Web Exclusives

The Road to MCC

Dylan Regan / photos by the author

With the Manhattan Cocktail Classic a few weeks away, bartenders, brands, writers and connoisseurs are preparing to descend upon the Big Apple, shakers in hand and ready to sip and savor. THE TASTING PANEL is as excited as you are, and to get in the swing of things, we're starting the countdown to MCC with a little road trip.

In the tradition of
Easy Rider, one man will swap his jigger for the open road, and we'll be here to capture it all. Meet Dylan Regan, a man who spends most of the year working behind the stick as the Bar Manager at Aspen's Jimmy's Restaurant, and a guy who is going on the adventure of a lifetime, hopping on his motorcycle to drive across country, with MCC as his ultimate destination.

 
Dylan Regan and his bike.

Along the way, Dylan will stop in to all kinds of bars, from the hidey-holes to the hotspots, proving this will be a cocktail roadtrip like no other. Stay tuned to this blog for updates on Dylan's journey, and visit our Facebook (www.facebook.com/TastingPanelMagazine) page for more photos.

See you at MCC!



THE COMPLETE STORY

 
Look for this link on our home page to follow Dylan on his quest.


One Day You Will


The clarity of life's expectations can come in one magic moment, and the bold and daring seize it without hesitation. There are two truths in this life: That love will find you, and that we will all join the ether in the spirit in the sky, so make haste and leave nothing to chance. There will come One Day when you will put it all to the test.

One day I will take a Journey. One day I will hit the open road, with nothing but the horizon to guide me. One day I will ride my motorcycle to the ends of the earth, with the wind in my hair and freedom in my heart. These are the thoughts that wake me up each day.

I may not reach the end of the world, but I will start a journey… a quest, and see where it leads. My journey starts here in my home of Aspen, Colorado, and it will lead me across the continent to New York City. What is this quest? The quest is for cocktails.

I am a bartender at Jimmy's American Restaurant and Bar in Aspen. Contrary to Aspen's reputation, most of us that live here earn the right to call the Rocky Mountains our home. Like the pioneers that settled this town over a hundred years ago, we work hard, play hard and drink up everything that Aspen has to offer. The " Aspen Idea" is a phrase coined by one of Aspen's founders, Walter Paepcke, alluding to a place "for man's complete life . . . where he can profit by healthy, physical recreation, with facilities at hand for his enjoyment of art, music and education." As a bartender, I add a much needed element to this well-rounded life that Aspenites seek, and in keeping with this ideal, I try to continually learn more about my craft and the spirits that drive it.

Over the last several years, my thirst for knowledge has led me to an array of cocktail conferences, from the original, Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, to the fairly new Portland Cocktail week. But none compare to my favorite: The Manhattan Cocktail Classic. The Classic holds a special allure mostly derived from its location. New York City, the birthplace of the cocktail revolution, has always been at the forefront of mixology and an inspiration for the rest of the nation.

There is a fraterinty of my brethren who share a love for great cocktails and cuisine out there, and I want to find them.

I have had the privilege of working the Classic since its inception, and have met some of the finest bartenders in the country, hailing from nearly every state in the union. All of these kindred spirits are out there, crafting cocktails and showing the masses, not just to indulge, but to enjoy . . . and this attitude of elevated spirits is spreading into neighborhood bars and small towns everywhere. There is a fraterinty of my brethren who share a love for great cocktails and cuisine out there, and I want to find them.

And so, I've decided to take the All-American Road Trip, and ride my motorcycle across country to discover America. But instead of checking out the world's largest ball of string, or a statue of Paul Bunyon, I will be on a quest for cocktails. On my journey, I hope to spend my days taking in the expanse of the country's backroads, and my nights in search of the hidden gems offering local fare and drink. I look forward to seeing some old friends and making some new ones, all the while learning a little as I go. The world is full of character, and I hope to find it; be it in a crafted cocktail, a delicious meal or a smiling face.

My One Day is here.

Day 1: Boulder and Denver

Spring has arrived in Aspen; the ski lifts have closed and the snow is melting into the mountain streams. The tourists have all gone home and all that's left are a few locals making the most of the now-quiet town. May brings the "off-season," and most of the restaurants and hotels close until Memorial day. This offers an excellent opportunity for a lot of the working class to travel and see what the rest of the world has to offer.

I am no exception, and have packed my bags on my motorcycle and set my course for New York City to attend the Manhattan Cocktail Classic, with a few stops along the way.  One of the joys of riding a motorcycle is taking in the scenery, and though I know that Colorado is home to some of the most breath-taking backdrops I will encounter on this trip, I anxiously speed along in anticipation of new and undiscovered terrain.


House-made Roaring Fork bitters at Oaks at Fourteenth.

As I ride down through the foothills of the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains, I turn north and head toward Boulder to get some lunch at Oak at Fourteenth and visit with owner Bryan Dayton. Boulder is a very energetic town, with bikers and runners everywhere I look, and Brian fits right in.  He recently won the honor of Bombay Sapphire's Most Inspired Bartender last September, and will be attending the World Championships in Morocco this May.

 
Bryan Dayton is the Owner at Oak at Fourteenth.
Oak originally opened in March of 2011, but was quickly closed down after the building caught fire. The bar had garnered so much respect in its short pre-fire life that Food and Wine magazine honored it as one of America's Fifty Best Bars, so Brian knew he had to rebuild the damaged space. They reopened last December and have been a prime destination in the Boulder area ever since.

Oak is North American style cuisine, with an emphasis on its wood fire grill, prominently displayed in the open kitchen, as well as the excellent beverage program. The cocktail menu offers a tasteful of 15 or so libations, neatly categorized as No Alcohol, Low Alcohol and High Alcohol. Here, an assortment of home-made sodas, refreshing fruit and juice cocktails and spirit-forward sippers and pair nicely with the house-made ice.

Though the menu is available to customers to choose from, Bryan and his staff are well versed and open to experimentation. I asked him if he could make me a Scotch cocktail, and he quickly came up with a velvetly wonder poured over a hand-cut ice ball.  When I asked him the name of the concoction, he spontaneously named it The Highland Kilt, just as quickly as ad-libbed the cocktail itself.

THE HIGHLAND KILT

1½ oz. The Glenfiddich 15 Year Old
1 oz. Daniel Bouju Pineau des Charentes
½ oz. Nardini Amaro
¼ oz. honey syrup
2 dashes of Oak's house bitters

Stirred and pour over ice ball, garnish with an orange peel.


When I asked Bryan to prepare one of the house specialty cocktails, he prepared The Hyde Park.

THE HYDE PARK

1½ oz. Hendrick's Gin
½ oz. Pimms
¼ oz. lemon juice
½ oz. orange juice
¼ oz. honey syrup
A healthy dash of Roaring Fork Bitters (another house-made bitters with hints of lavender, orange blossom and floral notes)

Shake, strain and garnish with a brandied cherry.


I particularly liked this light and refreshing cocktail-not to mention that the bitters are named after the Roaring Fork Valley, which is home to Aspen.

Later that evening, I made my way to a fairly new and acclaimed bar in the Denver Highlands, called Williams & Graham Booksellers. W&G is located in a hip and young neighborhood up the hill from the Denver Downtown, and presents itself as a bookstore.

