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A weeklong trek to find some of the Triangle's best cocktails and meet some of the folks behind the bars and the mixes

The Triangle's varied and vibrant drinking culture 

What'll ya have?

The Roycroft, a signature drink of The Crunkleton owner Gary Crunkleton, consists of Rittenhouse Blended Rye, Bénédictine, Chartreuse Green, Cherry Heering and lemon.

Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

The Roycroft, a signature drink of The Crunkleton owner Gary Crunkleton, consists of Rittenhouse Blended Rye, Bénédictine, Chartreuse Green, Cherry Heering and lemon.

Making a great cocktail requires a special blend of liquid ingredients, sure, but also a bit of knowledge and a little finesse.

Making a great bar demands all that and more.

For many years in the Triangle, it was rare to encounter the classic cocktail bar experience, where the drinks brim with inspiration and the setting fosters conversation. But in recent years, the creativity that has been brewing in the Triangle's restaurants has spread from behind the kitchen doors to infuse some of our bars, leading to a drinking scene that rivals our dining scene for innovative zeal.

With this in mind, I set off on a weeklong trek to not only find some of the Triangle's best cocktails but also to also meet some of the folks behind the bars and the mixes.

I began with Gary Crunkleton. The owner of The Crunkleton (320 W. Franklin St., 969-1125, www.thecrunkleton.com) says Chapel Hill's classic cocktail bar boasts more than 300 liquors. But he adds that being a good bartender is itself a mix of ingredients: 10 percent knowledge of spirits, 20 percent speed and accuracy and 70 percent personality.

At first glance, Crunkleton, with bright eyes and a goofy wide grin, appears to be an eager kid bumbling his way around the 3-and-a-half-inch bow tie that he wears to work each night. See him make one move behind his bar, however, and you realize that's not the case. Built like a football player, Crunkleton is all grace and speed: up a ladder to pluck a bottle of St.-Germain elderflower liqueur, down the length of his 30-foot bar to grab Hendrick's gin and back in a minute to present one of his own creations: the ElderFlower Sour ($12).

Served on the rocks with a long slice of cucumber, the drink contains a hint of sweetness from the flower liqueur that is balanced with the vegetal notes of cucumber-infused gin and the acidity of preserved lime syrup.

The ElderFlower Sour is one of 15 cocktails on The Crunkleton's menu, which includes more originals like The Maharaja (Cadenhead's Old Raj Gin, Cocchi Americano and saffron threads; for a whopping $23) alongside classics such as the Old Fashioned ($9). The Crunkleton's range of cocktails exceeds what is listed on the menu. Crunkleton orders liquor by the case, and it's for this reason—the enormous initial investment—that Crunkleton thinks many folks originally discouraged him from opening his bar when he began raising capital in 2007. Another reason was that the local demand for a classic cocktail culture seemed nonexistent.

But what Crunkleton wanted was a bar where graduate students, young professionals and locals could mingle, a scene he felt the area lacked outside of restaurants he frequented during his own bachelor days in Chapel Hill.

"It's hard to meet people and stay out when you're feeling full," he laughs. So he secured a spot on Franklin Street's quieter west side and began to construct a bar around two of his favorite things: Mission-style furniture and Michael Banks paintings. The drinks followed suit. 1910-era furniture called for 1910-era drinks. Thus, he went with cocktails and spirits from the golden era: 1870 to 1920.

For a man who cut his teeth bartending in Chapel Hill—slinging beers at the likes of Molly's, a now-closed bar that catered to undergrads with $1 drafts—tackling the enormous learning curve of creating cocktails has been exciting. And Crunkleton has soaked up more than his share of the spirits knowledge he deems necessary. He is an academic at heart and has a curious mind. Before he opened the bar, he took on a number of bookish pursuits. He taught high school; he established a nonprofit in Charlotte to send kids to camp; and he snagged a graduate certificate in nonprofit management at Duke and UNC. Now, back behind a bar—a place he missed because of the "energy I get from meeting others"—he continues to learn and teach, by hosting mixologists and distillers for a regular lecture series and leading his own small mixology classes.

Order a drink from Crunkleton on a quiet night and pick his brain about the spirits and drinks his bar boasts. The information he'll share with his pours is how he continues to foster a cocktail culture in the Triangle, though he definitely hasn't had to go it alone.

Kindred spirits collude nearby in Durham at Whiskey (347 W. Main St., 682-6191, www.whiskeydurham.com). To step inside Whiskey, it seems, is to step inside a charred barrel of its namesake. The walls are dark, the leather furniture darker and the air tinged with smoke from cigars and cigarettes. The bar's official status as a cigar bar means smoking is allowed inside. There's also whiskey, of course, in about 250 varieties.

With a large brown mustache and dark hair that falls into a swirl in front, bar manager Scott Ritchie is an integral part of Whiskey's look. He sinks into a couch near an old piano and hands me a Sazarac—a layered drink of Jim Beam rye, Peychauds bitters, simple syrup and an absinthe rinse that runs $12. It wasn't that long ago that Ritchie sat on a sofa in his own home and shared an idea with his roommate at the time, Rhys Botica, who owns several other bars in the Triangle.

