Charlotte’s Ritz-Carlton describes the head mixologist at its new 15th-floor lounge as “a multi-award-winning cocktail artisan.”
But Bob Peters – a college dropout who started his career as a busboy almost two decades ago – has more of a layman’s view of the job he took at The Punch Room: “I’m a bartender.”
“I understand the idea of a ‘mixologist,’ of somebody capable of making an exceptional cocktail,” says Peters, a Charlotte native. “It’s not like I’m a doctor, though. I make drinks for a living. It’s not rocket science.”
Except, when you watch Peters make a drink, it actually does feel a bit like rocket science. He’ll whip out a cold smoker to put vapor into a Manhattan. He’ll produce a hand-held carbonator to add a bit of bubbly to his favorite vodka. He’ll set an orange twist aflame to give it extra appeal.
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The libations he creates use ingredients he makes from scratch or sources locally: sweet potato juice (homemade), parsnip juice (homemade), edible flowers from Cleveland County farmer Jamie Swofford, cloister honey produced by bees in hives on the roof of the Ritz.
And he takes pride in his work every step of the way, from polishing your glass to a high shine before getting started on your drink to beaming as if he’s just handed out the winning Powerball ticket every time he slides a cocktail in your direction.
A bartender is born
Born in Charlotte on March 13, 1975, he was the fourth and youngest child of George and Martha Peters, after siblings Graham, Mara and Mark.
Artistry was in the Peters’ blood: George was an architect, while Graham grew up to become a graphic designer and Mark a potter.
But a mathematician Bob Peters was not. Though he was generally a good student at Dilworth Elementary, Sedgefield Junior High and Myers Park High, core math classes at UNC Wilmington were “an insurmountable task,” he says.
So after three years at the beach, he returned to Charlotte in 1996, moved back in with his parents and started working at the Porcupine Cafe in Dilworth. “With the idea being take some time, figure it out, regain some perspective, and then get back to school,” Peters says.
Instead, he picked up a second job serving pints at a dive bar called the Elizabeth Pub (now a parking lot), where he and Graham had started playing pool. That bartending job led to another, then another, then another.
Fat City and Ling Ling Palace in Noda (both closed long ago). The Alley Cat, Menage and Cans in uptown (all now closed). Tutto Mondo in South End (now closed). Plaza Midwood hangouts Fire & Ice (now closed), The Steeple (closed) and Thomas Street Tavern (still open!).
Along the way, he picked up “flair-tending” – juggling, flipping bottles and shakers, lighting liquors on fire – and once he really got rolling, he was leaving work with as much as $500 on a good night.
At that point, he knew he would never go back to school.
“I realized I had a real job when it came to my understanding that I was making more money than all of my friends that had real jobs,” says Peters, taking a bite of pork fried rice during lunch at Dim Sum restaurant on Central Avenue – not far from the home he shares with his wife, Jena Burgin-Peters, and their 5-year-old daughter, Georgia Beth.
“And I was happy, and they all hated their jobs and their life. This is before they all found their wives, though,” he adds, winking. “Now they’re all happy.”
A mixologist is born
His transformation from bartender to “mixologist” began in 2011, while he was working at Plaza Midwood’s Soul Gastrolounge.
The owners – who had been trying with only moderate success to tempt sophisticated palates with craft cocktails since opening in 2009 – were finally starting to gain some traction. The premium on artistry fueled Peters’ creativity, and he began making a name for himself as an innovator.
Then in 2012, his friend Bryan Li started making plans to expand Pisces Sushi at The Metropolitan in midtown to include a lounge, with an eye toward being able to charge $15 a drink. Li initially just asked Peters for input and advice; ultimately, he enlisted him to design the entire cocktail menu and come make the drinks himself.
It was the first time Peters had ever been given such freedom.
“My thing was as long as everyone leaves happy and we’re a profitable company, it’s all yours,” Li says. “That was always my approach: You hire an artist, you can’t tell him how to paint. You just offer him a blank piece of paper, and you let him do whatever he wants.”