 
From outside on the streets of Denver, Williams & Graham looks like a bookstore.

Beyond the front door is a small room with cocktail books lining the walls and a small counter where a hostess greets you with a wry smile.  Anyone 'in the know' would approach the counter and state that they have a reservation, which I'm told is recommended, as W&G is typically booked two weeks out.  Once approval is made, the hostess opens a secret panel in the wall, revealing the entry to the bar.

The interior room is intimate and dimly-lit, with a wall of high-topped booths that encourage privacy opposite a prominent bar that overflows with every spirit imaginable, clearly stating that this is a serious cocktail bar. Couples quietly talk in corners and sip their spirit of choice, while the bar-staff dazzles those that choose a front row seat.

I am warmly greeted by one of the owners, Todd Colehour and introduced to the Bar Manager, Courtney Lee Wilson, who is just finishing a staff tasting of Vida Mezcal.

Courtney started her career slinging drinks in a metal band venue, and continued working clubs until she met Sean Kenyon, co-owner of W&G. Courtney learned to take her mixology to the next level after being mentored by Kenyon, and she couldn't have had a better teacher.

Sean is a renowned and nationally-recognized mixologist who travels the country on the cocktail circuit and is the founder of the Mixfits, an ad-hoc group of bartenders that closely resembles the band from which their name is derived ( That's the Misfits for the uninitiated to the realm of punk  -Ed).

I ask Courtney to make me something with a local spirit, so she quickly whipped up a Southpark; as I sipped the lovely libation, she effortless juggled a blue blazer to the astonishment of the couple in front of her.

SOUTH PARK

1½ oz. Leopold Bros. Gin (made in Denver, CO)
3/4 oz. Yellow Chartreuse
½ oz. lemon juice
½ oz. agave nectar
Mint leaves
1 dash Angostura bitters

Shake all ingredients, double-strain and garnish with a mint sprig.  


Courtney Lee Wilson juggles fire.

And so ends my first day on the road, and what a day it's been. There are many towns and cocktails bars on the road to the Manhattan Cocktails Classic, but it's comforting to know that I don't have to go far to get an inspiring drink.

Until the next stop!



Day 2: Storm

Every quest has a rite of passage, a test of you resolve, if you will. As I ride my motorcycle across country on my quest for cocktails, my rite of passage, apparently, is Kansas. Kansas, as I knew it would be, is the longest stretch of highway that I will need to pass through before gaining access to the East Coast and the birth of the modern cocktail.

 
Ominous clouds in Kansas.


I woke this morning to the sound of tree branches rapping at my hotel room window. As I arose, I came to discover that two massive weather fronts were encroaching on the entire state of Kansas. The Weather Channel had up to-the-minute Doppler radar coverage of the immanent collision of the two weather systems. They were declaring a thunder storm warning with chances of sleet, hail, and a 50% chance of tornados.

With the thought of riding on my motorcycle in such conditions, I asked myself, "What does a 50% chance of tornadoes mean? Where exactly are these tornados going to be?" I bit my lip and paced the lobby for an hour until I couldn't sit still any longer. My plan had been to ride the eight hour trek across Kansas and arrive in Kansas City in time to hit up the Friday night lights that this Midwestern town has to offer. Unbeknownst to me, a greater power had different plans for my day.

When you're riding on a motorcycle, you're not riding through the weather, you're riding in the weather. Now, this can be an amazing experience while riding down a beachside highway with the sun on you face and the sweet scent of salt water on your palette, though it is an entirely different story when foul weather comes into play. Even the slightest sprinkle strings like a honey bee at 60 miles an hour.

I have ridden in some uncomfortable conditions, as any rider has, and I felt as though I was prepared for the worst, so I decided that I couldn't possibly sit in a hotel room and hope for a sunny day. The East was calling my name and I could not ignore it.

The siren song was set as I sailed into the perfect storm. At first, I felt I had made the right decision and all was well, but before I had even left Colorado, the wind began to reach a feverish pitch, with gusts up to 50 miles an hour throwing my bike across the two lane highway. I felt like a bobble-head in a hurricane, my body and bike being tossed about in every direction without any indication to guide me. After eight rounds of fighting, I jumped the rope and cut over to a 'scenic route' in the hopes that a back road would give me some cover. Ever-clever mother nature saw my move and countered with some driving rain and sleet, which slowed me even more.

At one point, buckets of torrential water fell from the sky so hard that all the cars were wise enough to throw in the towel, pull over and park. What was I to do, pull over and stand in the pelting sleet? Kansas had no trees in sight to give me shelter, so I toiled onward at a pitiful pace, always watching the horizon for some demonic conical cloud. As I was about to throw in the towel, a glimpse of sunlight on the distant horizon gave me a sense of hope.

The rain slowed to a manageable pour as I pulled into Osbourne, Kansas. My hopes were once again defeated as I began to drive, upstream, through six inches of river that was once the dusty town's Main Street. When the rain finally subsided and I gathered my wits, I pulled over to empty the water from my boots and weigh my options. I was still four hours from my destination, was soaked from head to toe and freezing. On the other hand I was in the middle of nowhere, which left me little choice but to move on.

Kansas had no trees in sight to give me shelter, so I toiled onward at a pitiful pace, always watching the horizon for some demonic conical cloud.

Thankfully the rain finally stopped, but the wind persisted to push me around and keep me freezing. As the sun started setting behind me, I lost all hope of reaching Kansas City and the fabulous cocktails that awaited me there. I tucked my tail and pulled into the nearest hotel. As soon as I stepped into the hot shower, the fire alarm came on, and there was a knock at my door: "There is a tornado warning and everyone must come down to the shelter!"

All the hotel guests stood around making awkward conversation about the weather until they called the warning off. It's late now, and all of the trials of the day are behind me. I didn't reach my destination, but I'm still alive, and now I'm comfortable and laughing at the ludicrousness of the day. Besides, what is life without a little spice? A wiser fella than I once said, "Sometimes you eat the Bar, Sometimes the Bar eats you." The dude abides until tomorrow . . .


Day 3: Kansas City

I've woken from an endless, deep sleep after my hardest day of riding ever. My bones ache and my muscles are sore, but I feel refreshed and ready for a new day. I pack up and take a leisurely one hour ride to Kansas City. The weather is still not amazing, and sprinkles of rain come and go, but it's buttermilk pancakes compared to the bitter pill of yesterday, and I happily race toward my destination.

 
At Westport Café & Bar in Kansas City, Stan Castaneda is behind the stick.

The beauty of Kansas City unfolds before me, and the city's Downtown shines like a castle on a hill as I come over the Missouri river. I am getting hungry, and I can already smell the BBQ in the air, so I make a stop at Oklahoma Joe's Barbecue for some burnt ends and pulled pork. Kansas City is well known for their BBQ and Oklahoma Joe's is at the top of the list. Anthony Bourdain declared it "one of the 13 places to eat before you die," and I couldn't agree more. Feeling satisfied, I check into my hotel, park the bike for the day and commence my evening of imbibing.

It's late afternoon and the scene in the historic neighborhood of Westport is already jumping. The sidewalks are crowded and the streetside patios are packed with happy hour revelers enjoying the afternoon sun. Right in the middle of the action is the Westport Cafe & Bar.

