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.
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
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
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
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
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
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