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Charlotte bartender gets fresh with cocktails

By Kathleen Purvis
kpurvis@charlotteobserver.com
Kathleen Purvis
Kathleen Purvis is the Food Editor for The Charlotte Observer.

Some food trends come and go too quickly to get excited about them. But using freshly grown ingredients to get creative? I’m always interested in that.

When the trend is using fresh food to get creative with cocktails, I can get really interested.

That’s why I ran over to the Atherton Mill & Market on South Boulevard last week to meet up with Jonathan Pike.

Pike, 29, is one of the bartenders at Dilworth Billiards. Since a member of my family belongs there, I got an invitation to one of Pike’s weekly farmers market cocktail nights.

He starts at the Atherton market, just a couple of blocks from the club on Tremont. First, he picks ingredients – peaches, mint, blackberries, blueberries, whatever. And then he figures out how to use them in a cocktail.

Pike grew up in Charlotte and he’s done jobs all around restaurants and bars – bus tables, wait tables, cook. But what he really likes is making drinks.

“I cook at home, but that’s not what I want to do,” he admits. “I love being with people up front.” He likes the instant feedback you get from cocktails. At the bar, you can watch people react with the first sip.

When he worked for chef Chris Edwards at New South Kitchen, he started playing with fresh ingredients and flavor combinations. So this summer, Dilworth Billiards owner Eric Sprouse gave him Tuesday nights to play around.

That puts Pike in the middle of this summer’s trend – the garden cocktail. Magazines and cookbooks are full of infusions, syrups and even shrubs – vinegar-based fruit mixtures that date back to Colonial cooking.

Fruit-and-herb combos

Pike has been coming up with some crazy combinations, like peach and lavender, or blackberries, cucumber and mint. One week, it was blueberries and a pungent lime basil. He usually looks for fruit he can muddle or crush and herbs he can use to make a flavored syrup.

One week, he mixed strawberries and bourbon with lemon basil syrup to make a basil Old Fashioned.

Last week, it was a challenge. At the Urban Food Hub stand in the market, the herb seller was late. Poking around, Pike rejected wheat grass – no juicer – and green apples. He settled on watermelon, cucumbers and a variety of hot peppers and took them back to the bar.

Spicy new creation

A few hours later, I stopped by to see what he had done: First, he made a simple syrup (half sugar and half water), then steeped it for 10 minutes with jalapenos, cayennes, serranos and Thai bird chiles.

Then he crushed watermelon, cucumber and jalapeno with a squirt of spicy syrup.

He experimented with tequila (too strong) and gin (too aromatic). Vodka was perfect: “It let the flavors speak.”

It was tasty. Sweet and hot with a summery kick from the melon and cucumber.

Dilworth Billiards, 300 E. Tremont Ave., is a private club, but you can sign in as a guest. Pike’s special cocktails usually sell for $6 on Tuesdays.

What’s his favorite so far? “This might be the one,” he said, holding up the Hot Melon Blast.

“But every week, I say that.”

Join the food conversation at Kathleen Purvis’ blog I’ll Bite, at obsbite.blogspot.com, or follow her on Twitter, @kathleenpurvis.
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