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In this monthly online series, we ask the experts to go in-depth on some of our favorite topics from the magazine. Whether you’re an aspiring master mixologist or simply want

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In this monthly online series, we ask the experts to go in-depth on some of our favorite topics from the magazine. Whether you’re an aspiring master mixologist or simply want

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In this monthly online series, we ask the experts to go in-depth on some of our favorite topics from the magazine. Whether you’re an aspiring master mixologist or simply want

Our State Knows Best: Cocktail Mixology

In this monthly online series, we ask the experts to go in-depth on some of our favorite topics from the magazine.


Whether you’re an aspiring master mixologist or simply want to learn how to make a swoon-worthy drink for your sweetheart, love at first sip is closer than you think. There’s no shortage of ways to craft a delicious cocktail at home — and no shortage of local spirits and North Carolina ingredients to take advantage of. But that doesn’t mean you should overcomplicate things.

“When you make a drink, try to keep it simple,” says Gary Crunkleton, bartender and owner of The Crunkleton in Chapel Hill and Charlotte. “You can use a jar of jelly or jam, some apple juice, or anything that’s in your refrigerator.”

We talked with Crunkleton and two other experts — Colleen Hughes, head mixologist at Charlotte’s Supperland restaurant and 2021 Mixologist of the Year at the North Carolina Restaurant & Lodging Association (NCRLA) Chef Showdown, and Megan King, beverage director and lead mixologist at Antidote Cocktail Lounge in Asheville — to find out their best tips for mixing drinks like a pro and building out the ultimate home bar.

Our experts

 

Gary Crunkleton
Bartender and Owner of The Crunkleton in Chapel Hill & Charlotte
Colleen Hughes
Head Mixologist at Charlotte’s Supperland Restaurant and NCRLA’s 2021 Mixologist of the Year
Megan King
Beverage Director and Lead Mixologist at Antidote Cocktail Lounge in Asheville

 

Let’s start with the basics. What do total newbies need to know about making cocktails?

Gary Crunkleton: You can’t make a good drink with bad ingredients, so you’ve got to be able to discern the good spirits from the bad. To do that, you can’t go by price and presentation; you have to go by the taste. And when you taste, what you’re looking for is clean, easy-drinking alcohol. Take moonshine — it’s so easy to drink that you can hardly taste the alcohol. That’s what some of the best products are like.

Colleen Hughes: First, start with good-quality products that you already know you like — but that doesn’t mean you have to pull out your most expensive bottle of bourbon to practice! Starting with a three-part drink, like a daiquiri or a gimlet, is going to be a good place to begin. To do that, you need to make simple syrup, which is equal parts boiling water and sugar. Now, take that and combine it with lime juice. If you add gin, you’ve made a gimlet, and if you add rum, you’ve made a daiquiri. Moving that formula along is a very simplistic way to get comfortable. Also, knowing the difference between when to mix and when to stir your ingredients is important: The school of thought that we use at my restaurant is if a drink contains no juice, like a martini, you shake it; if it has juice, like a gimlet, you stir it.

We’re ready to build our home bar! What essential ingredients, spirits, or tools should we keep on hand? And which North Carolina spirits should we stock up on?

Gary Crunkleton: I would say London dry gin because it mixes well — the complexity of gin balances well with other spirits and gives cocktails more depth and richness; rye whiskey; and inexpensive vodka. For bitters, I would recommend Peychaud’s Bitters. Not only does it give the drink the bitter flavor that you want, but the redness also gives whiskey a nice color. For tools, I recommend a Hawthorne strainer, a Boston shaker, a bar spoon, and, of course, ice. As for North Carolina spirits, there’s an Irish whiskey called Rúa that’s from Charlotte, and Durham Distillery has a Conniption Navy Strength Gin that’s pretty good, too.

Colleen Hughes: North Carolina makes amazing gin. I think it’s the spirit that we are making the best. I use it at my bar and in my home quite a bit, especially Sutler’s Gin out of Winston-Salem. When I competed at the NCRLA Chef Showdown, I won with Sutler’s. I also really love Chemist Spirits out of Asheville — I think they’re making absolutely amazing gin. Eda Rhyne Distilling Company in Asheville is good as well. You always want to have vodka, gin, rum, tequila, bourbon, and rye. And then having a couple of modifying liqueurs, like Cointreau or triple sec, will help you soften those base spirits and add flavor to your cocktail. Most cocktails call for a lemon or lime, so I would advise keeping those on hand. Bitters are a key ingredient, too — Angostura and orange are two of the most classic, so I think you should always have both in your home bar. For sweeteners, I usually keep simple syrup in my refrigerator, but you don’t always have to use that. If you use a little bit of maple syrup, or if you make your own simple syrup and use brown sugar instead of white sugar, it will give your cocktail a little bit of a rich molasses flavor. 

