When asked where he grew up, J.A. Harrison immediately rattles off a list of more than a dozen places he’s called home, well-rehearsed, as if he’s answered this question many times before.
The short of it is this: Harrison was the product of a military family and thus was exposed to various cultures growing up — in places like Texas, Kentucky, Maryland and Germany — and ultimately relocated from Colorado Springs to Nashville two years ago.
In that short time, he’s already risen to the top of the local cocktail scene.
Harrison, 25, cut his teeth bartending throughout college to pay rent and years later has jumped headfirst into Nashville’s cocktail scene, working for some of the city’s top spots, like Pinewood Social under Matt Tocco’s tutelage, before landing at Noelle, Nashville, a Tribute Portfolio Hotel exactly a year ago.
“The bar I worked at prior to coming to Nashville was not craft cocktails, so I purchased a bunch of literature from some of the biggest cocktail names and started reading and learning about cocktails, elevating my game as much as I could on my own,” he shares. This at-home study paid off, as Harrison has already garnered various accolades and was even named national champion in the 2018 Kübler “Reimagining the Classics.”
Nowadays, Harrison’s full attention is on Noelle’s bar program, which spans the lobby-level Trade Room Lounge, Makeready Libations & Liberation restaurant, the Rare Bird rooftop and a secret speakeasy-style spot the staff simply refers to as “the Hidden Bar.”
On any given night, Harrison could be behind any of the bars working on his next big creation — “inspiration strikes when it strikes,” he says, “which could be a conversation I overheard at lunch or something that comes to me in the shower or anytime, really” — though he’s most often working in the Hidden Bar when it’s open.
Marriott TRAVELER caught up with Harrison to get some insider information on how he approaches his craft.
I love gardening and foraging and giving back to the Earth in general. I think it's worth taking care of and providing for bees and butterflies, as they're in short supply and high demand.
Do you have a base spirit you tend to gravitate toward?
It definitely depends on the season and what mood I’m in.
I’m currently on a bit of a sotol kick, which is almost a cousin to mezcal in its distillation process, but instead of being an agave distillate, it’s distilled from the Dasylirion wheeleri plant, which is a desert cactus shrub that grows in northern Mexico. It’s the state spirit of Chihuahua. It’s a grassier, greener, more vegetal type of tequila, not as smoky.
What’s been your most requested drink since starting at Noelle?
The cocktail I’ve created that’s gained the most traction is Watership Down, comprising Espolòn Blanco, Cocchi Americano, Adelaide and a house-made strawberry agave syrup with fresh lemon juice.
We served it on our rooftop menu at Rare Bird, and in our first two months of opening, our second best-selling had sold less than half of what Watership Down did. I entered it into Espolòn’s Cocktail Fights and took second place.
That’s probably my most well-known drink. It’s no longer on the menu, but we get a lot of requests for it and are still able to make it when asked.
Do you grow your own ingredients for your at-home bartending needs?
I do. I grow rosemary, sage, mint, thyme, oregano, other herbs and several flowers, mostly to attract the bees and the pollinators.
I love gardening and foraging and giving back to the Earth in general. I think it’s worth taking care of and providing for bees and butterflies, as they’re in short supply and high demand. The plan is to add a garden at the hotel, which is still in the works.
What’s your favorite herb to work with?
Rosemary. I use it a lot as a culinary ingredient, but one of my favorite drinks last winter had agave, lime, sotol and Pimm’s, with smoked rosemary to give the glass a smoked wash line and the smoked rosemary inserted into it.
It’s also used as a garnish in the [drink] I Speak to Trees, which has Sotol Plata, Ancho Verde, Adelaide, lacinato kale, wheatgrass, a sprig of rosemary and a marigold blossom.
That's my favorite: to have the freedom to figure out what they're looking for and deliver on that demand.
Do you also make cocktails that are off the menu?
Absolutely. A lot of times people get menu fatigue, in general — they look at it, don’t know where their eyes should land, and get overwhelmed.
It’s very easy to just take it away from them and say, “Pick a spirit. Gin? Great. Do you want it fruity, sweet, tart, bitter, earthy, herbal?” and let them say, “I like this,” and then make them something.
That’s my favorite: to have the freedom to figure out what they’re looking for and deliver on that demand.
How important are aesthetics?
Very. I’ve heard both sides of the equation. There are people I’ve worked for who have said things to the effect of “garnishing drinks is un-masculine” and that you shouldn’t need a garnish to have a good drink and that it detracts from the drink itself.
I think at the end of the day, though, people drink with their eyes before they drink with their mouths. They’re watching you make a drink and thinking, “Wow! That’s so cool.” Then you set a well-executed drink in front of them, and they’re already expecting it to taste good before they’ve taken the first sip. I think that goes a long way.
Tell me about some of Noelle’s more visually interesting drinks.
We have large-format drinks, one of which is a piña colada that we insert the top of a pineapple into and sparklers, light it on fire, then walk it across the room.
We also have multicolored, light-up ice cubes and another drink that’s served in a golden swan with a ladle — then we float fruit hulls in it, [add] rum to it, light it on fire, walk it out to the table, then microplane cinnamon into it, so it turns into this big fire fest and is very cool.
A lot of times people just want smoked Old-Fashioneds, so I’ll light a cinnamon stick on fire, set the glass on top of it and let it smoke the interior.
Anything new you’re working on that you can tell us about?
I’ve been working on a new drink I’m calling the Trotter for the Official Drink of Nashville Competition in September, which is Heaven’s Door Tennessee Bourbon, Campari, peach green tea, The Peach Truck peach jam and Topo-Chico mineral water.