that you’re not in a kitchen every night?

Not necessarily. It’s still a sort of bittersweet amaro liqueur thing on the rocks, or I absolutely love Margaritas. It may be the simplicity of that. Or tequila on the rocks.

What’s your go-to tequila?

I’ve been sipping on a bottle of Herradura Reposado, which is very tasty.

What are some local spots you like to hit for drinks when you’re off work?

There’s a spot that everyone is kind of going to called Dino’s. It’s a dive bar type of place. They don’t have ice. They have liquor and beer but no ice machine. They don’t make cocktails. They do have beer and shots and classic greasy burger and fries. I like that place Robert’s [Western World] downtown, when country was called country & western, they played that kind of country—Merle Haggard, George Jones, Johnny Cash. Beer and shot. Fifty First Kitchen & Bar is a newer place in town, and they make good cocktails there. And Bar Luca just opened. It’s more of a wine bar and the cocktail menu—it’s kind of nice that it’s just classic unadulterated cocktails. 

image: Danielle Atkins

What do you drink when traveling? Do you stick to your favorites or explore new options?

Both. I think if you go into an actual cocktail bar or a place with Carpano Antica behind the bar, it’s pretty legitimate. I think you have to try what other people are doing. Why wouldn’t you? But sometimes, if I go to a bar and my second round is a fernet on the rocks or a High Life, it’s what I either want to drink or I wasn’t that stoked about the first drink. [Laughs]

What do you like to serve at a dinner party?

I like to make a punch; a go-to is either rum or tequila, lime juice, pineapple, maybe sneak-blend a jalapeño with the pineapple. You take a standard cocktail recipe and multiply the ounces by however many people. If you turn ounces into cups, then it’s an eight-person drink. But stretch out your drink with “weak juice” like OJ or grapefruit. This helps keep people from getting really drunk. It’s getting your proof level lower to keep people in it for the long run.

What’s a favorite winter cocktail?

I am a big fan of warm drinks. They’re underrepresented here. I’m less into the eggy, creamy drinks and more into hot cider drinks with cinnamon. Whether that’s apple brandy or whiskey or rum or a fresh ginger juice in a Hot Toddy type of drink. You can’t really drink more than one or two or them, but when it’s cold outside, it’s a great thing.

Is there a quintessential Nashville drink you like?

A lot of bars serve the Bushwacker. The first time I ever noticed a lot of bars serving it was here. It’s crème de cacao, milk, Kahlua and 151. It’s pretty gross, and no, I don’t like it.

Do you have a guilty pleasure that you just can’t get enough of?

Definitely a Margarita. There’s a chain restaurant group here called Chuy’s that’s based in Austin—it’s Tex-Mex. Your expectations are never exceeded. Surprisingly, they put fresh juice in their Margaritas, and for $9, you can get a giant Margarita, and two of those do the trick.

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