I pop in and am greeted by Stan Castaneda, who is behind the stick with a casual smile and an eager attitude. I join him at the brightly-lit bar and ask Stan for a house favorite. "Do you like tequila?" he asks, to which I respond, "Absolutely!", and so he goes at it. I am soon gazing at my first cocktail of the evening, the aptly named Miracle on 43rd.

 

THE MIRACLE ON 43rd

2 oz. Milagro Blanco infused with strawberry and lime peel
3/4 oz. lime juice
½ oz. agave nectar
2 dashes Angostura bitters

Shake and serve over fresh ice with a lime wheel and a blackberry.

The cocktail has the stylings of a Strawberry Margarita, but with a tangy edge and a nice bitter lime finish. As I enjoy the drink, I peruse the list of a few popular classics and eight or so house specialties.

One in particular jumps out at me immediately. The Bitter Spirit, with Angostura and Peychaud's Bitters listed as its two main ingredients, has spiked my curiosity.

Stan carefully removes the tops from both bitters bottles and proceeds to pour healthy doses of each into a mixing glass.

I don't know that I've ever had a straight, bitters cocktail before, but my expectations are defied once I sip the surprisingly smooth concoction.


Stan Castaneda measures bitters for the bitters-based cocktail, Bitter Spirits.
BITTER SPIRITS

1 oz. Angostura Bitters
½ oz. Peychaud's Bitters
1 oz. lemon juice
1 oz. simple syrup
1 egg white

Dry shake, add ice and shake vigorously, strain up with no garnish.

 

 
At The Boot, bartender Ryan Miller makes the Fernet and Grape Juice Highball, served in a Mason jar.
I'm enjoying the libation and contemplating how simple and wonderful it is when Aaron Confessori introduces himself as the bar's owner and asks if I would to try a cocktail at his adjoining restaurant and bar, The Boot.

While The Westport is French-American cuisine, The Boot is Italian-American, and they sit side by side in harmony.

Aaron is excited to show me the highball offerings at The Boot, which is essentially a list of one-spirit to one-mixer cocktails such as Mata Hari Absinthe and Root Beer or Averna Amaro and Aranciata Orange Soda. These drinks are served over crushed ice in a Mason jar, and they are all delicious, although my favorite was the Fernet Branca and Grape Juice.

I asked Aaron about his approach to the spirit side of the business, and he tells me that any restaurant that strives for good food should also offer good cocktails. "We don't have a Bar Manager, and we all come up with our drinks as a family, with everyone contributing to the list. We just want to enjoy it and not take any of it too seriously."

My next stop is a few blocks away in the Arts District near downtown, at The Rieger Hotel. The Rieger Hotel was built by Alexander Reiger in 1915, whose father Jacob Reiger owned and operated the J. Rieger & Company Whiskey Distillery, which was founded in 1877 and produced a very popular and nationally-distributed spirit at the turn of the century. When Prohibition hit, the hotel and distillery closed, and the Rieger family disappeared into infamy.

Today, the hotel is home to The Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange or simply, The Rieger, which is owned and operated by Ryan Maybee and Executive Chef Howard Hanna. Ryan started his bar Manifesto in the basement of the building in 2009 after years of planning. Named after a section in Ryan's business plan called "The Cocktail Manifesto," which summed up his entire attitude toward the craft, the name suites the space.

After a year of success at Manifesto, when the restaurant space upstairs became available, Ryan teamed up with Howard to open The Rieger. These two offerings are a perfect match of complementary and contrasting styles. While The Rieger bar offers complex cocktails aimed for mass appeal, Manifesto has a more a spirit-forward styling that appeals to the cocktail connoisseur.
 
Ryan Maybee of The Rieger.

 
The dining room at The Rieger offers a cocktail menu that offers something for every palate.

 
The Reiger bartender Jen Tosatto shows off her twin bar spoon tattoos, which she jokes allow her to "shake and stire two cocktails at the same time."

I sit with Ryan at the Rieger bar and I'm greeted byJen Tosatto, an energetic and dramatic bartender with shock-top Red hair and an assortment of tattoos. I asked her about the bar spoons she has inked on both forearms and she explains that she is "the only bartender that can shake and stir two cocktails at the same time." I ask Jen for one of her own recipes, and she promptly shakes up a Clothing Optional, which she named after the country song "Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off" by Joe Nichols.


 THE CLOTHING OPTIONAL

1½ oz. Milagro
3/4 oz. Solerno
1 oz. lime juice
½ oz. raspberry syrup
Homemade ginger soda

Shake all but soda, pour over fresh ice and top with ginger soda. Garnish with a lime wheel.

Ryan joins me at the bar and asks if I would like to see the Manifesto, downstairs. I follow him through the restaurant, past the kitchen and dish station, to the back entrance of the hotel and take a left down a small staircase with a low ceiling and through a glass curtain and into Manifesto.

The bar is a dim, candle-lit basement of the traditional speakeasy fashion. It's easy to see what this space was like nearly a hundred years ago, and that vibe is alive today.


There is a small bar and a few small tables packed closely together. The room is dark and quiet and the guests speak in hushed tones.

I join the bar on the corner as the bartender, Dylan Sky, begins to prepare me a Ward & Precinct, which is a take on the Ward 8, a classic cocktail which was originally conceived in honor of Martin Losmasney's election to the county seat in Boston in 1898.Dylan meticulously lines a mixing glass with orange slices and sugar, then caramelizes the entire concoction with a flame of Angostura mist.

The presentation adds a sense of seductive drama to the lovers huddled in the dimly lit room. He adds the remaining ingredients, shakes it with conviction, and pours it up for me to enjoy.

Manifesto Bartender Dylan Sly lights the Ward and Precinct on fire.

WARD & PRECINCT

2 oz. Buffalo Trace
½ oz. lemon juice
½ oz. house grenadine
2 orange wheels
Bar spoon of sugar

Coat a mixing glass with the juice from two orange wheels and place the wheels alongside the lining of the glass. Sprinkle the walls of the glass with a teaspoon of granulated sugar, caramelize the mixer with a spray of atomized angostura bitters. Add the remaining ingredients and ice. Shake well and double-strain into a coup with no garnish.

I sit and enjoy my cocktail while Ryan tells me about the deep history of his space and the Rieger family that built it. He is very passionate and proud of the heritage of the building, and honors the duty of taking on its legacy.


As I'm leaving, Ryan shows me the hand-painted sign that he commissioned to duplicate the original Rieger Whiskey bottle that adorned the side of the building over a hundred years ago. I can tell that painstaking research and attention to detail went into the recreation of this mural. As with every aspect of the establishment, it is a work of art.
 
The Rieger Distillery lives on at today's Rieger Hotel and its top-notch bars.
I'm getting tired and ready to call it night, but decide to make one last stop for a nightcap on the way back to the hotel. Grünauer is an Austrian restaurant owned by Peter and Nicholas Grünauer, and the restaurant's ample-sized bar and is a service industry favorite, which speaks volumes of the Bar Manager Scott Beskow.


Grünauer Bar Manager Scott Beskow and The Flussinger Strudel.

