Zach Calfee Talks Absinthe and Life as a Craft Cocktail Specialist

Last week, I headed down to Armada Bar in Knoxville, Tennessee for a few minutes with craft cocktail specialist, Zach Calfee. With a background in molecular gastronomy and passion for developing new twists on prohibition era cocktails, Calfee’s Armada is a haven for the curious epicurean.

What do you consider the basics for any well stocked bar?
More than one Vermouth, 100 Proof Rye Whiskey, good gin, absinthe, crazy liquors, and fresh juices

How does this play into your style of bartending?
When people come into Armada, they’re going to get something different than the usual bar atmosphere. We encourage people to sit back, listen for a few minutes, and browse the menu before they even begin to order. Then we will have a conversation with them to make sure they have the very best experience possible.

Old Fashioned Cocktail from Armada Bar by Zach Calfee
Speaking of different, you’re big on your absinthe, let’s talk absinthe 101.
To begin, it’s a ton of work to create it. It’s like dry vermouth created from Thujone and Wormwood. Many people describe it as licorice-like but I find it more delicate. At armada, we encourage people to give it a taste both as a standalone and in their cocktails.

There seems to be a bit of confusion when it comes to absinthe and its ability to cause wild hallucinations. Can you walk me through that?
You would essentially have to consume enough wormwood to almost die to duplicate the hallucinations many people describe but it should be noted that absinthe does have high alcohol content and as with any form of liquor you can consume too much.

It seems like much of what you offer at Armada would be a first for your average bar-goer. How do you keep from alienating your guests?
We do stock the traditional bar basics but if someone orders say a Jack and Coke, instead of pouring them a drink, we’ll ask, “Why Jack and Coke?” Often we will suggest something just a bit different to give them a new experience. If they really want a Jack and Coke, we are happy to oblige. Sometimes you just want that comfort.

Cocktail and Back of Bar at Armada
Taking a look at your concept, how did you decide to get into the business?
My wife and I were watching an episode of Bar Rescue and she was giving me a hard time about not getting serious about my schooling. In a moment of frustration, she called me out on my lack of dedication and I fired back with the declaration that I was opening a bar. At the time it seemed like a dream, a few months later I was standing in my own bar. We just went for it.

Be sure to stop into Chef Supplies by KaTom on November 18th if you’re in town. Zach and Chef Jeffrey DeAlejandro of Crown and Goose will be presenting a cocktail and dinner pairing. Check out Zach’s Apple Cart cocktail under recipes on the KaTom Blog.

Chelsea B. Sanz
Chelsea B. Sanz

Chelsea Sanz has lived in East Tennessee since her family moved here from South Florida just before she started high school. While she initially begrudged her new home state, she eventually realized she had come to not only love it, but to “bleed orange” as University of Tennessee Volunteers fans here like to say. She and her boyfriend Hunter, a trail worker for Great Smoky Mountains National Park, enjoy exploring the nation’s most visited national park and coming up with their own farm-to-table recipes.

Connect with Chelsea B. Sanz on Google+