The number of people on Bittersweet's staff who know the words to Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up" is alarming.
Now that we've dispensed with the negative stuff, let's talk about the positive aspects of this lively new cocktail-dessert bar in downtown Raleigh, created by owner and baker Kim Hammer of Bittycakes.
The space seems standard when you arrive—a cluster of outdoor seating on the sidewalk, tables and bar stools beckoning inside. Then you notice the art by Hanksy on the back wall; it depicts an aproned Bruce Willis bearing a tower of boxes next to the inscription "Pie Hard." After that you spy above the sink behind the counter a small picture of a scowling Henry Rollins, admonishing employees to wash their hands, and you think "Yeah, I'm going to like it here."
A sip of a cocktail dubbed Johnny Hammersticks confirms the first impression. That particular cocktail, featuring Campari and coffee-infused Carpano vermouth, was part of a special Negroni Week menu. Because of seasonal ingredients and unexpected bounties new drinks often pop up on the menu. A recent cache of mint fresh from the garden led to creation of the Milano Cocktail-Not-Cookie under the "Fleeting Specials" section.
The combination of vodka, Fernet, Perucchi Blanc, mint, lemon and ginger ale made for a refreshing hot-weather drink, the sort of beverage you could easily down a pitcher of while relaxing in a backyard hammock. Of course, you'd end up sleeping in that hammock long afterward because a pitcher of the sneaky strong Milano would leave you beyond hammered.
Don't worry about getting lost among the changing drink options. The people behind the counter don't just mindlessly follow recipes. They know the ingredients in each specialty cocktail and how they harmonize with one another. Give them an idea of your likes and dislikes and then put yourself in their hands. Your palate will be happy with the result.
My most frequent bartender was Tony. He often let me see and smell the bitters used in this selection or provided a whiff of the tea used in that one. Lewis exhibited the same enthusiasm, allowing sips of individual ingredients. Servers chimed in with spot-on suggestions as they passed by.
A wise choice as July descends is The Siren's Song, a refreshing mix of Death's Door gin, green-jasmine tea, mint and lime. Less summery but no less enjoyable is the Triumph Bonneville. I was wary. I love Scotch but combining it with coffee-infused vermouth and cherry brandy? Fortunately, the most noticeable contribution of the brandy is a lovely reddish color. The vermouth's rich coffee flavor dominates. It is a drink to have again on return visits (at least until it slips from the menu).
Bittersweet does boast a group of consistently available "classics." The James Joyce, with Jameson, vermouth, Cointreau and lime, is far less challenging than its namesake. It too is one to sip again on future visits. The Laura Palmer had me baffled. It had to be a Twin Peaks reference but nothing in its ingredients—vodka, lemon, black tea and raspberry liqueur—seemed connected. Finally, I had to ask, is it served wrapped in plastic? What's the tie-in? Hammer says it is indeed named after the Twin Peaks character but it is really more of a twist on the Arnold Palmer iced tea and lemonade drink. Ahhhh. Puzzle solved, drink thoroughly enjoyed.
Manhattans can be tricky to mix. The slightest imbalance can leave you drinking what tastes like syrup. The Bittersweet Manhattan speeds toward that too-sweet cliff but stops with brakes screeching just before sailing over the edge thanks to a carefully calibrated combination of Bulleit Rye, Vermouth di Torino and Burlesque bitters.
By the way, if you want an unfussy drink, there is a lovely bottle of 18-year-old Macallan on the shelf. (Leave some for me.)
I did veer into the dessert section occasionally while navigating the menu. The Derby Pie conjured memories of a friend's annual Kentucky Derby party. Kentucky born and bred he would make a derby pie using a family recipe from previous generations. I'm confident he would approve of Bittersweet's version.
The Peach-Doughnut Cobbler consists of a cinnamon cake doughnut, warm spiced peaches, cinnamon whipped cream, vanilla ice cream and candied bacon. Paired with an Americano made using Counter Culture coffee, it had me one cocktail short of licking the bowl.
If the bar had been emptier I might have gone for it even without the extra cocktail. But recent Friday and Saturday nights have been marked by a constant, convivial buzz, with most every seat taken. The number of couples in the room indicates it has already become a popular date stop. Each visit I've heard someone at a nearby table or barstool exclaim, "This is our new favorite place!" It certainly is mine. Go and see if it isn't yours as well.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Sweet spot"