I decide to order the Flussiger Strudel, which I've heard mentioned more than once tonight. The cocktail is a delicious dessert of Gosling's Rum, lemon juice, egg, and "strudel juice."

FLUSSINGER STRUDEL


1½ oz. Gosling's Rum
1 oz. lemon juice
1 oz. strudel juice (the remains from the Chef's strudel preparation: a mix of rum-soaked raisins, cinnamon and sugar)
1 egg white
3 dashes of Old Fashioned Bitters

Shake all ingredients, strain up and top with and sprinkling of swirled cinnamon.

 

The night is still young, and the late night crowd is just starting to fill up the Grunauer as I sit and enjoy the perfect ending to a perfect night. I didn't make it to all the preferred destinations: Bluestem and Extra Virgin come highly recommended but will have to wait until my next venture through town. Regardless, Kansas City has exceeded my expectations in every way. I would like to stay while longer and get a deeper sense of this magnificent town, but it is not meant to be.

I take my last sip of the evening and of KC, deliciously bittersweet.

Day 4: St. Louis

I arrive in St. Louis in the afternoon with the sight of the Arch in the distance, and though I have never seen it in person, there's a familiarly about it that puts me a ease. It has been raining all day, and though I would love to see a little of the city, I am ready to get off the bike, dry off and freshen up for the night ahead. I pull into a hotel near Forest Park, which is St. Louis' answer to Central Park (MCC here I come!), and even more grand in scope and scale. After a quick shower and a few phone calls, I'm off to the races. I have several bars on my list and want to get started.

 

At the top of my list for bar hopping in St. Louis is Taste, which is positioned in a quaint restaurant row across from Forest Park. As I walk in, I am greeted by Shannon Ponche, and her subtle smile and casual nature makes me feel immediately welcome as I sit at the bar. "Ted will be here soon, he asked me to bring you something to eat," she says as she sets a bowl of mussels in front of me.

Ted Kilgore and I have been friends for several years; I met him and his wife at a bartender competition for Grand Marnier in Vail, Co. As I enjoy a snack and watch Shannon prepare one after another of Taste's signature cocktails, the bar begins to pick up.

The clouds have broken, and the outside patio is getting full in the waning light of the afternoon, so she makes rounds to the tables, comes back to prepare cocktails and then returns. Shannon is a very congenial and proficient bartender who takes full command of the space while Ted is away, and is obviously comfortable with the unexpected early crowd, and though she is running around, she never breaks a sweat. I ask Shannon to make me the bar's most popular cocktail, without hesitation she prepares me the In a Pickle.

Shannon Ponche. 

IN A PICKLE

1½ oz. Hendrick's Gin
½ oz. St-Germain
½ oz. Velvet Falernum
¾ oz. lime juice
Fresh cucumber slices and dill

Muddle cucumber slices and dill, add all other ingredients and shake well. Strain over a large ice cube and garnish with cucumber slices and a sprig of dill.


As the bar gets crowded, Shannon multitasks.
Ted arrives soon after I begin sipping this light and refreshing cocktail, and takes an inventory of the room before meeting with rest of the staff as they arrive for the night. Ted is a soft spoken and meticulous Bar Manager, and his young and energetic staff is a testament to Ted's training program.

As the bar begins to fill, I can see that they are in for a very busy night as Ted pulls Shannon aside for some orchestration; she knowingly nods and gets back to working the crowd. Happy with how everything is going, Ted steps to the end of the bar and prepares me another house favorite, The Salt of the Earth.
THE SALT OF THE EARTH

2 oz. beet-infused Milagro Blanco
½ oz. salt- and lime-infused agave nectar
¾ oz. lime juice
½ oz. Cointreau

Shake all ingredients, strain and serve up with a half-salted rim of beet salt (dehydrated, crushed beets and kosher salt).

The bar is now in full swing and packed with a mix of hipsters and young professionals, all excited to taste new craft cocktails. Some are seasoned veterans, but most are obviously new to the mixology experience as they gaze at the menu and ask the staff questions about gin and tequila. The intrigue is obvious as they watch in awe at the magic unfolding behind the bar.

Everyone is sharing one others' drinks, taking pictures and attempting to describe what they are tasting. The naiveté and exuberance of the fledgling imbibers is an inspiring sight, and I can't help but think that many of them will have their drinking habits changed for life, after time at Taste. I ponder that this new generation will go out into the world and no longer be happy with a simple 007 or a Vodka Redbull, and I envision them trying to explain the makings of a Manhattan to some unsuspecting server in their near future.


The crowd is filled with young customers who are excited to experience craft cocktails for the first time.


I had planned to hit a few more stops tonight, but I'm having too much fun and can't be compelled to leave. The crowd is lively and friendly, the lighting is just right, the music and cocktails are inspiring: This is everything that a bar is meant to be.

The night passes by easily, and I spend my time making new friends and watching Taste's staff rock it behind the small bar. The staff moves effortless around one another in the small space, a clear indication that they are a close-knit family. Later, as the shift slows down, I sit and make plans to go out with Ted tomorrow night.

This is everything a bar is meant to be.

Shannon is busy tidying up everything, while we sip spirits and talk about our upcoming trip to Manhattan. "Yeah, Shannon's moving to New York this summer," Ted says with a tinge of disappointment in his voice. "She's young and wants to make a go of it." Knowing what it's like to lose a talented bartender, I console Ted: "Well she was taught by one of the best, I'm sure she'll show them a thing or two."

 
Ted and Jamie Kilgore.
 

So it comes full circle. Ted has been inspired by all of our trips to NY, and has in turn inspired Shannon, who has inspired countless others, tonight alone. Inspiration can happen anywhere, and so long as we don't get too caught up in our plans for the next thing, we can embrace it. The past is over and tomorrow never comes, but today is a gift—that's why it's called "the present."


Day 5: St. Louis

 
De Mun Oyster Bar in St. Louis is a true hotspot.


I wake up in St. Louis, and it's raining and I need a little break from the bike, so I decide to spend my day catching up on some work.

Later in the afternoon, I meet up with Ted Kilgore and his wife Jaime and a few other friends for some cocktails. I'm very excited about our first stop at the De Mun Oyster Bar, as I've heard the cocktails are amazing, but also because I have an obscene love for oysters.

We are greeted byNate Selsor, who bounces around with endless energy and wears a huge, teeth-bearing smile. I ask Nate for a "dealer's choice," so he starts mixing spirits in a glass and stirring them up.

He pours up the cocktail with a twist of lemon and hands if over. It's a boozy sipper that's seems perfect for my mood. I ask him the name of the cocktail and he replies, 'Oh, I don't know, I'm never very good at naming drinks…" and after a few minutes of discussing possible names for the drink, Jaime coins it the Dementia Cocktail.
It works for me-both the newly-formed cocktail and the spontaneous name. I order up a dozen raw oysters, a dozen fried, and a dozen grilled as my friends look at me in bewilderment. "What?!", I ask innocently as I take another sip of my cocktail, and we all have a good laugh.

  DEMENTIA COCKTAIL

2 oz. Black Maple Hills 8 Year Old Bourbon
½ oz. Antica
½ oz. Green Chartreuse
½ oz. lemon juice
3 dashes Bitter Truth Jerry Thomas Bitters

Stir and serve up with a lemon peel.

