Welcome to the state that’s already become known as the best in the South for craft brewing, and the city that Fortune.com just touted as edging up on Asheville as the best Southeastern hub for local beer.
And it isn’t just beer. Coming out of a history that used to be all about fast cars and running moonshine, North Carolina’s Piedmont is now giving birth to some very good versions of the hard stuff, too. The stuff in our barrels has several years to go before it can match what Kentucky and Tennessee produce (they have had a century or so head start). But several are showing so much promise that they’re worth getting to know now so you can say you knew them when.
There are more good beers than we can list, but here are a couple suggestions to get you started – along with a few recommendations for locally produced spirits that will give you a flavor for what’s out there.
Hop Drop ‘n Roll
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When NoDa Brewing took the World Beer Cup for America’s best IPA in 2014, it was time for the beer world to take notice of the Queen City. Something very special is going on around here in brewing. This is one of the two that you need to know at the start: Seriously hoppy with the bitter bite that implies, it begs to be enjoyed with food. Just call it “Hop Drop” – the rest of us do.
Olde Mecklenburg Brewery shook things up around here in 2007 when it opened a German-style brewery to make fresh beer. The brewery also put in place an efficient distribution system of refrigerated trucks that quickly had Copper on tap at pretty much every restaurant in town. That’s a good thing: This is a classic lagered amber ale, not too hoppy for the hops-averse and still food-friendly. When you’re faced with a wall of taps and no clue where to begin, start here. Then keep exploring everything else Charlotte breweries have to offer.
Cardinal Barrel-Rested Gin:
Made by Southern Artisan Spirits in Kings Mountain. Yes, the distillery makes a “regular” clear gin, loaded with juniper and a mix of other herbs and botanicals, like spearmint, clove, grains of paradise and a little frankincense. But the barrel-rested is a little different. Like bourbon, it’s aged in new charred American white-oak barrels (for at least six months, although some has been in the barrel for almost a year). It gives it a little color and mellows the strong pine character with sweeter notes. It’s sort of like if gin and bourbon went on a date. It makes a nice Negroni or old fashioned, although the makers also like it in a martini.
Queen Charlotte’s Reserve Rum:
How can you resist the name? Muddy River Distilling in Belmont makes silver and coconut-flavored rums, too, but Queen Charlotte’s is the top of the line. Aged in new American white oak barrels, it has sweet molasses/caramel notes, very similar to Caribbean-made barreled rums like Mount Gay Eclipse.
Carriage House Apple Brandy:
North Carolina’s apple crop is seventh in the nation, and Carolina Distillery in Lenoir reaches back to very old history with this: Cider is distilled in a copper pot still, then aged for a year in charred oak. It has an aroma of warm apple pie, like bourbon crossed with brown sugar and apple. When fall comes, add it to mulled cider or sip it warm on its own.
Kathleen is the Observer’s food editor.