Thirsty? You’re in luck. In Paste’s drinking-and-traveling series, City in a Glass, we mix up a city’s signature swills and slide them down the bar to readers. Grab a stool. This round, in Raleigh, North Carolina, is on us.
, the capital of North Carolina, is home to one of the most educated populations in America. And over the past few years they’ve proven they aren’t just hungry for book knowledge; they’re also thirsty for cocktail expertise. “The craft cocktail scene in Raleigh is still pretty young and lots of people are being introduced to the idea of good drinks for the first time,” says local barman and Raleigh native Jordan Hester. True, Tar Heels still love the standards—Old Fashioneds and Moscow Mules are popular—but they’re also starting to seek out more unusual flavors and spirits. Will Alphin, co-owner of Raleigh’s Foundation bar, was surprised recently when his bar sold out of a barrel-aged Manhattan within four days. “The city has really evolved over the past decade to appreciate what is available locally and to look within for talent,” he says. “As the first bar in Raleigh to open with a locavore approach to drink, we have been proud to see others make things such as seasonally based cocktails and North Carolina beer lists part of their standard menus.” Hester says he, too, is proud of what his industry has accomplished in such a short amount of time, and it’s only going to keep getting better from here. On this city drinks tour, we’re going to introduce you to three Raleigh-only cocktails, show you where to find them and even how to replicate them at home.
1. Winter Sangria
Where to order: Foundation
Photo courtesy Foundation
Foundation is one of Raleigh’s oldest craft cocktail bars; it has been slinging libations for seven years. In an atypical and groundbreaking move the bar was the first to exclusively stock spirits made in the U.S., wines from the region and beers from the state. Co-owner Will Alphin says this is for sustainability reasons, not xenophobic ones. “There is a lot of interesting booze to be found in North Carolina,” he says. The bartenders also make all of their sodas and syrups in-house. To keep the menu approachable, the bar always has a familiar and seasonal sangria on the list. “Most folks don’t give too much thought to the origin of the ingredients in drinks like sangria or punch,” he says. “And as a place on a mission to showcase local flavors, we thought sangria would be a perfect way to utilize North Carolina ingredients and show off the variety of booze available here.”
During the winter the bartenders make a big batch of sangria with red wine and port wine made in Dobson, North Carolina, and moonshine made in Asheville. (In the spring and summer Foundation offers sangria made with either scuppernong or muscadine wine, two unusual grapes that are native to the area.) The winter sangria is full-bodied and has quite a bit more booze than traditional sangria. “The port has wintery flavors of cranberries and toffee and the moonshine, which has been barrel-aged enough to give it a nice amber color, adds complexity; a little oak and char on the edge,” he says. “It’s just what you need to warm your soul in our underground bar on frigid winter night.”
8 bottles (750 mL) Madison Lee red wine
2 bottles (375 mL) Shelton Vineyards port-style wine
1 bottle (750 mL) Troy & Sons Oak Reserve moonshine
3 cups brown sugar
2 cups orange juice
Orange wedges, for garnish
Combine all ingredients in a punch bowl. Stir. To serve, ladle into a glass filled with ice. Garnish with an orange wedge.
2. Lao Bull
Where to order: Bida Manda
Photo courtesy Bida Manda
The dishes on the menu at the Laotian restaurant Bida Manda (Sanskrit for father and mother) are exactly what the brother-and-sister owners grew up eating. You can order crispy pork belly soup, pumpkin curry and papaya salad, for example, all crafted from centuries-old family recipes. The drinks, however, are a little less traditional. Take the Lao Bull cocktail: a simple yet powerful blend of homemade Pho broth, North Carolina moonshine and lime juice. Bar manager Jordan Hester was inspired to make the drink after watching Bartender, an anime series based on the manga of the same name. “One of the semi-mythic, older bartenders on the show makes a ‘Bull Shot’ for a guest who has just been soaked by a cold rain,” Hester says. “The cocktail was made from hot beef broth and vodka.”
For the Lao Bull, Hester swapped out the vodka for local moonshine. “North Carolina and Laos have in common their long moonshining traditions,” he says. “Ours is perhaps more colorful, with the revenuers and car chases, but theirs is just as famous. In Laos they make lao-lao (moonshine) from rice in a very low-tech fashion and drink it neat.” Hester can’t get rice moonshine in Raleigh, but he can get corn and sugar moonshine from Broadslab Distillery in nearby Benson. The hot drink tastes salty and boozy and has a silky texture courtesy of the translucent Pho broth that’s slowly cooked in the restaurant’s kitchen—the same way it is cooked in Laotian homes around the world.
2 oz. Broadslab moonshine (or any other vegetal, flavorsome white whiskey)
4 oz. Pho broth (homemade or leftovers from your favorite Pho shop)
½ oz. fresh lime juice
1 or 2 star anise pods
Fill a small ceramic bowl with hot water. Once bowl is warm, empty the water. Add moonshine, lime juice and star anise pods. Top with Pho broth.
3. Prophets & Loss
Where to order: Death & Taxes
Photo by Kelsey Hanrahan
Tonka beans are the seeds of a flowering tree native to Central and Southern America. The legumes, which look like big raisins, taste like a mix of vanilla, cinnamon and almond. While chefs often shave the bean over dishes to give them a subtle, hard-to-pinpoint flavor, the beans are actually illegal in the U.S. due to an antiquated FDA regulation that deems them toxic in high doses. (Other cooking spices like nutmeg are also toxic in extreme doses.) Nevertheless, chefs—and bar managers—take their chances, buying the beans online for use in their kitchens.
At Death & Taxes, the newest restaurant from James Beard Award-winning chef Ashley Christensen, tonka beans make an appearance on the cocktail list. The Prophets & Loss cocktail includes aged rum, a bitter Italian vermouth and syrup made from a tonka bean. “It’s a riff on the classic Old Fashioned,” general manager John Anton says. “We built the drink about the rum and then added Punt e Mes to give it the appropriate bitterness and depth. In lieu of the traditional sugar cube muddled in bitters, we made a tonka bean, coffee and orange peel syrup. It has a slightly tropical warmth to it that matches beautifully with the rum and pulls out its natural coffee notes.” The drink tastes smoky and somewhat exotic and is well worth all the risk.
Prophets & Loss
1½ oz. Zaya 12-year rum
½ oz. Punt e Mes
Black walnut bitters
1 teaspoon tonka bean syrup (recipe below)
Orange peel, for garnish
Make tonka bean syrup: In a large saucepan over high heat, combine 1 cup demerara sugar, 1 cup water, ¼ cup coffee beans, the zest of ½ orange and 1 whole tonka bean (available on amazon.com). Bring to a boil, stirring once or twice until the sugar is dissolved. Reduce heat to medium and let steep for 5 minutes. Turn off heat and let cool to room temperature. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a lidded container and store in the refrigerator until ready to use. Yields 2 cups.
Make cocktail: Add a large ice cube to a rocks glass. Stir the cube. While stirring, add the rum, Punt e Mes and rum. Continue stirring for 45 seconds until the glass is chilled. Add additional ice cubes as the first one melts until the glass is three-quarters of the way full. Express the oils of the orange peel by twisting it over the surface of the drink. Drop the peel into the glass.
Top photo: Ryan Hyde, CC-BY
City in a Glass columnist Alyson Sheppard writes about travel, restaurants and bars for Playboy.com. She spent many years drinking in New York before resettling in the great state of Texas.