 
Nate Selnor.

 
My friend Elizabeth and I share a drink at De Mun.

Ted orders up a Whatever You Feel Like Making, and Nate gets to it. At this point, I realize that none of us have even looked at a menu. I'm sure they have one, but we all somehow have drinks in front of us without ever glancing at something in print. Nate is once again stumped when Ted asks what to call this cocktail.

"I ask them what they like to eat. Most people don't know what they like to drink, but they definitely know what their favorite foods are."



I ask, "How do you come up with names for your cocktails, Nate?" Nate replies, "Well, I usually just name them after whoever I make them for, like 'Jill's Drink', or 'Jake's Drink.'" I find out that he keeps a bar log of his guest's favorites and how he prepared them.

 The oysters arrive and we all dig in. As I suspected, we have no problem putting them back, so I order two dozen more. I ask Nate where he decides to start when making his impromptu cocktails.

"I just start a conversation [with a guest] and feel them out," he explains. "I ask them what they like to eat. Most people don't know what they like to drink, but they definitely know what their favorite foods are." Nate has a very cavalier attitude toward mixing, but it is firmly backed with solid knowledge that has afforded him a fearless style of experimentation.
 
Regulars at De Mun have their favorite cocktails made by Nate Selsor, who keeps track of who likes what in a book he keeps at the bar.

He completed the Pernod Ricard BarSmarts program two years ago and was a Tales of the Cocktail apprentice last summer. I ask him what inspires him, and he begins to rattle off several books and their respective authors, from The Joy of Mixology, Imbibe and PDT. He recalls a time when Dave Wondrich was in town promoting his new book, Punch. Nate had a plane to catch, but snuck into the event early so he could shake hands with Wondrich before running off for his flight.

Bittermans Xocolati Mole Bitters are featured in the spur-of-the-moment "Bernadette's Drink." 
"I met Gary Regan once-I wasn't star-struck, but…", his eyes wander off as he relives the moment. "Oh, and, Doug Frost—he's some kind of genius!"

I'm sure Doug has mad-respect for Nate as well, since he was the one who recommended I stop by De Mun for cocktails in the first place. "Let me get one more cocktail," I say as the second order of oysters arrive. "You like the Black Maple Hills?" Nate asks, referring to the Bourbon in my first drink.

"Absolutely!" I answer, so another stirred concoction comes my way. It's velvety smooth with a chocolate finish. "My Wife would love this-she's a chocoholic," I say. "What's her name?" Nate asks. I respond: "Bernadette," and Nate chimes in, "Alright, then we'll call it Bernadette's Drink!" We all have a laugh as Nate goes to write the name and recipe in his little black book.

BERNADETTE'S DRINK

2 oz. Black Maple Hills 8 year old Bourbon
1 oz. Cocchi Barolo Chinato
1/2 oz Chochi Americano
8 drops of Bittermans Xocolati Mole Bitters


After a great dinner, the whole gang heads over to Sanctuaria, a well-known cocktail haven with a devoted following. Sanctuaria is having their quarterly member's party tonight, which is a private event, though the Bar Manager Matt Seiter makes an exception and allows us to join the party. Sanctuaria is a huge tapas bar, with high ceilings, two large rooms and an amazing courtyard. The space and the Gothic decorations make it look like a venue in the Voodoo district of New Orleans.


Sanctuaria's membership log and VIP card.

 
Sanctuaria Bar Manager Matt Seiter.
We all grab seats at the bar and Matt hands me the largest cocktail list I've ever seen, 150 drinks in total. There is also a "best-of" menu that narrows it down to the quintessential top 20. The menu was nominated for "The World's Best Cocktail Menu" by Tales of the Cocktail last year, and I can't imagine a more comprehensive undertaking.

 
We crashed the party, and it was awesome.
The party that we've crashed is a celebration for all of the bar's members, the hard-core devotees who have taken on the challenge of imbibing every cocktail on the list.

With a $20 membership fee, a fellow cocktail quester receives a binder to hold tasting notes, and a tally card for keeping track of what they've tried on the menu so far.

Membership also garners discounts on cocktails, quarterly parties and profound respect and adoration from their fellow constituents. A metal membership card is awarded to those who have enjoyed all the cocktails that Sanctuaria has to offer.
I've been perusing the menu for a while and look up to see that all my friends are already enjoying cocktails or drinking from the punch bowl centered on the bar.

Feeling a bit overwhelmed by my choices and wanting something simple, I ask Matt if he can just make a gin Martini. Not to be undone, Matt pulls out a "Vac Pot," fills the top of the contraption with a potpourri of fresh herbs, fills the bottom with vodka and sets it over a burner.

The contraption quickly begins to vaporize the vodka into the mixer and boil it around. After the removing the flame, the newly infused "gin" pours back in the bottom chamber. Matt pulls it out, sets it in an ice bath for a minute or two and then stirs up my cocktail. In under five minutes, I am sipping on a on-the-fly infused gin Martini, and it's awesome.
 
Member's binders at kept at the bar so patrons can keep track of cocktails they've tried and write tasting notes.

The Vac Pot at Sanctuaria infuses vodka at the bar to create "gin."
 
   The Sanctuaria bar staff has a little fun.

As all the members are excitingly talking about their cocktails and comparing tally sheets, one VIP member proudly shows me her metal Sanctuaria card and exclaims, "I pulled out my card in a New Orleans bar and got a free cocktail!", demonstrating the scope of this bar's influence. Membership, clearly, has its privileges.

Day 6: A Little Bit About Biking


The open road.

You may be asking yourself why I decided to ride my motorcycle across country rather than jump in a car, plug in the iPod and go, and I as I wake up to the sound of rain hitting my hotel window, I'm beginning to ask that question myself. I dress in my finest rain gear and hit the road. As I'm headed down the highway with the St. Louis Arch disappearing in my rearview mirror, I'm still trying to decide which town will come next.

I've been torn between heading east to Louisville, Kentucky, which I hear is coming up strong in the cocktail world, or headed South to Nashville, Tennessee, to see what the music town has to offer. As I come to the fork in the road and must make the call, I look to the east and see looming clouds and feel a nervous tic as I recall my ride across Kansas. The Southern route is still cloudy but offers a ray of hope on the horizon. One of the golden rules of biking is to follow the good weather, so my decision was made easy: Nashville, here I come.  

As soon as I turn off the highway, I am happy with my decision. The rain has slowed to a sprinkle and the sun is peeking through the clouds, dropping golden rays of light across the rolling hills off in the distance.

 
Taking the road less travelled means you get to see some small town bars I'd never see otherwise.
There are many things that make travel by motorcycle so enjoyable, and now that I am seeing the first sunshine of this trip, I remember them. Riding a motorcycle requires complete concentration, and a good rider is constantly looking around for possible dangers, be it a small rock in the road, a darting deer, or someone at a crosswalk talking on their cell phone. This constant looking around forces you to take close notice, and I notice details of passing farms I would've never considered while riding in a car.

There is a three dimensional involvement and sense that you are part of the rolling, ever-changing lightshow that you do not get by staring through the flat-screen of a car windshield.

There is a full immersion into temperature variations, from the warm sunlight shining on you, to the cool shade of passing trees that can deepen this sense of reality as well.

