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Cocktail fans share ideas for your New Year’s Eve

COCKTAILS
TODD SUMLIN - tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com
Kevin and Heather Gavagan enjoy cocktails at their Charlotte home Thursday, Dec. 19. They are the couple behind the Haunt Bar pop-ups.

If you’re going to have a New Year’s Eve party this year, you should shake things up.

This is the year for real cocktails, for cocktail shakers, good liquors and pedigreed recipes. This is the year for garnishes, for heaven’s sake.

Who are you going to call for advice on all that? We called HauntBar.

Don’t try to find an address for Haunt. Like a real ghost, it appears and disappears. Haunt isn’t really a bar; it’s four people who live in the North Davidson Street area and take cocktails very seriously.

Opening a serious-cocktail bar is their dream, but zoning laws are tricky, and bar-building is expensive. For now, Haunt is a pop-up operation that sometimes puts on events at local businesses like Letty’s on Shamrock Drive and the Frock Shop on Central Avenue. You have to follow @hauntbar on Twitter or Haunt on Facebook to find out when and where the next special menu will turn up.

The ringleaders are Kevin and Heather Gavagan, assisted by their friends Eric Hoenes, a religious studies professor at UNC Charlotte, and Nicole Peterson, an assistant anthropology professor.

“We’re all total cocktail nerds,” Kevin Gavagan admits. Gavagan, 36, is a carpenter by day and a cocktail maniac by night. His wife, Heather, is a commercial interior designer who develops Haunt recipes and menus.

Foursome makes it work

The Gavagans got caught up in tiki bars and cocktail culture a few years ago and then found their friends Hoenes and Peterson loved cocktails, too.

Pretty soon, they were ordering the bitter herb gentian online to make their own bitters and holding spirited debate over obscure liquors like Shellback Silver rum.

Gavagan is a tall, skinny guy who is prone to wearing fedoras. He likes to hurl opinions, like the best drink for testing a bartender. (His choice is the Sidecar, because its limited ingredients – brandy, Cointreau and lemon juice – make for such a fine line between perfection and disappointment.)

Hoenes is more likely to weigh in on why cocktail shaker ice introduces a small amount of water to pull a drink together.

“Eric is the historian, Heather is the palate, and I am the technician,” Gavagan explains. Nicole is the sane one, who steps in when things get carried away. That would include the time Kevin and Eric tried to create a cocktail that involved a cocktail shaker, a chicken wing and hot peppers. (Don’t try this at home. No, really – don’t.)

A friend at Letty’s

At first, they just put on parties, usually involving a food-and-cocktail theme. In NoDa, it’s not hard to round up 20 or 40 of your closest friends for “NoDa Competitive Eating and Smack-Talking.”

But it started to get out of hand.

“I was like, ‘Man, I’m spending an awful lot of money on booze,’ ” Gavagan says. “ ‘I need to find a way to make this pay.’ 

They approached several businesses about doing cocktail events but got turned down – until they went to Letty Ketner. Letty’s on Shamrock Drive is the kind of small neighborhood place that welcomes a little creative genius.

“She was game the minute she heard about it,” Gavagan says. Now, every few months, the Haunt crew comes up with a cocktail menu and Ketner lets Kevin step behind the bar.

On a recent night before Christmas, Gavagan’s lineup included the Father Christmas, with gin, sweet vermouth and a cranberry/vinegar shrub, and the Holiday Hopper, his take on a Grasshopper.

And that leads us to New Year’s. If they were going to give you a menu for a party, what would they suggest?

Heather and Eric put their heads together. If you’re going to make it to midnight, they declared, you have to pace yourself, with lower-alcohol drinks.

“You can wake up feeling like you went 10 rounds with Mike Tyson,” Gavagan agrees.

New Year’s calls for sparkling wine, Heather says, but you don’t want to pay a lot. So she’d start with a Seelbach Cocktail, a champagne cocktail that can be made with cheaper sparkling wine.

Then, she suggests, move to a big-batch cocktail, something you can make in a pitcher so you’re not tied to a shaker or blender all night.

Next, a punch is great for a party. As the ice melts, it increases the batch and dilutes it, forcing you to cut back on your alcohol consumption as the hour gets later.

“There’s a good case to be made that when you’re putting in lemon and sugar, you don’t need premium liquor,” Hoenes says.

Finally, if your party is a success, you need a next-day drink. A classic Corpse Reviver will do the trick.

As for Haunt, they like to keep it simple on New Year’s Eve and avoid the big-bar scene.

“We’d rather be home,” Peterson says. “We can drink better and cheaper.”

See – that’s why she’s the sane one.

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