"I said that we should get all of the whiskey we could get our hands on, lots of wood and lots of leather," he explains. To Ritchie, those things set the mood for good drinking—particularly the whiskey. As a child, he watched his father and grandfather sip Manhattans and vowed to do the same as an adult. "It's still my favorite drink to drink," he explains, adding that even the first lousy Manhattan he ordered at a dive bar wasn't enough to diminish his love for the cocktail.

When it comes to bartending, Ritchie admits that he took to it 10 years ago out of laziness.

"I thought that I could combine my laziness with my work and enjoy a drink every now and then," he says. But the ease of that soon passed. He moved from selling beers at Durham's James Joyce to a post in the Army. When he returned from service, he was disappointed to find that his job had been filled and thus began work next door at the then-new Federal, where he met Botica. At the Federal, and later at Carrboro's similar incarnation of that place—Milltown, of which Ritchie is a partner—he learned a great deal about imported and local beers. But he didn't find his true niche until Botica, using Ritchie's idea, opened Whiskey in June 2009.

"Getting to tackle and perfect the different cocktails is very rewarding," he explains, adding that getting the Sazerac right has been one of his proudest accomplishments.

In addition to cocktails, Whiskey offers 16 North Carolina beers on tap, wines by the glass and live jazz most Thursdays plus piano on Saturdays. With all of that, I can't imagine much reason to leave. But Ritchie, who vacations for good bars, offers one: Foundation's Root Beer Flip No. 2. "I drive to Raleigh just for that drink," he says.

And with that, I do, too.

Compared to the shelves at the previous stops, those behind the bar at Foundation (213 Fayetteville St., 896-6016, www.foundationnc.com) seem sparse. "There's no Jager up there," says bar manager Andrew Shepherd, looking back at his stash. "There's no Red Bull or anything like that either," he adds.

Foundation stocks only regionally made liquors and North Carolina-made beers. Most of the wine comes from in-state as well. Shepherd makes the majority of the bar's sodas in-house.

"Most bartenders aren't used to coming in and making ginger ale," he says, adding, "Of course sometimes I do want to shoot ginger ale out of a gun, but I remind myself why we do it. It's a fun challenge and I'm really proud of some of the stuff we make."

Shepherd has worked at other bars and has a background in food. A graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education in New York, he has worked locally in the kitchen at Watts Grocery in Durham. Shepherd's menu at Foundation reflects his time at Watts, which places a strong emphasis on local, regional foods. In addition to alcohol, ingredients for mixes at Foundation are purchased as locally and seasonally as possible, meaning that cocktail offerings change throughout the year based on what's available or what feels right.

For summer, the latter manifested itself with a nod to an ice cream float, Ritchie's favorite Root Beer Flip No. 2 (Cruzan dark rum, brown sugar, egg yolk, root beer; $9). But unlike a normal float, in which ice cream melts and drowns out the carbonated kick, this creamy spiced concoction remains consistently sharp through the last sip. On the summer menu there's also the Basil Smash, Foundation's most popular seasonal drink (Jim Beam bourbon, basil syrup, lemon; $9), but you'll have to catch it soon. Shepherd says he's been in Foundation's kitchen—a small room with a two-plate burner, a hand blender and a strainer—working out recipes like the Queen Anne's Revenge (black spiced rum, brown sugar, egg yolk and nutmeg), an eggnog-inspired drink for fall.

For the next stop on my tour, I choose Lantern (423 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill, 969-8846, www.lanternrestaurant.com), another dark bar with a seasonal menu—and a slightly larger kitchen. You can access the bar through the restaurant or through a curtained door at the side of a dark alley. The Lantern seems to be a well-kept secret, but it's one of the Triangle's longstanding hubs not only for awesome food but also for a good cocktail.

Rick Paolo, who has worked behind the bar at Lantern for the past nine years, says he likes the bar there because it challenges him to "fire on all cylinders. You have to know about the food, the wine and the cocktails," he says, "and you have to get all of that right together."

Paolo, a humble and soft-spoken man, says he does plenty of pours and mixes, but he credits the Lantern's chef, Andrea Reusing, and bar manager, Wesley Wolf, with defining the true tastes of the bar, which, like the restaurant, reflect the flavors of the season.

On the night I visit, I order one of Lantern's standards, The Junebug (Pimm's, fresh ginger, lemon soda and cucumber; $8.50). "It's possibly our most popular drink," says Paolo, who describes it as having a "bright flavor." I understand why. The drink is refreshing.

To maintain balance, I head back to Durham to Revolution (107 W. Main St., 956-9999, www.revolutionrestaurant.com), in search of something stronger. Olivia Gray, a petite redhead in dark-rimmed glasses, appears swallowed by Revolution's mammoth rectangular bar, which fills half of the restaurant. But behind its white countertop, she holds her own.