The best by far and the most impacting though, are the smells. You can smell the tilled soil and the green grass of rolling meadows; passing flowers are not just a pretty picture, but are an all-encompassing experience. Smell triggers and lingers in our memory more than any other sense, (this is also why smelling is the prominent sense that we use when tasting!).

Back roads in the South offer a whole new sensory experience.
I ride down the back roads and take in the countryside, drinking up the flavors of the road before me. I can smell the Mississippi River off to the east, and the sun is now shining and warm. The crickets are chirping in appreciation and a box turtle has found solace on the warm asphalt. As I wish him luck, I come to a small country road shaded by oak trees leading toward that great winding river. This road less traveled is inviting and beckons me follow it. I remind myself that it's the journey, not the destination, and decide to get lost for a while as I head into the wilderness.

Nashville can wait . . . for now.


Day 6: Nashville

After a pleasing and leisurely ride from St. Louis, I pull into Nashville, Tennesee and take a ride down the strip. The road is lined with venues blazed in neon and small wood-floored honky-tonks. Music is playing everywhere, from restaurant patios to would-be-musicians on street corners. I pass tall buildings sporting the logos of record labels, the Grand Ole' Opry, and parks decorated with statues of guitars as I head toward my brother's house.


The Nashvlle Strip.
 

My brother has a band, and like many other aspiring artists, he moved here in the hopes of being discovered. They all live together in a house in the east end of town, and I've decided to stay the night at their place.

As I walk into the living room, I see an assortment of guitars and amps and full drum kit. I wonder if I'm going to get any sleep tonight as I throw my belongings in a back room. My brother and his band, Jag have been working on a demo and have lined up a couple gigs in town, so they've been practicing nearly every night to keep their sound tight.

The light outside is waning, so I grab my brother and drag him out to see some cocktail bars while the night is still young. Our first stop is The Patterson House.

The Patterson is a speakeasy with no sign on the door, opening to a waiting room with a velvet curtain. It's early yet, but I can envision the waiting room full of guests hoping for the opportunity to gain entry into the small bar. As we walk through the curtain, we enter a square room that is centered around a large island bar; all four walls are lined with nooks and small cocktail tables. 


Brother Joe.
 
The Patterson House.

We find a seat at the bar, and as I'm handed a cocktail menu, I gaze up at the antique chandeliers incased in Plexiglas tubing that seem to signify the speakeasy's contemporary twist on classic cocktails.

We are greeted by our bartender, Jimi, who begins describing the intricacies of the cocktail menu. As I make a note of Jimi's name, he's quick to point out that it's spelled like "Jimi Hendrix," and my brother and I exchange a knowing glance.

I order the Juliet and Romeo, and my unsuspecting brother goes with a Crow's Nest. Jimi starts making the drinks, taking special care with every measurement and delicate preparation. There are three bartenders running the island, all of whom, it turns out, are named James. The Bar Manager retains his original name, while the other two go by "Jimi" and "Beck."

I take a sip of my cocktail and see my brother's surprise as he tries his. While we're talking about our drinks, Beck comes over to introduce himself, glances at my brother with his long scraggly hair and asks him if he's going to see The Darkness (a band) this weekend. While the two of them start talking about the concert that neither of them is going to see, I ask Jimi about his background and where he was working before here.
 
Jimi, as in Hendrix, is a bartender at The Patterson House.

"Well… I worked in a corporate bar," he says, clearly not wanting to divulge his inauspicious beginnings. I let it go and order a couple appetizers and a couple more cocktails from Beck. Beck sets to meticulously making us a Terra Firma and another cocktail with bacon-infused Four Roses bourbon. Both bartenders have energetic and outgoing personalities, but are very business-oriented and by the book when it comes to making cocktails. I am bewildered by the switch in energy, and though both bartenders make excellent cocktails, I sense that their true passion lies elsewhere.

Beck sets down our drinks just as our food arrives. My brother enjoys the Terra Firma, though my bacon and maple concoction is a tad sweet for my tastes. He happily trades with me and takes a big sip as we dive into some snacks. "Man, I like going out drinking with you!" The feeling is mutual. As we we're leaving, I comment on the vibe of the two bartenders. "Oh, yeah… they're musicians," explains my brother, knowingly. It all makes sense to me now. Their precise fingering while making cocktails seems closely related to playing licks on an electric guitar, and I imagine them aspiring to musical greatness while honing their craft at their "day gig." One way or another, they're going places.

JULIET AND ROMEO

2 oz. Plymouth Gin
3/4 oz. lime juice
3 slices of cucumber
3/4 oz. simple syrup
3 dashes rose water
3 drops of Angostura Bitters
Pinch of salt

Muddle cucumber slices and lime juice; add gin, simple syrup, salt, rose water and shake. Double-strain up and garnish with a sprig of mint and three drops of Angostura bitters on the top of the cocktail.

CROW'S NEST

2 oz. Sailor Jerry Rum
3/4 oz. lime juice
1/2 oz. simple syrup
1/4 oz. Demerara
Half of an orange wheel
7 dashes of house blood orange bitters

Muddle 1/2 of an orange wheel with 7 drops of House Orange Bitters; add the remaining ingredients and shake. Serve up with a lemon pigtail.

TERRA FIRMA


2 oz. pinapple-infused Inca Gold Pisco
3/4 oz. lemon juice
1 oz. simple syrup
10 drops of Fee Brothers Whiskey Barrel Bitters

Shake all, top with drops of bitters and swirl into a decorative design.


My brother's band and few of their groupies are going to meet us soon, so I decide to head back toward East Nashville and check out No. 308, a fairly new bar in the music district. While The Patterson House is classic jazz, No. 308 is pure Rock 'n Roll.

 
Music drives the scene at No. 308 in Nashville, a clear music town.
We walk in to hear the DJ in the back of the room playing "Wanna be your Dog" by the Stooges. The place is dark and loud, with concrete floors and a long bar with two fast-paced, slinging bartenders pouring mixtures into funneled plastic bottles and then charging them with a CO2 hose.

They quickly slam out drinks into unadorned glasses with a wedge of fruit. The gang and I gather at the bar to start ordering up an assortment of homemade soda-based cocktails.

I sit down while the bartender, Brit Soler, quickly cranks out the order. She has a crew-cut, and tatted arms shown off by her black tack-top. The bartop has a lacquer finish, with pages of Charles Bukowski poems plastered underneath. The cocktail menu offers an assortment of original sippers, homemade bubblers, and some classic cocktails thrown in to show the bartenders' depth.

There are no brand names listed, the descriptions just stating "rum," "vodka," or "tequila" as the base spirits, with freshly-charged juices giving them great character.  Brit finishes up the bands' order and asks what I want. I decide on the El Diablo.

"You know why we call it the El Diablo?" asks the other bartender, Brice Hoffman. "Cause it's a devil of a good time!" "Telegram Sam" by T-Rex is playing in the background while Brit unceremoniously slams out my cocktail and pushes it in front of me.

At No. 308, fresh juices get a quick soda charge before going into cocktails.
"Wow, this is really good! Do you mind if I get the recipe for my notes?" I ask. "I'd rather not," replies Brit, biting her lip as if to say, "You want to have a great drink, then you have to come here and buy it!" This makes sense to me. 

