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The Charlotte cocktail scene is abuzz with change

By Helen Schwab
Restaurant Writer

With a handful of sophisticated cocktail menus popping up around town, Charlotte finds itself on the brink of having an actual cocktail culture – beyond the “Jagermeister and marshmallow vodka” scene it’s had, as Stefan Huebner vividly puts it.

Huebner, bar manager at Heist Brewery, also runs a cocktail consulting business, spent more than a decade pouring drinks at Cosmos Café and is an investor at a bar in Chicago. He and other cutting-edge bartenders and mixologists in town know the country is experiencing a cocktail boom: At a national gathering of cocktail cognoscenti in Arizona last week, well-known bar expert Tony Abou-Ganim said: “I’ve never seen this much excitement behind bartending and craft cocktails.”

But he also knows why we’re a little behind: North Carolina didn’t pass liquor by the drink until 1978. So Charlotteans, unlike Chicagoans or New Yorkers or Clevelanders, “don’t have a history of going to your dad’s bar, and the bar his dad went to.

“We’re creating the history of drinking right now.”

Mixologist Maggie Ruppert of uptown’s Halcyon agrees: “The appreciation is going to be here really shortly.”

When Ruppert came to Charlotte three years ago, “no one really wanted to hear about this crazy mixology thing. Therapy on North Tryon was cocktail culture in Charlotte … the martini lists that weren’t martinis at all: They were sweet, clingy, cloying. The craft wasn’t there.”

Make no mistake: There’s still plenty of sweet and cloying. The Mecklenburg ABC board’s Mary Ward notes that the hottest new things in sales to mixed-beverage permit holders – essentially the restaurants and bars who sell to customers – are flavored spirits. Those run from Crown Royal whiskey in maple to something called “Loopy” – a vodka mimicking the flavor of a certain breakfast cereal (we won’t say which, but it begins with “Froot”).

But the craft of cocktails relies on clean flavors, classic combinations – with tweaks, often using local produce – that develop your palate for appreciating spirits and avoid the candy coating. (An example: Halcyon’s Rocket: Cardinal gin, muddled local arugula leaves and pear, cracked black pepper, Lillet Blanc – an aperitif, something like a dry vermouth – and a splash of tonic. It’s $12. A large Sex on the Beach frozen daiquiri at Wet Willie’s -- raspberry, peach, cranapple flavors and vodka – is $10.)

And other sales figures offer hope for the county on that score: For example, about 260 bottles of that Cardinal gin – made in Kings Mountain and a darling of local drink geeks – sold in the past seven months to permit holders, almost as many as sold in the previous year and a half.

Halcyon owner Jill Marcus says cocktail sales have grown “exponentially” since the place opened in 2010, and that Ruppert’s latest menu has drawn a 20 percent jump in orders; the place even rearranged its bar area to accommodate more traffic.

Another stumbling block to our cocktail development: North Carolina is a control state, which means the state dictates which spirits are available. If bartenders want something less usual, they must special-order it, and can only buy it by the case.

Soul Gastrolounge’s Andy Maurer points out that liqueurs such as Fernet Branca and Yellow Chartreuse – “well known in cocktail bars all over the world” – are on that list. This can be a prohibitively expensive proposition.

A bit of good news for cocktail lovers: The state ABC commission is at work on a special list from which bartenders will be able to buy three-bottle parcels, rather than a case . That is scheduled to start in May.

In the meantime, Maurer says he and some colleagues have made it a challenge to create cocktails using a limited ingredient list – and the slogan “North Carolina, we’ve got it under control.”

‘Artisan’ drinks all the rage

Ruppert chafes but stretches, too: “We have to be all the more crafty.” As the first Charlotte mixologist to accompany chefs presenting dinner at the heralded James Beard House in New York, she knows a bit about craft – and that’s definitely one of the scene’s buzzwords, from “hand-crafted” to “artisan.”

If those sound like restaurant descriptions, there’s a good reason:

“Food culture always precedes what cocktail culture does,” says Ruppert, adding Charlotte has “a lot more creative chef voices” now.

Huebner points to the drinkers themselves: “It’s money, maturity and a better palate. (Those people) are doing their drinking in restaurants, not nightclubs.”

Now, if only the city had a classic cocktail bar, and a few speakeasies …

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The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.

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