Have you heard the one about the guy who walks into a bar and is so blown away by the range of booze that all he can think to order is a 7&7? It's a lot like the one about the blonde bachelorette party that can't count how many gins are on the list so they stick with Cosmopolitans.
"You can tell sometimes that people are really bewildered," says Matthew Bettinger, manager at C. Grace in Raleigh, one of the Triangle's growing number of craft bars. "I see it as an opportunity. Bartenders love coming up with a drink for someone uncertain that they'll really like."
Will Alphin, co-owner of Raleigh's Foundation bar, observes an inherent learning curve. "It's like the first time you go to Char-Grill and try to order a hamburger. You feel like you don't know what you're doing, but the next time you feel initiated," he says. "People like knowing that there is something special about a place, and they like being part of the group that gets it."
Those who get it know that such bars don't settle for sloshing vodka and OJ in a glass, and they don't serve adult slushies made from commercial mixes. Fine spirits, local produce and small-batch mixers are used to craft classic cocktails that are worth the extra time needed to make them.
So to all those who can't tell a whiskey from a rye or imagine why they'd want a dash of bitters in anything, it's time to belly up to the bar. Career bartenders—or mixologists, as some prefer to be known—understand how to quickly calculate a customer's preferences. Any liquor you really like or refuse? Do you choose sweet over savory? Bold over subtle? Want to stir your appetite, sip a digestif or seek reprieve from a bad day?
"When we first opened, I was determined to not have a bar menu," says Gary Crunkleton, owner of The Crunkleton in Chapel Hill. "We do have one now, but I still want our bartenders to focus most on customer service—really listen and engage with people to deliver a great drink experience."
Creating an "experience" is a shared goal for craft cocktail bars, most of which charge a modest membership fee and enforce dress codes that prohibit work boots and flip-flops, do-rags and ball caps, sleeveless T-shirts (for men) and torn or excessively baggy clothes.
Some craft bars have an obvious niche, such as Whiskey in Durham, which boasts an extensive collection of bourbon, rye and a global assortment of whiskey, including three from Japan. Foundation takes a locavore perspective by pouring only American spirits. The Crunkleton presents informative tasting events, and C. Grace regularly features jazz.
Bartenders don't expect everyone to exude the confidence of James Bond, who famously ordered his martini shaken, not stirred. There is a difference in how the ingredients blend and whether dilution is desired. The menu at Raleigh's Fox Liquor Bar details whether its cocktails are shaken or stirred, and even if they are served "up" (without ice, such as a true martini) or "long" (in a tall glass, like a classic Tom Collins).
Alphin shares a tip for consumers who are uneasy about ordering an expensive drink with unfamiliar ingredients. "At any bar, don't be afraid to ask for a taste of anything," he says. "We'll do one-ounce pours so someone can create their own flight."
While the astounding range of displayed liquors is a key feature, ice also plays a starring role. Cubes typically are large, sometimes just one to a glass, to slow the melting rate and ensure consistent flavor. When ice is crushed, it rarely tumbles from a machine chute. Instead, barkeeps take a chisel to a large ice chuck. This precision is important to the cocktail's flavor, but it's also part of the show.
"No matter what craft bar you visit, you should always try to get a seat at the bar," recommends Crunkleton, who checks out industry leaders and upstarts when he travels. "It's kind of like sitting at the counter of a great sushi place. You can learn a lot by watching some who really knows their craft."
This article appeared in print with the headline "New sensations."