by Eric Ginsburg
When Stephen Philips got up from the bar, excusing himself to grab a cocktail menu he’s working on, the couple next to me leaned over.
The well-dressed pair, sitting at a medium-length bar folded into the middle of Mark’s Restaurant near Guilford College, told me something I already knew firsthand — that Stephen Philips isn’t your average bartender. The woman, an interior designer, said a month passed between the first and second times Philips served them, but he still remembered them. That, as well as his consummate service, is the primary reason they keep coming back.
This Thursday night Philips wasn’t working, but he still stopped to greet and joke with regulars, even jumping behind the bar to help a new coworker at a few points. It’s not surprising that he’s a little more than halfway through a degree across the street — he exudes Quakerly friendliness, and has a warm, humble attitude that’s befitting for a bartender. Especially an accidental one.
Philips originally started at Mark’s waiting tables in 2012, but when the bartender suddenly departed, he offered to step into the role on a temporary basis. But that’s not what ended up happening; by the beginning of 2013, he had become the bar manager.
He had no real experience to speak of, but more out of a fear of messing up than anything else, he dedicated himself to a self education process full of Wikipedia pages and YouTube videos.
Philips introduced his own cocktails — slight variations on classic drinks because he lacked the confidence to step too far out on his own — and eventually grew bolder. At one point he unveiled a craft cocktail menu 40 options deep.
He’s honed in since then; the menu he grabbed from his car that night, which debuts this week, has about a dozen options and the outgoing cocktail list contained 15.
Philips has evolved as a drinker in that time too, he said. With a barrel-aged Cardinal gin on the rocks in front of him, Philips recounted the story of how he learned to appreciate straight liquor after strangers in Fort Worth ordered him a bourbon.
He compared his education behind the bar to cooking, one of his hobbies, drawing similarities between using liqueur as a side or bitters like salt. He’s even come up with his own style and flair, often adding a thin peel of lemon or lime, cut down the center and bent onto the rim of a glass, as his signature to a drink.
Philips distinguishes his style in other ways too, including a bevy of ingredients from the organic garden at Mark’s, which provides everything from Cherokee purple tomatoes to jalapeños, or using sorghum, an ingredient his family used to produce in northeast Georgia. He has a love for spirit-forward cocktails as well, preferring to sing the praises of quality North Carolina liquors rather than masking them with other flavors.
There are a couple of returning cast members on Philips’ new drink menu — about one-third of the list — but many have been reworked or tweaked over time. It includes things like the Moonshine Margarita, with Broadslab moonshine from Benson, NC, Limoncello, lemon, lime, simple syrup, Scrappy’s aromatic bitters and a pink Himalayan sea-salt rim. And the Blanc-Tail, a new item, includes North Carolina-made Cardinal gin, Saint Germain elderflower liqueur, Allan Scott sauvignon blanc from New Zealand, like juice, and — if you’re lucky — a hibiscus flower resting in the bottom.
Philips priced the menu with a few softer pours to make the cocktail menu more affordable, and now several options are as cheap as $7.50 with the high end at $13 and most in the middle. It fits with his ethos, of using honest ingredients from honest people as much as possible and conducting himself the same way.
Stephen Philips met me as a customer first, and like the couple at the bar, I was taken by his hospitality, willingness to explain his ingredients or the difference between barrel-aged and barrel-rested liquor (it’s a time thing), and his general demeanor. And my appreciation for his craft aside, his personality is the main reason I’ll be back.
Visit Stephen Philips at Mark’s Restaurant at 616 Dolley Madison Road (GSO). You can occasionally catch him at 913 Whiskey Bar (in GSO) as well.