During his three-year stint with Pisces, Li says, Peters came up with 100 to 150 recipes, including the Carolina Peach, made with Kings Mountain-distilled Cardinal Gin, Lillet Blanc, peach juice and homemade sweet basil simple syrup; an avocado martini with elderflower foam; and an apple-pie-infused bourbon made with Ridgemont Reserve 1738.
Thanks to Peters and a select group of others – including Stefan Huebner, whom Peters refers to as “the grandfather of craft cocktails in Charlotte” (he’s currently at Heist Brewery in NoDa) – $15 drinks became acceptable, local media started taking interest and celebrity was achieved.
He started posting photos of his alcoholic creations on Instagram; today, nearly 14,000 users follow him.
A dream job
Among those tracking him were folks in management at the Ritz-Carlton, which last year decided to close its 15th-floor wine bar, Urban Sip, and develop a concept built around spiked punches and craft cocktails.
They were impressed by Peters’ talent, his following, his resourcefulness and his connections. They also knew a local mixologist with name recognition would be valuable.
“We see more of that in some of our hotels that have made the beverage program just as important as the food,” says David Rothwell, general manager of the Ritz-Carlton. “In the past, the chef de cuisine would have been the draw, definitely not the bartender. Now the bartender is bringing in the guests just as well as the chef.”
Since being hired, Peters is living a craft cocktail maker’s dream: Management allowed him to hand-select every liquor on the shelf, gave him space on the hotel’s rooftop for a garden in which he can grow ingredients like herbs and small fruits, and bought a Kold-Draft Ice Machine that cost nearly $5,000.
Peters calls it “the Ferrari of ice machines,” and in many ways, The Punch Room is the Ferrari of bars. Punches can be served in bowls made exclusively for the Ritz by a glass blower in Asheville, at a cost of more than $1,000 apiece.
The setting oozes luxury – steel, metallic, gold and black design accents, stylish chandeliers and plush sofas and armchairs – and the space accommodates just 37 guests. Since the bar doesn’t accept reservations, some guests have waited hours on Friday and Saturday nights for an opportunity to try one of four punches created by Peters, one of his eight signature drinks, or anything else that comes out of his brain.
He encourages everyone who sits down at his bar to be adventurous. And if you’re not, be prepared for him to give you a little push.
“Some of the more mainstream products that are macro-distilled, if that’s a word, I may not have,” Peters says. “So I will kindly suggest something different and tell them that I’ll do everything I can to make them an amazing drink.”
For instance, “when cranberries come in season, I’m planning to make my own cranberry juice. But that’s seasonal. So sometimes you may not be able to get a vodka and cranberry, and it may be a little off-putting to someone expecting to be able to get one.
“However, I promise I can serve them something they’re gonna be really happy with that will be different than what they’re used to – and they will ultimately walk away glad that I didn’t have cranberry juice.”
2 of Peters’ favorite drinks
In a cocktail shaker, add:
▪ 1.25 oz. Ridgemont Reserve 1792 bourbon
▪ .5 oz. Fernet-Branca
▪ .5 oz. Krupnikas spiced honey liqueur
▪ .25 oz. sweet vermouth
Shake gently; strain into Nick & Nora glass. Garnish with a flamed orange.
Behind the name: “The Franciulli is a classic cocktail that when I tried I was disappointed in, so I fixed it,” Peters says. “I didn’t want to take credit for the cocktail, so I simply modified the name to Honey Franciulli to give a nod back to the Great Ada Coleman – who created the original about a hundred years ago.”
Corpse Reviver No. 2
Rinse a coupe glass with absinthe, and dump out excess. In a cocktail shaker, muddle two small lemon wedges, then add:
▪ 1 oz. Cardinal Gin
▪ 1 oz. Cointreau
▪ 1 oz. Lillet Blanc
Shake, then strain into the coupe glass. Garnish with a lemon rind.
Behind the name: Created as a hair-of-the-dog drink by noted bartender Harry Craddock, who said that two of these cocktails could bring the dead back to life. This recipe first appeared in the Savoy Cocktail Handbook in 1930.