Mercedes O’Brien always wanted to be a chef. “I spent my formative years pining over cooking shows, writing down recipes and techniques,” she says. O’Brien worked various restaurant gigs while in college, but changed career plans when she discovered cocktails. “It was lucky that my coming-of-legal-drinking age coincided with the cocktail scene resurgence in Atlanta,” she says, recalling early experiences at some of the area’s top cocktail bars. Local mixologist Jerry Slater put her behind the bar at his now-closed venue H. Harper Station. “On my first day, he sent me home with Dale DeGroff’s The Craft of the Cocktail,” she says, joking that she studied that book more than her college reading materials.
In her current role as cocktail director at Gunshow—owned by local celebrity chef Kevin Gillespie and heralded as one of Atlanta’s best restaurants—O’Brien’s dual passions are on display. “My cocktail style is food-focused—the ingredients and techniques found in our kitchen play a major role in the way I develop drinks,” she says (cocktails are $11-$14; punch bowls are $35). Her Avocado Margarita ($12) is an example, as it blends Arette Blanco Tequila, lime juice, Cocchi Americano aperitif, Ancho Reyes Verde poblano chile liqueur, house-made papalo-tomatillo syrup, and fresh avocado. Her Toasted Old Fashioned ($11)—served tableside from a bar cart—mixes Old Forester Bourbon, house-made burnt sugar syrup, Fee Brothers Old Fashioned Aromatic bitters, and a blend of Fee Brothers West Indian Orange bitters and Regans’ No. 6 Orange bitters. The drink is garnished with a sugared cinnamon stick that’s been drizzled with Hamilton 151 Demerara Overproof rum and lit aflame.
“My philosophy is to be as creative as you are humble,” O’Brien says. “Don’t let limitations or pride get in the way of trying something new, and reach out to those around you for help,” O’Brien says.