That’s the Spirit | Charlotte NC Travel & Tourism
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That’s the Spirit

Six Charlotte mixologists are shaking up the city’s cocktail scene

By Erin Maddrey

Although Charlotte is perhaps best known as a destination for local breweries, the Queen City is also home to mixologists who are dreaming up and serving up deliciously inventive drinks. Gone are the days of plain old vodka tonics; Charlotteans are making daredevils of their palates and ordering spirits that feature everything from egg whites to mole bitters, tobacco smoke, flower and herb-infused ice spheres, and more in their presentations. But don’t just take our word for it; get out and try these six cocktail connoisseurs’ favorite craft pours.  

 Amanda Britton

204 North Kitchen & Cocktails

Since the May 2016 opening of 204 North Kitchen & Cocktails, Amanda Britton’s creative cocktails have delighted patrons. Focused on finding harmony between aromas and flavors, Britton’s La Reina delivers an explosion of tastes, but each of its ingredients mingles seamlessly.

La Reina, meaning "the Queen" in Spanish, was created and named to pay homage to both the Queen City and to the Mexican origins of the main component, mezcal—a clear liquor from Mexico that is made from a variety of agave plants.

“Mezcal is a spirit that is gaining popularity all over but isn't as well-known here in Charlotte,” Britton says. “I wanted to utilize this unique spirit to craft an approachable cocktail using familiar flavors that would speak to the local palate.”

COCKTAIL RECIPE: La Reina

Ingredients

  • 2 ounces Sombra Mezcal
  • 1 ounce cinnamon syrup (Britton uses her own housemade syrup)
  • 2 ounces blood orange juice
  • ¾ ounce lime juice
  • 1 blood orange wheel for garnish
  • Sprinkle of ground cinnamon for garnish 

Preparation

  • Add mezcal, cinnamon syrup, blood orange juice and lime juice to shaker.
  • Shake and double strain mixture into Collins glass.
  • Slice blood orange wheel to be ¼-inch thick and sprinkle with ground cinnamon.
  • Using brulee torch, lightly char cinnamon on blood orange wheel.
  • Garnish drink with cinnamon-charred blood orange wheel. 

Stefan Huebner

Dot Dot Dot

Stefan Huebner first made waves when he introduced a full cocktail menu at Heist Brewery; it took the Charlotte taproom tempo to dynamic heights. Now he is taking his talents to the soon-to-open Dot Dot Dot speakeasy. Located in Park Road Shopping Center’s backlot, Dot Dot Dot will churn out unique cocktails and small-batch liquors in a Prohibition-style lounge. Huebner is known for his fearlessness in packing his drinks with unusual flavors pairings. The Truffle Sour, which pits a truffle-infused egg white against angostura bitters, is one of the signature cocktails to look forward to at Dot Dot Dot.

“I really wanted to have a very culinary-inspired cocktail on the list,” Huebner says. “I was inspired after seeing an infused egg omelet while on a trip to Iceland, and after much research and development, I figured it out. I hope customers enjoy this cocktail.”

COCKTAIL RECIPE: The Truffle Sour

Ingredients

  • 2 ounces Larceny Bourbon
  • ½ ounce Cointreau
  • 2 ounces fresh sweet-and-sour mix
  • 1 egg
  • Truffle oil (enough to submerge three cotton balls)
  • 1 dash angostura bitters
  • Ice
  • 1 lemon wheel for garnish

Preparation

  • Place egg in sealable container (Huebner recommends a zip-close bag) with three cotton balls dipped in truffle oil.
  • Keep egg and truffle oil cotton ball combination refrigerated for three days. Oil will penetrate through shell and leave an essence of truffle oil.
  • Separate truffle-infused egg white from yolk and dry shake (with no ice) for 20 seconds.
  • Add bourbon, Cointreau, sweet-and-sour mix and ice.
  • Shake 10 seconds and then strain into coupe glass.
  • Garnish with angostura bitters and lemon wheel. 

Colleen Hughes

Haberdish, Crêpe Cellar Kitchen & Pub, Growlers Pourhouse and Sea Level NC

To say that Colleen Hughes is busy is an understatement. She’s in charge of designing and maintaining the cocktail programs at not one but four local establishments.

Recognized as the Best Charlotte Bartender for 2016 by Thrillist.com, Hughes can be found most nights slinging drinks at her new home base, Haberdish. With a focus on mill town-inspired Southern cuisine and pre-Prohibition spirits, Hughes’ Old Tom Cat Gimlet fits perfectly with the style and theme of the restaurant. “This has been my summertime staple at home for years, so I’m thrilled to bring it to my customers at Haberdish,” Hughes says.

“Old Tom Gin is a pre-Prohibition-style gin that is much lighter and sweeter than a London dry-style such as Beefeater or Bombay [Sapphire],” says Hughes. “We are bringing this gin into Haberdish by special order, so if you want it, you’ll have to cross the border into South Carolina to find it. A simple substitution for those wanting to make it on their own is Hendricks Gin.”

COCKTAIL RECIPE: The Old Tom Cat Gimlet

Ingredients

  • 2 ounces Hayman’s Old Tom Gin
  • ¾  ounces fresh lime juice (or the equivalent of 1 whole lime, squeezed) 
  • ¾  ounce simple syrup 
  • 2-3 dashes orange bitters (Hughes prefers Regans Orange Bitters)
  • Absinthe (enough to rinse a glass)
  • Ice

Preparation

  • Shake together gin, orange bitters, simple syrup and lime juice.
  • Rinse glass with absinthe. 
  • Pour mixture into rinsed glass.
  • Top drink with ice cubes (Hughes uses a handcrafted spherical ice ball infused with flowers and a twist of orange).

