How Colleen Hughes turns cocktails into sensory experiences at Crepe Cellar

First things first: Don’t bother asking Colleen Hughes how old she is.

“I don’t tell anybody my age,” said Hughes, the bartender at Crepe Cellar Kitchen & Pub who handles the cocktail programs there as well as at Growlers Pourhouse, Sea Level NC and the incoming Haberdish. “In a field like this where it’s so male-dominated, I just don’t think it’s anybody’s business.”

And if you need to view her in terms of years, we’ll just say she’s been on the NoDa beverage scene for six years, ever since Growlers Pourhouse opened and she got hired, thanks to previous experience with coffee, wine and craft beer.

She opened the door to her bartending and craft cocktail career when she and her boyfriend, Abari bartender James Murphy, bought a bunch of cocktail books.

“And we read them and we made drinks and practiced,” she said. “It was all Prohibition stuff because those were the books that we could get.”

Months later, the self-taught cocktail creator put together the first cocktail list for Crepe Cellar, featuring riffs on classic cocktails. Now, years later, she said, “I buy better books and I buy better liquor and keep working on recipes.”

Lately, she’s experimenting with the idea of turning cocktails into sensory experiences.

With her menu for Haberdish, she said, “It’s based on moments of an evening. It’s based on the first drinks you should have in a day or how you want to feel, more so than, this is a tequila drink. How do you want to feel right now? Do you want to pep up? Do you want to feel relaxed? Do you want to chill? So I’ve been working on all kinds of different angles to effect those physiological responses in people.”

She’s toying with essential oils, ingredients with retro-nasal responses to wake the brain up, and ingredients that are naturally calming to help someone relax into the evening.

“It’s very much more based on who you feel like being that night than, ‘this is a vodka cocktail,'” she said.

Hughes has already figured out who she wants to be at night when she’s behind the bar.

“As a bartender,” she said, “you kind of have to be everything at once. You have to be the life of the party, the caring, sympathetic friend, the person who can make you laugh in three seconds flat. Being a bartender has nothing to do with making drinks. Being a bartender is being absolutely everything to everybody all of the time. My number one job is talking. I talk for a living and I make drinks on the side.”

Her favorite (side) creation thus far is the Spring Fever ($12) on the Crepe Cellar cocktail list. The drink features Cazadores Reposado Tequila, makrut lime leaves, black cardamom, orange and vanilla reduction cooked by Hughes, hopped grapefruit bitters, a squeeze of lime and a touch of salt.

“It’s just this beautiful little tequila cocktail that’s just like the strength of an Old Fashioned,” she said.

Then there’s the Smoke and Berries ($14) that features Sombra Mezcal, her homemade strawberry gomme syrup to give the drink a silky mouth feel, lime, szechuan tincture that adds tingle to the tongue, plus black pepper.

Smoke and Berries, new to the menu this week. Silky smooth from the house made strawberry gomme syrup, toasty in spicy from the #sombramezcal and sezchuan tincture, finished off with fresh lime and black pepper! Only @crepecellar . #cltdrinks #cltdining #charlottesgotalot #clteats #mezcal #colleenmakesdrinks #noda #charlottecocktails #craftcocktails

A photo posted by ColleenMakesDrinks (@colleenmakesdrinks) on Aug 1, 2016 at 11:55am PDT

“As opposed to it just being a drink,” she said, “it’s a sensation, along with a drink. It is just this really interesting-moment cocktail.”

It is also the product of one of her first attempts to take a drink and make it more of a sensory experience.

“And I want to keep expanding on that,” she said. “Literally bringing every sensation I can bring in liquid form to you.”

Crepe Cellar Kitchen & Pub: 3116 N. Davidson St.

Photo: Arody Victoria