Brit Soler.

The band and their entourage are digging the place, and though they've never been here before, I have a feeling they'll be coming back. They all grab a table, while the girls dance around to "Watch that Man" by David Bowie.  I decide to order up another drink before joining them, so Brit throws together a Smokey Robinson. She's quick, and passes it over with a quirky smile before jumping right into another order.


The Smokey Robinson. If you want the recipe,
you'll have to visit Nashville yourself.

The El Diablo, a cocktail that's a "devil of a good time."

I have a laugh to myself as I take a sip of yet another awesome cocktail, and reflect on a comment a bartender Kansas City made about trying to not "take themselves too seriously." Taking this all seriously would never occur to the crew here at 308. They are here for good time, good music and to make some good drinks; the rest of it is bullshit and you can have it. They don't make these drinks to please me, or even to please themselves. They make killer drinks and make them fast because life is short and there is no time to waste on mediocrity.

The DJ drops "Blitzkrieg Bop" by the Ramones, and the entire bar starts bouncing around. It's gonna be a great night.

Day 7: Blue Ridge Mountains


After an awesome night in Nashville and sitting up late with my brother's band jamming in the living room, I'm reluctant to get out of bed, but the Great Smoky Mountains are just east of here, and the beautiful mountain town of Asheville, NC lies on the other side. I quickly gather my things and step over sleeping groupies on the living room floor and make haste for my motorcycle. Today is the day I've been looking forward to, as I've never seen the Smokys and can't wait to take a twisty ride through the hills. 

As I leave Nashville, the rolling road ahead grows in pitch, and the horizon holds a hazy outline of the hills to come. I ride past farms with grazing livestock and horses happily galloping around. As I approach the foothills, I turn my bike onto Highway 129 and head into a stretch of road known as "The Dragon." 



The Dragon is a famous 11 mile run with 318 turns, all named something treacherous like Killboy Curve or Copperhead Corner to induce fear and to propagate the myth of the general badassness of anyone who dares to ride it. There are bikers everywhere, from leather-clad Harley-Heads to Rice-Burner-Speed-Freaks and Retro Greasers riding their souped-up Cafe Racers. I begin to question my resolve and lack of a themed outfit as I head into the first pitch, but I soon find myself clenching my grips, dropping my head and grinning ear to ear as I lean into turn after turn. 



My bike is loaded down with gear and heavy, but I find myself dropping lower to the pavement with every arcing curve; as my foot pegs drag, they throw sparks in the air behind me. This is where is at! I speed along as the flickering light of the sun licks the pavement through the passing trees. I'm starting to believe the myth and buy into my own badassness just as the curves start to widen and road straightens and comes to a small motorcycle village in the hills. 



I stop for a beverage and to check out all the melting gobs of chrome/motorcycles that flood the parking lot. There is a large tree in the center of the square decorated with hundreds of busted motorcycle parts with a sign that reads: "Tree of Shame" and the quote, "No Gain, and a lot of Pain!" These are unfortunately remnants of bikes that pushed a little too hard and fast, and ultimately lost the battle with the Dragon.



The myth is now firmly intact and my ego is satisfied. I spend the rest of the day darting around the Blue Ridge Parkway, which proves to be more scenic and subtle after riding The Dragon, but ultimately more enjoyable. I pass calming mountain lakes and bubbling brooks, and take in the sweet smell of honeysuckle that permeates the air. Fully content with how my day has gone, I start to make my way north toward the small mountain town of Asheville to stop for the night. 



As I reach Asheville, the sun has set, and I'm worn from a full day on the bike. I had hoped to visit a few places around town, but only find to stamina to make it to one destination. I walk down the street of the quaint little town to find a bar called Sazerac.

I enter Sazerac to find a long slender room with a bar all the way down one side. I sit and join Jamie Short, who is dancing around behind the bar and happy to share that they squeeze all of their juice, fresh. I check the menu and immediately take note of a cocktail called "The Snap Dragon," which seems appropriate after my morning's ride. I order one up as well as some mussels for an appetizer.

The Cocktail list is short and sweet, and all of the drinks are moderately priced and with no-name spirits (similar to my experience in Nashville at No. 308 from the night before).   Jamie is smiley and clearly having fun behind the bar as she makes my cocktail. I am currently the only patron sitting at this massive bar and I ask where everyone is. "Oh, the crowd is upstairs on the balcony-we don't get busy down here until later, she explains while grinning and shaking my Snap Dragon. The cocktail is simple and refreshing and goes down easy with the amazing mussels. 

Jamie Short is a bartender at Sazerac in Asheville, NC.

The rooftop at Sazerac is an Asheville hotspot.
I decide to have a cocktail at the rooftop bar, so I walk up the stairs and am greeted by Andrea, who is busy making several lime green concoctions. Obviously the house favorite, I decide to try a Thalia, which proves as refreshing as The Snap Dragon. The upstairs patio is packed with guests enjoying the view of town and the backdrop of the Smoky Mountains. There are no seats available outside, and Andrea is busy keeping the cocktails coming, so I decide to go back downstairs and keep Jamie company and have some dinner. 
I order a Yellow Tail Snapper, sip on my Thalia, and watch Jamie singing to herself as she squeezes lime juice for the night to come. The dinner is amazing, and I'm happy to tell Chef Alexandria so when she comes out of the kitchen to say hello.

Alexandria, like all the other girls working here, is exceedingly happy and eager to please, and it's apparent that the mountain air draws a light-hearted, charming crowd to Asheville. I end the night with a Sazerac and some chocolate covered bacon for dessert.

I leave feeling full and happy. As I walk back to the hotel, I begin to feel perplexed by my visit to this neighborhood bar. Nothing about the establishment paid homage to New Orleans, as one might expect with a name like Sazerac.  

The Thalia is a favorite cocktail at Sazerac in Asheville. 
 
At Sazerac, Chef Alexandria proves her passion for pork.
There was no Creole on the menu, the cocktails were not leaning toward any classics that evoke the Crescent City, and there was no sign of purple, gold and green anywhere. In fact, the namesake cocktail was not even on the menu!

And then it dawned on me: Sazerac is a perfect example of how modern mixology has started to permeate neighborhood establishments everywhere. As the next generation of bars come to light, it has become the must-do trend to fresh-squeeze your juice and have a cocktail menu, and a name like 'Sazerac' could be likened to a bar named Martini's in the 90's. This is the influence that is spreading and changing our industry across the country.

I've pontificated too long, and what's in a name anyhow? I had an amazing meal, and some excellent cocktails and one of the brightest staffs I've seen on my journey, and if ever I am lucky enough to return to this sweet-smelling mountain town, I will happily visit Sazerac again-only I'll get there early for a seat on the roof.


Day 8: Chapel Hill, NC

After a fairly unexciting night in Asheville, I am ready for another day on the road. My next destination is the cool college town of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. After a few hours of riding with the mountain range in my rearview mirror, the rolling hills surrounding me begin to taper down into grassy farmland and large groves of tall pine trees start to emerge. The wind blows in the distinctive smell of juniper as I pull into Chapel Hill.