Kelly Minton

Soul Gastrolounge

Operating an eatery that is known equally for its food and cocktails is no easy feat, but Soul Gastrolounge has made it look like a breeze for the past seven years. A large part of that is because of bar manager Kelly Minton, who isn’t afraid to get adventurous with the drink menu.

One of the stars of his cocktail rotation, the James Ryan, pays respect to Minton’s heritage.

“The drink was inspired by and named after my grandfather James Ryan,” Minton says. “He had a huge heart. He was never without a glass of Johnnie Walker Black [Label Scotch] in one hand and a cigarette in the other. I wanted to encapsulate that all in one drink so that, while the drink is stiff, it is evened out by bittersweet and smoky vanilla notes.”

COCKTAIL RECIPE: The James Ryan

Ingredients

  • 1 ½ ounces Johnnie Walker Black Label Scotch
  • ¾ ounce Cappelletti Aperitivo
  • ½ ounce Noval Black Ruby Port
  • 3 dashes orange bitters
  • Coventry Tobacco smoke (This is a special blend created by McCranie's Pipe and Tobacco Shop, located in Park Road Shopping Center.)
  • 1 ice cube

 Preparation

  • Rinse glass in cold water and envelop with Coventry tobacco smoke.
  • Add ice cube to tobacco smoke-filled glass.
  • Stir (don’t shake) ingredients and pour mixture into tobacco smoke-filled glass.
  • As ice cube melts, the toasted vanilla of the tobacco will diffuse into drink.

 Ron Oleksa

The Cellar at Duckworth’s

Ron Oleksa is the head mixologist at The Cellar at Duckworth's. Known for making classic spirits sexy and relevant again, Oleksa—suspenders-clad and all—has channeled The Cellar’s chic speakeasy vibe into his cocktails.

Oleksa’s Molé Fashioned adds smokiness to the traditional bourbon cocktail.

“I actually came up with this drink when I was given a bottle of Beer Barrel Bourbon from friends at New Holland Brewing [in Holland, Michigan],” Oleksa says. “In return for the bottle, I came up with this recipe, which they are currently serving at their taphouse. As with the Beer Barrel Bourbon, Jameson Caskmates is a whiskey that is further aged in barrels that had previously been used to age stout beer. The dark roasted malt flavors that are picked up from the barrel complement the savory chocolate and spice tones of the mole bitters.”

COCKTAIL RECIPE: The Molé Fashioned

Ingredients

  • 2 ounces Jameson Caskmates Irish Whiskey
  • 1 teaspoon Demerara sugar
  • 2 drops Bittermens Xocolatl Mole™ Bitters
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • Ice
  • 1 orange wheel for garnish

Preparation

  • Place Demerara sugar in mixing glass.
  • Add mole bitters.
  • Muddle sugar until fine.
  • Add Irish whiskey.
  • Fill mixing glass half full with ice.
  • Stir with bar spoon for 20 seconds.
  • Strain into room temperature Old-Fashioned glass.
  • Garnish with flamed orange wheel.
  • Break apart cinnamon stick.
  • Use blowtorch to flame cinnamon stick chips on slate board (or other non-flammable surface).
  • Cup flaming cinnamon stick chips with snifter to smother and collect cinnamon smoke.
  • Carefully pull snifter over to the top of the Old-Fashioned glass.
  • Rest snifter on top and allow smoke to settle into cocktail (30-60 seconds).
  • Remove snifter and enjoy.

Bob Peters

The Punch Room

With fresh ingredients—many of which he grows himself—Bob Peters, named The Ritz-Carlton’s Bartender of the Year for 2015, mixes up concoctions that are often layered in both flavor and appearance and are never boring. Although punches are, fittingly, the highlight at The Punch Room, the stellar selection of craft cocktails is not-to-be-missed.

Peters’ Sour in Spanish Harlem highlights his love for layering.

“This cocktail is a riff I thought of to play off of a classic cocktail called a New York Sour,” Peters says. “I replaced the whiskey in the classic recipe with mezcal in mine. It is a super-simple cocktail that involves an interesting technique to float red wine on top of the cocktail to provide a layering effect that is both stunning visually and incredibly delicious.”

“Layering is not hard, but it does take a little practice,” says Peters. “In order to get the red wine to float on top of the cocktail, you gently pour the wine over the back of a spoon so it slowly flows into the glass. The more carefully you layer, the better it looks.”  

COCKTAIL RECIPE: The Sour in Spanish Harlem

Ingredients

  • 2 ounces VIDA de San Luis Del Rio® Mezcal from Oaxaca, Mexico
  • Fresh lemon and lime, muddled
  • 1 ounce simple syrup
  • Red wine (Peters uses cabernet)
  • Ice
  • Orange wheel for garnish
  • Brandied cherry for garnish (Peters recommends the Luxardo brand, which is available at Dean & Deluca and Williams-Sonoma)

Preparation

  • Add ingredients to shaker.
  • Shake and double strain mixture into glass with fresh ice.
  • Float red wine on top by gently pouring wine on back of spoon and allowing it to slowly flow into glass.
  • Garnish with orange wheel and brandied cherry.
This article ran in the April 2017 issue of Charlotte Happenings.