Capital City Cocktails
By Julie Johnson, Photography by Davies Photography
Raleigh’s bartenders have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to local ingredients, including distilled spirits from the growing ranks of North Carolina distilleries. We asked four creative hosts for their take on holiday cocktails that incorporate local spirits, and some suggestions for serving these festive drinks at home.
Holiday hospitality places a lot of demands on the host. This is true in your own home, and even more so when the host is a professional. This time of year, guests at bars and restaurants arrive with heightened expectations, looking for a festive touch that is both true to the season, but also as new and as surprising as a present on Christmas morning.
As they contemplate their winter cocktail menus, restaurant owners, bartenders and managers have to adjust to the changing seasonal preferences, while they also anticipate the larger number of guests and parties at this time of year.
Not surprisingly, customers’ tastes switch to drinks with more intense character when the temperature drops. “In the holiday season, everyone’s palate turns to flavors that are a little more rich. More whiskies and cognacs make a comeback,” says Matthew Bettinger, general manager at C. Grace Cocktail Bar in Raleigh (407 Glenwood Avenue). “We also try to incorporate warm cocktails, toddies, things like that.”
Garrett Waddell, bartender at Stanbury (38 N. Blount St), agrees. “For most folks, it’s a balance of a handful of flavors: whiskey and all the stuff that goes along with that, the dark spirits, brandies, baking spices, and winter citrus, like grapefruit and spiced orange.”
He also notes the challenge of keeping the cocktail recipes consistent with Stanbury’s philosophy. “The restaurant is farm-to-table, so the emphasis is on seasonal ingredients, which means a very culinary-driven bar,” he says. “Naturally, when the ingredients start to run short in the winter months, we’re kind of limited in what we do – so it’s an interesting test, to build a changing but still thoughtful cocktail list in the wintertime.”
At Raleigh’s Gallo Pelón Mescaleria (106 S. Wilmington St), general manager Marshall Davis also monitors seasonal produce. “We always look at what’s available at the farmers market,” he says. “I’ll go shopping when it’s time for our menu to change, see what’s out there, ask the farmers about availability. Because of the volume of cocktails we go through, I’ve got to make sure that stuff’s not going to be here this week and gone the next.”
Bartenders also keep an eye on what’s trending with their customers. “It seems that North Carolina doesn’t follow the same patterns that happen nationally,” says Wyman. “We’re in this weird area with so many local distilleries popping up, and people are getting very excited about that. A lot of bars in the area are using local spirits and coming up with some pretty crazy stuff. We’ve got something unique going on.”
Stanbury’s Waddell is more ambivalent about the new distilleries. “North Carolina spirits are kind of difficult, because there’s a handful that are good, but we’re still getting our feet under us, in terms of the quality and vision,” he says. “I’m really pleased with all the stuff coming out of Fair Game out in Pittsboro. Those guys are doing all small-batch, alembic pot-still products, very old school and true to form. They’re making some exquisite, refined stuff.”
At C. Grace, Bettinger doesn’t stray too far from cocktails that match the Prohibition-era setting, with its dark lighting, live local jazz and a speakeasy ambiance. “Our specialty is the American classics. We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” he says. “We believe in balance, fresh juices, and overall consistency across all the bartenders. We think the standard three- to four-note cocktails really pair nicely. If we can execute those consistently and do so for as many people as possible, as often as possible, that’s our strong suit.”
This holiday season, Gallo Pelón will see the return of what Davis calls “our infamous eggnog” called A Suh Wi Dweet. “The name was kind of a joke,” he says. “A lot of our cocktails have Spanish titles. With this one in particular, the name is the phonetic spelling of Jamaican slang for ‘That’s how we do it.’ It was hard for people to pronounce, but once they learned how, they seemed to really like saying it.” And although Gallo Pelón is Raleigh’s only mescal bar, the drink uses rum, as befits its Jamaican name.
Davis is a fan of using barrel-aging to add layers of flavor to cocktail ingredients. “Basically, it’s almost impossible to completely clean a barrel. I like to celebrate that fact, and schedule our barrel aging so that the previous batch kind of speaks to the new batch. For the eggnog, I’ll barrel-age Zucca, which is a rhubarb-based Italian amaro, then I’ll take that out and save it to use in cocktails. Then I’ve got this fresh barrel soaked in Zucca, and I’ll put in the rum for three weeks of aging.”
A Suh Wi Dweet has already made the transition to private settings. “A lot of our regulars started asking if I would make big batches for their holiday celebrations. I told them that legally I couldn’t sell them the finished batch, but I could make the base, and they could add the liquor themselves,” says Davis.