Bar scene in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

I ride down Franklin Street, watching the college students combing the sidewalks in their khaki pants and capris, all complemented by brightly colored polo shirts and boat shoes. This preppy aesthetic is unmistakably southern and reminds me of growing up in Mississippi when I used to chide Carolinians as not being "truly" from the South. However as the familiar aroma of soul food fills the air, I know I was wrong.

I check into my hotel and hit the sidewalk in search of some good seafood. Drawn by the smell of soft-shell crab, I find myself stepping into Crook's Corner Cafe and Bar. Sure enough, plate after plate of fried crabs pass me as I walk toward the bar. I cannot contain my excitement as I order. All of the dishes come southern style, with sides like cheese grits or collard greens, which are well flavored with butter or 'fat back'. My dinner is amazing and I can understand why the James Beard Foundation named this place a classic. Crook's is an unpretentious place that refers to their dishes in matter-of-fact terminology, like "garlic mayonnaise" and "GOOD banana pudding." This suits the casual environment and relaxed, though attentive service. I finish my meal with some house-made pecan ice cream and meander down the street to my drinking destination, The Crunkleton.

A few years back, a forward thinking man decided that his hometown needed to be brought up to speed. After some serious studying at BAR (Beverage Alcohol Resource) to see how the big city folks do it, Gary Crunkleton opened the first "proper" cocktail bar in Chapel Hill, and most likely the state of North Carolina. This private club is perfectly situated directly across from the very stately Franklin Hotel and is surrounded by James Beard award-winning restaurants.

 
"An Encyclopedia of Spiris": The Crunkleton in Chapel Hill, NC.
 

As I enter the Crunkleton, a fine young man greets me and asks if I am a member. I am not, and as I peer down the long oak bar and size up the chattering crowd I quickly decide to join the club. After signing my name to the roster and paying five dollars for a lifetime membership, I am feeling quite special as I saunter in and find a seat. I gaze up at what feels like acres of back bar and I begin to realize why the bartender at Crooks referred to this place as "an encyclopedia of spirits." Behind the four 'tenders and their slinging stations, is a massive wall of spirits that spans the entire bar and nearly reaches the top of the 16 foot ceiling.

At one end I catch sight of a cute little red-head pulling a library latter down a track and climbing up it to pour some something into her shaker, then sliding back down and jumping to her well to finish up the cocktail she's making. One after another, the bartenders repeat this process to access the literal top shelf spirits they are using. I am mesmerized by the fire drill performance and devilishly decide on a last-rung bottle just so I can see the staff scurry for my spirit. I introduce myself to Nat, the head barman and ask for a Glenfiddich 18 year. Up he goes and down he comes, quickly measuring me a gentleman's pour of some fine scotch.

Taking a sip and feeling satisfied with my new membership, I decide to check out the rest of the club. Short cocktail tables with large comfortable chairs are scattered in front of the open-air bay doors. A long raised bench sits opposite the bar with an elevated view of the room. Beyond the bar is a full size billiard table with a few people playing doubles, and past that, in the very back, is a private party room with couches and a couple dartboards.  

 
Lilly makes the most of the ladder.
Several small groups have found a comfortable corner to call their own and while the rest happily intermingle around the bar. The bar is large and packed with people, yet the four bartenders manage to laugh and chat with guests as they quickly dart around the bar. There are no waitresses, however the bar staff seems more than comfortable taking turns stepping from behind the bar to attend to the rest of the room. I decide to rejoin the action at the bar, so I pull up to a seat and take a gander at the cocktail menu. The short list is evenly dispersed with classics and house inspired cocktails, all with a short paragraphs giving them some context.

I find The Roycroft cocktail compelling and place my order with Lilly, the little redhead whose small stature seems to keep her working on the ladder more than the rest. The cocktail is a tribute to the Roycroft Arts and Crafts movement of the early 1900s started by a group of artisans of like-minded excellence that originated from the ideas of Elbert Hubbard. They followed a balanced life best described in their creed: "A belief in working with the head, hand and heart and mixing enough play with the work so that every task is pleasurable and makes for health and happiness."

I sit and sip my cocktail and contemplate the similarities of this group and the founders of my hometown of Aspen. The words 'excellence' and 'balance' dance through my head as I take another sip.

I am broken from my deep thoughts as Gary Crunkleton slaps me on the back and gives me a hardy hello. While moving toward a table, Gary stops several times to shake hands and greet his guests by name. Everyone seems to know him well, and it is easy to see that his hospitality and charm makes each person feel at home.

 
The Elderflower Sour.
While Gary is glad-handing, Lilly steps up to the table and asks if I would like another drink. I decide to try an Elderflower Sour, which appears to be the house favorite. Lilly is the newest bartender, and just recently joined them after working a couple years at the brewery up the street.

"It's a great opportunity to work here, I can learn a lot!" she happily exclaims.

This is true: Industry leaders such as Dale DeGroff and Charlotte Voisey have slung a few behind her station, and the family of five get together once a week to do cocktail training and spirit tastings, all of them having completed the BarSmarts training courseGary looks at his staff's knowledge much like he looks at his extensive back bar. "You've got to build it, adding a little all the time." 

I gaze across the room at the endless selection of scotches and bourbon and wonder how he has come to acquire so much in a highly regulated state such as North Carolina. "Yeah, you gotta set a bird dog on it," says Gary, referring to the 40% of the Crunkleton's list that is special order stuff.

In North Carolina, you cannot just call up your local liquor representative and ask for something. You have to get it directly from the state-run Alcohol Beverage Control, and if they do not carry it, you have to find the product yourself. Once you have done this, you must convince the Alcohol Beverage Control to get it for you and typically commit to buying a case. This can get very expensive when dealing with a 25 year old scotch.

I find myself with Gary again, carrying on about good times and toasting to southern style. Slowly the bar gets more and more packed, the crowd is having fun and the room is getting loud. The four bartenders are now running at full speed whilst laughing and joking around. They constantly climb up and down the ladder to the top-shelf, what I am now referring to as 'the stairway to heaven'. A bridal party has joined in the revelry and the bride and groom are now dancing on top of the bar. Gary smiles up at them with little surprise, just another Saturday night here at the Crunkleton.
 
The Averell Fizz.


Nate demonstrates a proper "shake face."
It's getting late and Gary decides the time has come to get home to his wife and kids, fully comfortable with letting the crew handle the rowdy crowd. He shakes my hand goodnight and gives me a knowing glance. "Sometimes you meet someone and just hit it off and know that you're going to be friends."

I know exactly what he means, and even though I feel he has probably said this to many people, I feel a kinship with him. He waves to the bar and heads for the door. I decide to follow his lead and call it a night as well. I say my farewells and as I am walking out I glance down at the membership roster and then back to the wedding couple and all of their friends.

The scene in the room could easily be their own wedding reception, one big happy family.




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If you are interested in having your brand covered in a custom feature story, contact our VP of Marketing and Advertising, Bill Brandel (bill@tastingpanelmag.com).

Do you host visiting spirits producers and winemakers?

We do often meet with winemakers visiting the Los Angeles area and taste with them in the tasting room in our offices in Encino. Please contact Meridith May (mmay@tastingpanelmag.com) to make arrangements.

THE TASTING PANEL, 17203 Ventura Blvd, Ste. 5, Encino, CA 91316
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