- Associated Press - Sunday, July 20, 2014

HATTIESBURG, Miss. (AP) - Twelve years ago, Dusty Frierson was convinced he would wind up in the lecturing well of a college hall instead of an educator of innovation when it comes to the way Hattiesburg celebrates a night on the town.

Frierson not only serves as general manager of the four-headed restaurant group that he refers to as “The Beast” Mahogany Bar/Crescent City Grill/Purple Parrot Café/Branch but also has been the point of the spear that has transformed the approach to wine, spirits and beer under the umbrella of the New South Restaurant Group.

“Looking back, it’s funny, because it had never occurred to me,” Frierson said. “I never had any ambitions about being in the business or anything. I wanted to be a history professor.”

Instead, he’s become a scholar of spirits, a savant sommelier who has combined a studious dedication with a whimsical flair when it comes to the creation and presentation of libations.

“At some point, I started looking at it from an academic standpoint,” Frierson said. “So I kind of transferred my love of history and stats and things into the spirits world, and from there, I just couldn’t get enough of it. I wanted to learn as much as I could about it.”

And what he’s learned, the 34-year-old Picayune native has put into practice.

The restaurants share a 1,000-bottle wine cellar, 120 variations of bourbons and ryes and 42 drafts on tap among the 150 offerings on a beer menu that ranks among those at the forefront of the craft beer boom in Mississippi.

Frierson is nothing if not passionate about a career that seemed to choose him rather than the other way around.

“Somebody asked me the other night, ‘How do you know so much about cocktails? We’re telling you what we want, and you’re just making it up,’” he said “And I said, ‘Well, basically, I don’t have a life.’

“Look, I have a wonderful wife at home and I love that, but when I got home after a long shift of 10 hours here, the first thing that I did when I got home at 12:30 was I pulled down a book I just bought that the New York Times spirits writer just put out on bourbon and whiskey and rye.

“So, I was sitting there reading that, and right next to it was a book by a guy named Jeffery Morganthaler from Portland, Oregon, who runs a bar, and there was some new cocktail stuff in there.”

Stuff that likely will turn up in a tumbler at Branch, a re-imagined and expanded space that once served as the Parrot’s parlor and now radiates a ‘50s-‘60s kitschy funk. Low lighting complements a lounge vibe, replete with throwback turntable spinning tunes from the past five decades.

The real draw has been the concoctions that are more created than simply poured.

“Even people who have other habits are getting into the fact that you can take a sip of this cocktail or that beer and then sitting back for a second,” Frierson said. “It sits there on the palate, and then you say, ‘Let me go back for another sip.’

“So, again, you’re going back to the experience, and that’s what we want, from the record player, to the cocktails, to the different kind of bourbons to the mid-century feel of the furniture and stuff, we want people to have a different experience than what you maybe are going to have, typically, in Hattiesburg.”

Frierson said the slow-sipping scene is a sort of a back-to-the-future fandango.

“You went from the martinis menus to going back and revisiting pre-Prohibition stuff and spirits made from the 1880s, so we’re kind of incorporating that, piece-by-piece, here,” Frierson said. “Now, every chance I get, when I’m in another place, I’m going to try and go to three or four places, just to see what’s going on, to see what the new thing is.”

And that’s the whole idea, Frierson said.

“I think we’re dealing with a culture now that, from young people up, they’re looking for things, and it’s not always about quantity, it is about quality and the experience,” he said. “There are times, out by the pool, where you’re going to have session beers; you’re going to have gin and tonics. But there’s also a time where people want the experience in something new, and they want to think about it, and they’re always chasing the new thing.

“We’re hoping that we can be one of those places that has that new thing.”

One of the newer things has been the growth of the craft beer crowd. A change in state law that allowed the sale of higher-alcohol-by-volume beers invigorated brought what had been happening in others area of the country into Hattiesburg.

“For Mahogany Bar, we were always into beer,” he said. “But leading up to that point two years ago, it kind of came down to, OK, what was available. Our 12, 14 taps, we felt like we would like to have more, but there was still something lacking because we had that 6 percent cap. But when we found out that it was opening up and that we were going to be able to get so many more things, that was huge, and then the regional beers exploded.

“Now, you’ve got hyper local with Southern Prohibition and Gordon Creek here in Hattiesburg, and Lazy Magnolia, which opened up everything. Now, Alabama and Louisiana are exploding. Now, 15 of our taps are just Mississippi beers, and that’s what we sell the most of.”

Frierson and the restaurants/bars he oversees have been featured in articles dedicated to food and spirits. While the reputation of both has grown regionally and nationally, he prefers to keep his focus on what he has at hand.

He’s trying to give people an experience they will remember.

“If you’re always trying to challenge yourself and I feel like we try to with food and beverage and service then it’s just like in any position, you want to be better, you want to push the envelope,” Frierson said.

“We want people to have fun.”

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Information from: The Hattiesburg American, http://www.hattiesburgamerican.com

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