In a city that has become nationally known for its culinary scene, from James Beard-winning chefs and food writers to form-to-school programs and certified farmers markets like ours at Pepper Place, we are fortunate to also have a thriving craft cocktail and bar scene woven into it. Guided by the creativity and palate of Manager Reese Hovater, Paper Doll Bar on 1st Ave. N. and 23rd St., is insuring farm to table cocktails define downtown Birmingham’s offerings as much as the food.
Hovater grew up in Birmingham and cut his teeth working at Jim ‘n Nicks in Homewood and then got his “real training” when he was hired to work behind the bar at Chez FonFon. Under the guidance of Chef Frank Stitt, Pardis Stitt and that restaurant’s outstanding team, he learned the A to Z of it. “That experience was invaluable,” he says. “Behind the bar you have more freedom, but also more responsibility. People have their eyes on you. It’s personal. You have to develop a sense of pride.” He continues, ”At FonFon, they’re adamant about training and education, tasting and learning from experts who are top in their field. They taught me to appreciate fine ingredients and seasonality. Everything there is farm to table and that defined who I am now.”
With the lay-offs of countless restaurant workers at the beginning of COVID-19, Hovater found himself free to make a move, and accepted the Bar Manager position at Paper Doll. Despite the stress and challenge of operating during this stressful time, he’s loving the job and excited about the opportunities ahead. “Farm to table is an approach and an attitude, and we’re committed to it. Sometimes we have to educate our guests, but Birmingham is a pretty sophisticated city and people are learning that they’re not going to find a strawberry or watermelon-based cocktail on the menu in the fall. We use local ingredients in our cocktails wherever we can and follow the seasons. It keeps things interesting. We experiment a lot too, like chefs. We don’t want to play it safe. We’ll try anything – as long as it tastes good!”
Remaining open during COVID has been tough, but Hovater says they’ve found creative ways to keep serving beautiful drinks. They’ve been selling cocktail kits, like the Basil Smash kit, which they’re offering at the Market this Saturday. “The Basil Smash is our most popular cocktail, with basil simply syrup, lime, gin and a few other ingredients. The kit is $12 and makes anywhere from 15 to 24 cocktails, depending on how much of the mixers you use. We’ll be adding two more seasonal cocktail kits to our offerings this fall. We’ve also been offering live cocktail classes on zoom. Folks pick up the cocktail kits and then join a half hour class on zoom where I talk them through it right here at the bar. It’s interactive and really fun. It’s perfect for a party or a work event, or just a bunch of friends to get together.” He continues, “Now that bars are able to open up a little, we’re serving inside and outside again, which I love. It’ll be a challenge when temperatures drop, but we’re optimistic. Did I mention we’re finalizing our new fall menu? Good stuff – lots of cinnamon and ginger…. I’m also in love with the combination of vodka, lemon, fennel syrup and orange. It’s so delicious!”
“Paper Doll Bar is a beautiful inside,” he says. “People say when they do come in that ‘it feels like you’re not in Birmingham,’ that it feels like a bar you’d find in a bigger city. We like that, because it is a sophisticated feeling place. We’ve also had lots of support from people that live and work right here too. We are all about local. We support our neighbors. It goes back to the farm to table attitude. That’s who we are.”
Anyone who takes time to talk with Reese Hovater will quickly discover he’s the real deal, with deep knowledge and expertise worth delving into. His cocktail secret weapon? “Angostura bitters. They make any drink taste a little better.” Secret cocktail ingredient? “Salt!” Favorite herbs to incorporate? “Basil, mint, and I love adding thyme. A little goes a long way and it can take a drink in an entirely different direction.” Unexpected cocktail flavoring? “Add a small amount of cold-steeped black tea to honey syrup. You can’t taste the tea, but it adds a subtlety that’s really nice.” Favorite cocktail to enjoy at home? “I’m a bitter-sweet guy so I love a Negroni. The ingredients are non-perishable so they’re always available. It’s a great drink.”