There’s no sign, no grand fanfare to show for it, not even a social media campaign. But quietly and smoothly so, The Apothecary at Brent’s Drugs opened over the weekend. The thousand square foot “speakeasy” lounge is the brainchild of the 1946 soda fountain’s owner, attorney Brad Reeves and designer Jonathan Shull.
Apothecary centers around the idea of the pre-Prohibition craft cocktail movement with an added twist: the place is also a nod to the days of old, when soda fountains were the remedy for a hard pill to swallow.
“There’s so much history between pharmacies, soda fountains and cocktails,”” Reeves explains. “Alcohol is a great solvent because it can dissolve organic compounds in medicines. Pharmacists used carbonated water, sweetened with syrups to conceal the taste of bitter drugs.”
Those drinks relied on tonic water, phosphates or lactarts, a healthy, natural acid with an odd sourness. “As far back as 2,600 BC, long before pharmacy schools, people worked in the apothecary to help you find a remedy for your ails,” Reeves says. “Those remedies have inspired our cocktails.”
From the Campari Martino (campari, manzilla sherry and lemon) to the Hoodoo Flip (Cathead Hoodoo chickory, demerara, whole egg, lemon, angostura bitters), the Pink Phosphorescent (gin, grapefruit oleo, phosphate, lemon and crÃ¨me de muir) to the Chen + Tonic (gin, house made tonic, lime), the concoctions are a nod to another time.
You’ll find another unique story behind the soda fountain/bar connection: from 1920 — 1933, the 18th amendment outlawed alcohol in the United States. In the Darcy S. O’Neil book, Fix The Pumps, the author explores a history of the golden age of soda fountains. Reeves says in studying this book, he learned that, while some bartenders moved to Europe to work, many stayed in the states and worked in soda fountains.
But not like the soda fountain of today. “They were like coffee shops, a meeting place, inside pharmacies,” he explains. “Patrons came to just hang out, sip a phosphate or lactart drink and read a book.” This is also the time when ice cream drinks and simple syrups came into prominence. In 1966, 33 years after Prohibition legally ended for most states, Mississippi was the last state to allow alcohol’s return. Those soda jerks who returned to a bar tending career brought a vast knowledge of soda fountains, influencing new drink creations.
Apothecary will make their own tonic water with cinchona bark used initially for the treatment of malaria. There are soda draft pumps installed at the bar and their juices are hand squeezed, Reeves says, giving a hat tip to the farm to table movement. “We squeeze the lemons, limes, oranges and grapefruit,” he says. “It’s a lot more prep to do it but it’s worth it.”
To pull off such a place as Apothecary, Reeves began by relying on a trusted friend and confidant. “Jonathan Shull and I grew up together and went to college together at Mississippi State,” he says. “We’ve always shared a lot of the same ideas.” Reeves credits a “head’s up” from Shull to his initial purchase of Brent’s in 2009. “We didn’t plan this concept (back then), but we talked in hypotheticals about what you could do with Brent’s.”
Consultants Neal Bodenheimer and Kirk Estopinal, proprietors of Cure in New Orleans were brought on board. Their pharmacy inspired bar on Freret Street is one of the nation’s top establishments. “We approached them and asked what it would look like if we talked with them,” Reeves remembers. “They could see the possibilities when they came to Jackson over a year ago.” He says, they were blown away. “We showed them the space, walked Fondren and took them to Babalu. They saw a great foundation in this neighborhood and could see it going further.” Reeves says, by the time they left Fondren, they were ready to act upon a project here of their own had Apothecary not come to fruition. “They loved what was going on here and told us this was the right time to do it.”
Multiple factors lead to that assumption, including the soon-to-open craft beer inspired Fondren Public, M!SO‘s recent opening and, later this year, Pig & Pint. “There’s great synergy right now,” Reeves feels. “Then there’s Babalu and great places like Nick’s and Walker’s. I see a lot of foot traffic coming.” Reeves imagines a place where diners could eat a meal at one place, get dessert at another and an after dinner drink somewhere else. “Everyone wins. It makes Fondren a place that’s a destination.”
Reeves also credits Brent’s general manager Leslee Foukal for her enthusiasm and understanding of the unique balance that will be needed between the diner and soda fountain and The Apothecary. “We’re not taking away from the family atmosphere at Brent’s,” he says. “Brent’s is special place to Fondren and history of Jackson. We are making sure we don’t take anything away from that.” Indeed, the new addition is locked away, behind a door and curtain and will be entirely separate from the daily operation.
“We want everyone to know we are a laid back, neighborhood place,” Reeves says. “We’re not exclusive at all, but I see the young professionals and people living near by as our regulars. It’ll kind of be a word-of-mouth, come as you are sort of place.”
The Apothecary is open Tuesday-Thursday, 5pm-10pm and Friday and Saturday until midnight. Prescription cocktails, temperance drinks (non-alcoholic), wines by the glass, selected bottled beers and provisions like sliders and a grilled cheese sampler are on the menu.