Savannah, Georgia is known for its history, slow pace and the oak trees dripping with Spanish moss that shade the 22 squares around the historic district. Local shop owners drawl “Welcome, y’all” when you pop in to look around. The deliberate pace and slower speech can trick you into believing it’s a sleepy little town. But high above River Street, overlooking the Savannah River, Rocks on the River stands in contrast to everything else you’ll likely take in as a tourist.
On the 9th floor of the Bohemian Hotel, Rocks on the Roof is the place to get a cocktail in this town. Forget ordering a Moscow Mule. You’ll want the Savannah Mule. With house-made ginger liqueur, it’s unlike any Mule you’ve ever had.
Doug Snyder, the food and beverage director at the Bohemian Hotel, had just made a fresh batch of ginger liqueur the night I arrived. He estimated it would only last a few weeks, but six days later he was out.
A popular watering hole for both locals and visitors, the 300 person capacity at Rocks on the River puts pressure on bartenders to turn out drinks fast.
“Sometimes it can take five to six minutes to get a craft cocktail made for you,” said Snyder. “That’s entire too long for a place as busy as we are.
“After a busy day at work, when you belly up to the bar and you order that first drink, you want – and need – that drink. “
Instead of shying away from offering craft cocktails, Snyder decided back in April to try a barrel-aged cocktail program. The cocktails take anywhere from six to nine weeks to age, but you can get a drink in front of you within 60-90 seconds of ordering.
“I’ve always been very passionate about craft cocktails and just doing fun, unique ingredients and making things as special as possible,” said Snyder. “We want to be able to deliver that craft cocktail experience but be able to do it in a very timely manner.”
Currently, Rocks on the Roof has five barrel-aged cocktails and two draft cocktails.
“The draft cocktails are a little different,” explained Snyder. “They’re not barrel-aged, they’re in stainless steel kegs that are refrigerated so we can finish them with fresh juices and still provide that artisan cocktail in a quick service pickup environment.”
Five- and ten-liter barrels house the rest of the cocktails in the offering. The two most popular cocktails on the menu – the “Over the Barrel Perfect Manhattan,” with Four Roses Bourbon, and the “Blood Orange Margarita” take up four to five of the 10-liter barrels, with several five-liter barrels as backups.
Keeping it local
But the beauty of the craft cocktails at Rocks on the Roof goes beyond the barrel room. It starts with the liquor itself, which is sourced from regional small-batch distilleries.
Snyder says it’s simply how he was trained as a chef years ago.
“When I was learning to cook, that’s what you did. You went to the farm down the street and bought your produce. You went to the guy who was making beer in his garage, and that’s what you sold on draught.”
“We want to be able to put a face with a name,” Snyder explained. “I want to be able to tell customers that if they come back in six weeks the guy who owns and distills this will be here for a tasting with us. Or if they’re headed south, I want to tell them to stop off in St. Augustine and go visit our friends at St. Augustine Distillery.”
It’s far from lip service. The night I visited Rocks on the Roof, four distillers whose liquors are found in the barrel-aged cocktail program were on hand for an event during the Savannah Food & Wine Festival.
I learned about how Fruitland Vodka, which you can find in the Savannah Tea, is named after Fruitland Nurseries, the birthplace of Georgia’s peaches – which used to sit on the land where the storied Augusta National now resides. I met Philip McDaniel, the cofounder of St. Augustine Distillery, and his wife, longtime St. Augustine residents and the city’s biggest ambassadors.
And it wasn’t the first trip any of these distillers had made to Savannah. They all spoke with Snyder – and each other – like old friends.
“They’re like us,” said Snyder, “they’re passionate about their product. They put a lot of love into it.
“We try and make something beautiful and special out of their product. It’s a kindred spirit kind of thing.”
Bartenders who are artists
It takes more than just Snyder to make the magic happen. You can’t have a successful craft cocktail program like the one at Rocks on the River without a talented staff.
These aren’t college kids tending bar to make ends meet. They’re true professionals who take pride in their craft.
“Savannah is sort of known for finding out what the rest of the world was doing a year ago,” jokes Synder. “What we try and do is bring in some of these people who are moving to this area from high-profile markets.”
Rocks on the River has bartenders who relocated from Las Vegas and Philly, and another coming soon from Cleveland.
“Don’t knock Cleveland,” said Snyder. “People don’t realize it’s a crazy foodie and cocktail town.”
Snyder says the whole staff is involved in developing the craft cocktail menu, which rotates several of its drinks seasonally.
“We all travel around and pick up inspiration,” said Snyder. “Everyone comes back with ideas and we all talk about what we’ve seen, what we do and don’t like. As long as it’s not too crazy and off the wall and we think it’ll work here, we’re generally willing to try it.”
When you’re the one traveling and find yourself in Savannah, make sure you stop by Rocks on the Roof and give one of the craft cocktails a try. You won’t be disappointed.