Megan King: It really depends on what spirit you like. If you like whiskey, I would have some vermouth on hand. If you like gin — I love Eda Rhyne in Asheville — and more refreshing cocktails, keep green Chartreuse, which is a really versatile liqueur that can be used in a lot of cocktails. And, of course, a jigger so that you can measure the ingredients properly. And having something to shake your drinks with is helpful when making drinks with citrus — a little expression of an orange, as the juice or garnish, can go a long way in a cocktail.

We’re ready to get started — what’s the first drink we should master?

Gary Crunkleton: The rum daiquiri. It’s a great drink for learning about flavor balance. It’s rum, freshly squeezed lime, and sugar — that’s it. And it needs to be balanced so that when you taste it, you taste the alcohol in the rum, you taste the lime, and you taste the sweetness. For the sweetness, if you use honey, then you should taste the honey. If you use Demerara sugar, you should taste the Demerara sugar. Plus, rum is so easy to mix with. At The Crunkleton, we use Flor de Caña.

Colleen Hughes: It’s always good to practice the things that you already know you like before you try to move on to something more advanced. I think a lot of people enjoy the old-fashioned. It’s just a little bit of sugar, some bitters, and a good-quality whiskey or bourbon. Give it a little stir with some ice, finish it off with an orange peel, and it’s perfect!

Megan King: The old-fashioned. It’s the most classic cocktail and one of the easiest to master. In recent years, more people have started to reinvent the wheel, so there’s also the New Old-Fashioned, which is a version that includes muddled citrus — it’s a lot sweeter.

So … how do you create a tasty, balanced flavor profile?

Gary Crunkleton: You don’t want to have a bully — if you have a cocktail or drink that has three ingredients, you want to be able to taste each ingredient equally. If there’s too much of one ingredient, you should ease that one back.

Colleen Hughes: You’re always trying to balance sour and sweet. For example, if you’re going to top a drink with soda water, remember that soda water has carbonic acid, and the bubbles kind of dry things up, so you should add a touch more sugar to account for that.

Got it! Are there any additional fun things that we can add once we’ve mastered the basics?

Gary Crunkleton: Orgeat syrup and Falernum syrup are fun. So is making your own house-made ginger syrup. Ginger is great because it can sweeten, add pepper flavor, and add some depth and viscosity to the drink. I also recommend that people experiment with Luxardo Maraschino; it’s like a windshield wiper for your palate. It wipes away the sweetness so that every taste doesn’t get overpowered by sugar. It’s so good, and a capful is all you need.

Colleen Hughes: You could try taking some of the more standard formulas and switching out the base spirits. So if you really like the old-fashioned and you usually drink it with bourbon, consider switching out the bourbon for an aged rum and make a rum old-fashioned, or use an aged tequila and make a tequila old-fashioned. A lot of drinks are built like that. Or if you want to make a Tom Collins, you can do it with either vodka or gin — both are fine; just add lemon juice and simple syrup, shake it up, then top it with soda water. Don’t reinvent the wheel; you don’t have to — especially when you’re starting off. Say you have a garden with some really good herbs coming in, like rosemary. Well, if you add a sprinkle of rosemary to a drink that has gin in it, it will amplify the flavor notes of pine. If you’re making a mojito, you can try swapping the mint for basil. One of the things I usually do if I’m making a simple cocktail for a friend is, if they have a jar of strawberry or raspberry jam, I’ll use it as my sweetener. I’ll just throw a teaspoon of it in there with some lemon juice and spirits and shake it up, and maybe put a little soda water on top. It’s a very simple way to make a fruity cocktail.

Megan King: I love infusing. I think that’s a really great way to change the profile of something without having to add more sweetness or acidity. One of my biggest tricks is adding just a little bit of salt. If I’m making a cocktail and I’m not getting the flavors that I want, a little pinch of salt, much like in cooking, can really bring out the flavors.

What’s your favorite cocktail to drink?

Gary Crunkleton: If I’m sipping, I like a Sazerac, but if I’m drinking, I like a Vieux Carré.

Colleen Hughes: I’m a total gin nerd. If I go out, I love a gimlet. It’s a classic cocktail with three simple ingredients: gin, lime, and sugar.

Megan King: I tend to gravitate toward things that are a little bit more spirit-forward, like a Manhattan or a bijou.

What’s the can’t-miss cocktail on your menu right now?

Gary Crunkleton: Either our Elderflower Sour or The Bitter Southerner No. 8. The Elderflower Sour is made with freshly squeezed lime juice, preserved lime juice, London dry gin, house-made ginger syrup, and St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur. The Bitter Southerner No. 8 has high-proof bourbon, lemon curd, honey, and house-made ginger syrup in it.

Colleen Hughes: All That Glitters. It’s a clarified milk punch that has rum, lime, passion fruit juice, and a touch of tangerine glitter.

Megan King: Our Lemon Pound Cake Cocktail. It’s a gin-based, creamy limoncello-type cocktail that has oleo-saccharum, vanilla bean, sweetened milk, nutmeg, and lemon verbena.

This story was published on Jan 18, 2022

Tamiya Anderson

Tamiya Anderson is a Concord-based writer and former Our State intern who is proud to call The Tar Heel State home.