Matt Welch’s path to becoming one of the beverage industry’s brightest young talents started as what must be the stuff of nightmares for a parent. Welch attended Georgia Tech, a fine four-year institution that anchors Atlanta's Midtown neighborhood, and graduated with a degree in electrical engineering. Living off campus in a house with a few friends, he discovered how much he liked cocktails and went out to get a part-time job pouring drinks. Moms and dads everywhere shudder at the thought.
"They’re cool with it now," Welch says, referring to his own parents. "They’re realizing it’s something I really enjoy doing, and it’s something I’m decent at, at least I think…Would they prefer me to be an engineer? Probably. I still might, I still have time."
After growing tired of "drinking like a college kid" and discovering the majesty of a properly made margarita, Welch got his professional start in August of 2012. Hired as a barback at The Pinewood Tippling Room, one of the establishments that has played a significant role in shaping Atlanta’s cocktail culture, his first experience in service came during Sunday brunch. By October, he was bartending one night a week; within just a few months he was behind the stick full-time.
Since the beginning, Welch has made a name for himself — his devotees know him as Matty Panda — by concocting drinks that are complex in their ingredients but simple in flavor. His local reputation has been further bolstered at Eat Me Speak Me, a regular weekend pop-up with a Sunday night speakeasy component.
Located in the leafy inner-city neighborhood of Candler Park, guests dine on expertly composed small plates inside a tiny greasy spoon that normally operates as a breakfast spot (Jarrett Stieber, the chef and brains behind the operation, was a Young Guns semifinalist in 2014). After dinner, a short walk to a nearby, pre-assigned bungalow is rewarded with drinks prepared by someone from a rotating roster of Atlanta’s favorite ‘tenders. Eat Me Speak Me is a regular go-to for locals who fancy themselves as cool and in-the-know diners. Welch has made many appearances.
These days, the 26-year-old earns a full-time living at Amer, a bitters-centric cocktail lounge in the city’s once-bohemian, increasingly glitzy Inman Park neighborhood. The uninitiated will assume his appearance is indicative of an attitude he doesn't possess: In this age of mixologists and beverage directors, it would be easy for a cocktail novice to take one look at Welch — pomade; stylish frames; a sharp, patterned dress shirt — and lazily deride him as "a hipster," a pretentious know-it-all glaring a side-eye at anyone who hasn’t read Death & Co.
Instead, he only wants to send you on your way in a better mood than when you arrived. He defiantly claims, "I’m not a mixologist, I’m just a bartender," and delights in taking the menu from an uneasy patron who furrows their brow upon reading a list of drinks with ingredients such as Cocchi Americano, Creole shrub, orgeat, and Chambord. "Oh, I got you, just don’t worry about it," Welch likes to tell an overwhelmed customer. All he needs is a hint of what you desire, and he’ll put together the right concoction.
"And they’re like, ‘This is exactly what I wanted, and I didn’t know it.'" Welch offers this boast with the grin of a proud papa. He’s not bullshitting when he says improving someone’s state of mind is the best part of his day.
Developing forward-thinking recipes and not being a jerk about it is fine and good, but Welch has the talent and background to innovate beyond the beverage menu. When he thinks about getting back into engineering, it’s not with some grand idea to create a more efficient water heater. Welch sees his life’s two paths merge to bring modern efficiency to the hospitality industry. Point-of-sale systems are necessary everywhere, but they leave a lot to be desired. "They all suck," he groans. "It just seems like they’re not made by people who actually work in restaurants."
"There’s so much going on with software and computers. If you utilize it right, you can make any bar, any restaurant run smoother," Welch says. "There’s so much power in data that isn’t utilized."
The problem seems to be a lack of understanding between two disparate industries. The average software engineer might have no idea what a bartender or server or line cook deals with during a typical shift. And a great deal of hospitality pros don’t know the first thing about coding. But someone who has the ability to intersect these two professions — say, someone who works behind a bar and has an engineering degree — could find a new way forward.
"I think I have a very interesting skill set," Welch says. Right now, he’s living in the moment and focusing on bettering the newly opened Amer. Even if he doesn’t have firm plans, the gears of innovation are turning in his head. Casual and confident, Welch is happy being a bartender. But bringing his professional goals together and creating something bigger, if not as celebrated, in the industry is something he's "definitely thinking about doing." Perhaps it’s only a matter of time before he’s making the job easier for the next generation of young cocktail virtuosos.
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Chris Fuhrmeister is Eater's Atlanta and Evenings editor.
Matt Welch is the head bartender at Amer in Atlanta. Images by Raftermen Photography.
Editors: Dana Hatic and Sonia Chopra
Copy editor: Dawn Mobley
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