"I drink like an old man," she tells me when I ask for a recommendation. Her tastes run to the powerful, bitter and savory side of things. At Revolution, where she's been since the restaurant opened in December 2008, that side of Gray reveals itself in the Pink Salt & Pepper Martini ($11).

"There's nothing pink about it," she says. "It's an old man drink."

And for some reason, even with that description, I order one—a combination of pink peppercorn gin, sake and cucumber garnished with a volcanic salt rim. The drink is powerful in flavor, as promised, but considering Gray's access to Revolution's kitchen, it falls on the tamer side of things. Other drinks incorporate even more spices, fruits and juices.

In addition to Revolution, Gray spent time at Lantern and Il Palio in Chapel Hill. At each place, she explains, she's enjoyed the availability of different ingredients and the chance to be creative. Now she's happy to be in downtown Durham watching how it continues to develop from her perch behind Revolution's large storefront windows on Main Street. Revolution, which is open every day but Sunday, provides a great option in the heart of downtown for a drink after work or a dressed-up night out. But for my next stop, I put on jeans.

John Bowman, co-owner of Carrboro's Bowbarr (705 W. Rosemary St., 967-9725), takes a seat at the concrete counter, with its wooden inlay that his friends helped craft.

"It was about this time last year that we got this space at all," he tells me. At that time, his wife, Amanda Barr, had learned that she was pregnant, and Bowman, a bartender at Carrboro's Milltown, didn't want to bring his kid into the world without something to call his own. Thus, with the help of Barr, an artist, and other friends, he set out to build a place of which he could be proud.

"We wanted it to be fun, somewhere for folks like us to hang out," he says, and it's clear that his desire has come true. Bowbarr is a reflection of the tastes of the artists who assembled it. Murals on the walls, hand-built furniture, a faux wooden cash register, a chemical-based photo booth and a pinball machine add to the ambience. There are also records that spin, and on the night that I am there, so is David Bowie—at least in spirit. In a few hours, an impersonator is scheduled to perform three songs.

"That's why John Edwards says he likes the place," Bowman says. "Because it's always fun and different." Edwards is a frequent patron, and shortly after his name is mentioned, the former presidential candidate crosses in front of the bar's glass door. Edwards' steady presence at Bowbarr seems telling of its highbrow-lowbrow mix. The bar's best-sellers: Pabst Blue Ribbon and cocktails.

Bowman explains that he never set out to sell mixed drinks. Rather, he just knew he "didn't want to dish out bottled beers all night," something he's had plenty of experience doing. So, together with Barr, he "followed things that they were interested in."

It's that spirit that led them to one of their most popular drinks, the Mezcaltini (mezcal, lime juice, ginger simple syrup and a splash of ginger ale; $7). The couple travels to Oaxaca, Mexico, to visit Barr's mother each year, and for the Mezcaltini, they order Monte Alban mezcal, a brand whose label pictures Oaxacan pyramids. Bowman says the mezcal is a "low-end" bottle of booze but likes the story and the drink nonetheless. Barr, too, who attributes its success to the ginger simple syrup, one of many items that they make in-house from scratch.

Barr enters holding Teddy Ocean Bowman, now 5 months old, to check on the final set-up for the Bowie-themed event. And me? I head off for one more drink and more rock 'n' roll.

In the basement below the recently reopened Kings, a long-loved staple of Raleigh's independent music scene, Neptunes (14 W. Martin St., 896-7063, www.neptunesparlour.com), is a haven for rock. Not only do musicians and fans flock down the steps to the bar after shows, but they run the whole deal.

When I visit, I catch Lucius Cyrus of The Static Minds and David Muller of Birds of Avalon at the well. The cocktails on the bar's menu, Muller tells me, are the work of one of the bar's owners, his bandmate, Cheetie Kumar. "She's at home packing right now," he explains. "We leave for a short tour tomorrow." And when I talk to Kumar, who shows in a matter of minutes to stock the bar and check the levels of house-made rosemary syrup, she says she was attracted to the job by its flexibility, which allows her to tour.

Kumar started in the kitchen at the Rockford in Raleigh but says she couldn't make enough money to take the time she needed to play music. So she took a Sunday bartending gig and eventually dropped the kitchen part all together. Still, her interest in food shows. She buys herbs and fruits nearby at the Raleigh Downtown Farmers Market to make seasonal drinks that differentiate Neptune's from a "rock bar."

"With Neptune's, I wanted to create a bar that a bunch of people feel comfortable in," and part of that effort, she explains, is making the classic cocktail more accessible. "I want to make drinks for people who may not normally go beyond a rum and coke," she says. "Something fun and not very serious—the proletariat cocktail."

I order the King-Nong, a combination of local scuppernong grape juice, St.-Germain, fresh lemon, club soda and gin (Gordon's, $7; Plymouth, $8). "I'm addicted to scuppernongs. I could eat bags and bags," Kumar says.

I understand. I could down cup after cup of the local juice drink. Instead, I decide I better head out with a cup of water and think about where to go next, because in the Triangle, there are many more cocktails to go.

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