For holiday parties at home, Bettinger says, “When it comes to cocktails, I find it best to stick to one or two, have them prepared beforehand, and execute them really well. When you’re entertaining, the last thing you want to do is to have a lot of tools and a lot of confusion. With cocktails, you can usually put them together a few hours before or even the day before, and just add your spirit at the last second. That means you have a consistent beverage and you’re not stuck mixing drinks all night.”
Cocktails, he says, have historical ties to that holiday standard, the punch. “Cocktails originated with large format drinks – punches – that we still use today, but we tend to use them a little
Wyman, who got his bartending start mixing drinks in his grandparents’ basement for family gatherings, has one additional suggestion. “Don’t be afraid to experiment. When you’re making drinks for you’re friends and family, you have your kindest audience. Feel free to get bold.”
A Suh Wi Dweet Egg Nog (batch)
Marshall Davis, Gallo Pelón Mexcaleria
“The rum is aged in a barrel that previously held Zucca, an Italian rhubarb-flavored amaro, so it will pick up some of those dark notes. The barrel-aging is really the secret to the recipe, so people’s home batches will taste a little bit different from what we serve here, but it should still be good.”
10 large eggs, separated
1 c superfine sugar
3 c heavy cream
1 c cognac
1 c barrel-aged Fair Game Rhum Agricole (ours is aged 3 weeks in a Zucca Rabarbaro barrel)
12 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp nutmeg
½ tsp cayenne
1 tsp cinnamon
Separate egg yolks from whites in two bowls. Beat the yolks until stiff, and beat the whites with half the sugar until peaks form (This is important!). Carefully fold the two together. In another bowl, beat the cream with the vanilla and remaining sugar until stiff. Fold both mixtures together, then add the booze and spices, and stir gently. Refrigerate and serve the next day with a little grated nutmeg.
Matthew Bettinger, C. Grace Cocktail Bar
“We do a lot of savory drinks. The classic savory drink is the Bloody Mary, but this is a riff on a classic morning cocktail called the Gordon’s Breakfast, where we’ve got some Worcestershire sauce, some Tabasco, some cucumber, and we’re tying a little Chartreuse in our variation.”
1.5 oz Durham Distillery Navy Strength Gin
¾ oz lime juice
½ oz simple syrup
¼ oz green Chartreuse
1 tsp spice mix
1 pinch salt
1 cucumber slice
Combine all ingredients in a shaker with ice. Shake. Strain into rocks glass with fresh ice. Garnish with a slice of cucumber and cracked pepper.
2 oz Worcestershire sauce
½ oz Tabasco sauce
The Merry Mule
Ken Wyman, Angus Barn
“For me, growing up with a Latin family has always meant that any gathering is a big celebration, especially around Christmas when the whole extended family comes together. Up until a few years ago, Christmas was a time for Cuba Libres and rum-spiked eggnog. That tradition stuck until one night my grandma revealed to us that, as a girl in Puerto Rico, the biggest celebrations were always toasted with imported bourbon and vodka, not rum, because they wanted to mark the occasion with something more special than the everyday cocktail. When she became ill and family time became more precious we chose bourbon to celebrate our time together, and this drink was born soon after. In sharing this cocktail, I hope that it warms you the same way it has always warmed me.”
1.25 oz Troy & Sons Oak Reserve Whiskey, Asheville Distilling Co.
1 oz fresh honey
1 oz fresh squeezed lemon juice
1 oz hot water
ginger beer (such as Crabbe’s)
Mix the honey and hot water until a syrup forms. Combine syrup with lemon juice and whiskey, pour over ice in a copper mug and top with ginger beer. Garnish with a lemon twist and a sprig of mint.
Garrett Waddell, Stanbury
“My holiday drink is a modified ti-punch, which is the classic way of drinking agricole rhum; it’s basically an Old Fashioned. Generally, it is a teaspoon of rich simple syrup* and a small swath of lime, so there is oil expressed as well as a bit of juice. I’ve made my own syrup that has autumnal (however still tiki) flavors (pineapple, lime, ginger, cardamom).”
1 tsp house tiki syrup
2 oz Fair Game Rhum Agricole
1 lime swath
Build in the glass; add syrup then Fair Game Rhum Agricole. Add one large block of ice (for optimal dilution); stir to desired temp and dilution. Express lime swath over glass and serve as garnish.
*A “rich simple syrup” is generally understood to be sugar dissolved in water over heat, with a ratio of 2:1 sugar to water. Remove from heat, add pineapple, lime, ginger and cardamom, and steep; strain and chill.