A decade ago, Charlotteans were in search of top-notch dining experiences. We have that now: imaginative, highly skilled chefs, stunning local produce, achingly gorgeous restaurants. Today, the national culinary focus has turned to cocktails, and not just the dressed-up, put-an-umbrella-in-it variety. I mean real cocktails created by inventive bartenders.
But for Charlotte to create a cocktail culture, changes need to be made.
First, local bartenders need to be able to get the right stuff. Perhaps the trendiest cocktail in the country is the pisco sour, a delightful concoction of pisco, an amber-colored Peruvian or Chilean grape brandy well-shaken with simple syrup, lime juice and egg whites. A dash of angostura bitters crosses the froth. Of course, to make a pisco sour, a bartender would need pisco. We haven't seen this cocktail on bar lists across town because it wasn't until recently (May 1, 2013, to be exact) that the North Carolina Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) even stocked pisco.
For the past 35 years, the ABC monopoly has not only set prices on spirituous alcohol, but also dictated which labels, brands and spirits may be sold in the state. In the recent past, if a retail establishment — such as a restaurant, club or bar — wanted to offer a spirit not on "the list," an application had to be filed for an order with a one-case minimum. Delivery could take months.
Beginning in May, however, the ABC increased the number of products carried on a special "boutique" list. If a brand is on that list, the minimum order for a retail establishment is three bottles, although a spokesperson at the ABC reports that a retail operation will be able to buy a single bottle and the other two will appear — almost magically — on a local ABC shelf for consumers. (Consumers can order products from the ABC, too.)
Additionally, the ABC is building the boutique list to include 500 products. The current list has 47 products, but actually more are in the system. Four piscos (Barsol, Barsol Primero Quebranta, Capel Reservado and Gran Sierpe) are on that list (but as of May 6, none were in the Raleigh warehouse).
A thriving cocktail culture requires the availability of a range of brandies, aperitifs and digestifs to layer this flavor. Charlotte has not had a Bermuda-styled rum swizzle because Cherry Heering — the back note — wasn't sold here until now. Aromatic Fernet Branca, an amaro and one of the many Italian aromatic spirits missing from the North Carolina bar stock, is on the boutique list, too.
Mixologist Maggie Ruppert at Halcyon: Flavors from the Earth (500 S. College St.) says she is looking forward to the new spirits — not just for the unique scotches, but for pisco, mezcal and armagnac, too. She concedes, though, the new ABC list is in the "fledgling stage" and looks to North Carolina micro-distilleries to spark more interest.
New distilleries are doing this. Ruppert and two other area mixologists, Stefan Huebner at Heist Brewery (2909 N. Davidson St.) and Bryan Danehy, assistant manager at Charlotte Country Club, recently judged a cocktail contest sponsored by Covington Vodka, made in Snow Hill, N.C., held by Johnson & Wales University.
In addition to alcoholic products, creative bartenders are making changes at the primary level. Homemade tinctures and bitters are essential to the baseline of a cocktail. Tonic syrup made with actual Peruvian cinchona bark (the primary ingredient of quinine) trumps bottled every time. At West Coast bars like the venerable Clyde Commons in Portland, Ore., bartender and James Beard Award nominee Jeffrey Morgenthaler barrel-ages some cocktails. In Chicago, renowned national chef Grant Achatz uses a blast chiller to coat the interior of a glass with a layer of ice at his high concept Aviary.
But perhaps the most vital change is the general awareness about cocktails. Manhattans, martinis and margaritas are one level, a basic level, while the locally driven Queen to the Bee, created by Ruppert, is quite another. For this cocktail, she uses locally made Cardinal gin steeped with Earl Grey tea and adds bergamot, raw honey and lavender.
Sadly, not everyone realizes the complexity — the chemistry — of a good drink. Cocktail names may be cute or exotic and attract a certain clientele, but savvy consumers want more. A bartender who has the necessary spirits can leverage the kitchen and perfect techniques to create a brilliantly melded libation; and that — with the demand for it — will create a cocktail culture in Charlotte.