‘I tested three Uptown cocktail meccas for the first time. Here’s what I found’

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Photo by Michael Tulipan

A few weeks ago, my wife, Candace, and I were in Charlotte for a family event, and decided that for one night—instead of staying with my parents per usual—we’d cash in some points and spend the evening Uptown.

You see, I moved from Charlotte eight years ago, and now live in New York City, where there’s no shortage of mixology hotspots. But when I last lived in the Queen City, you were hard pressed to find something other than a mainstream beer or a fruity, syrupy, and watered-down beverage being passed off as a “cocktail.”

The closest thing to a craft-cocktail spot was the now-defunct Therapy on North Tryon Street.

Needless to say, it’s been exciting to see the Charlotte’s cocktail scene develop and flourish. It was time Candace and I experienced it firsthand. So after our plane landed, we took a cheap Uber to Uptown, checked into the Marriott Center City, and our night began.

FIRST STOP: The Punch Room (201 E. Trade St.)

Few things can rival the experience of a luxury hotel bar. Many of my favorite cocktail bar experiences have been in hotels. I love the Church Bar at the Tribeca Grand, the Beekman Hotel Lobby Bar, the Grand Bar & Lounge at the Soho Grand. Each features soaring ceilings, luxuriously appointed finishes, soft lighting, and impeccable experiences. The décor, the atmosphere, and the ambiance are created by the hotel owner, giving the bartenders and mixologists only one thing to worry about: their cocktail programs.

Our first stop, The Punch Room, did not disappoint. Ever since it opened on the 15th floor of the Ritz-Carlton, Charlotte, The Punch Room—and its head mixologist Bob Peters—have been getting press for the cocktails they’ve introduced to the Charlotte drinking scene. And for good reason.

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CharlotteFive file photo

The space was classy, romantic, clean, and Gatsby-esque, with mahogany walls, tufted leather chairs, and gold beaded chains draped in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows, giving the space a feeling of elegance.

My Pick: “Bourbon and Byrrh”—Small Batch 1792, Byrrh, Jager Spice, lemon
Her Pick: “Vanilla Tequila Manhattan”—Milagro, liquor 43, Antica Formula, Angostura Bitters

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Photo by Clayton Sealey

I’m a big bourbon drinker so the Bourbon and Byrrh was Bob Peter’s suggestion. Byrrh, a barrel-aged, 19th-century aperitif that combines wine, unfermented grape juice, and a number of other spices and botanicals added a subtle fruity ripeness, while the Jager Spice adds a sweet and spicy element. The lemon added a bright acidity that brought the entire concoction to a dramatic finish.

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Charlotte Five file photo

My wife’s cocktail piqued our interest because we’ve been experimenting with pushing the boundaries of tequila cocktails. This tequila version of a traditional, whiskey Old Fashioned, offered a little extra complexity with the vanilla, citrus and spice notes of both the Liquor 43 and the Antica Formula.

We left dazzled and ready for more. If you are looking for a romantic, cocktail experience, The Punch Room is for you—just expect to pay for it. Most cocktails range in price from $17 to $19.

SECOND STOP: 204 North Kitchen & Cocktails (204 N. Tryon St.)

We arrived at 204 North—just a few blocks away—ravenous. I’d heard good things about it when it opened this spring, and they were still serving food.

When I lived in Charlotte, I visited 204 N. Tryon St.—when it was a print production house called RICHO Graphics. Walking in, I saw that the 204 North owners had stripped the entire building to its bones, and complemented the 1928 built structure with a bright, industrial-chic vibe complete with tons of brick, iron work, Edison bulbs, a grand open riser staircase, and a towering metal and glass chandelier.

Immediately we noticed a different vibe. While The Punch Room was a private and intimate environment, 204 North was an open, inviting, and more accessible locale. The bartenders were engaging, friendly and knowledgeable. The drinks were about $12 each. And our bartender, a young, hungry and aspiring mixologist named DiSean Burns was knowledgeable and helped us navigate a great menu, with twists on cocktail classics. 

My Pick:Trade Street” – bourbon, Fonseca, Bin 27 Port, Carpano Antica, Angostura Bitters
Her Pick:Elizabeth” – rye, cinnamon syrup, ginger beer, Peychaud’s Bitters

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I decided to keep with the bourbon theme of the night with my selection, a take on a classic Manhattan. The “Trade Street” includes a splash of Port that adds a rich and velvety almost pungent addition to the mix, doing way more justice to the cocktail than your typical maraschino cherry.

Candace, who gravitates towards ginger, immediately picked the Elizabeth, based on a traditional rye mule. The addition of cinnamon gives the cocktail a subtly sweet and slightly spicy element that complemented the ginger beer, making the drink even more fall appropriate.

Price-wise, 204 North was also the most accessible of the locations we visited—great for if you’re looking for great classic cocktails and don’t want to completely break the bank. The complete menu and a kitchen open late also proved to be a big plus.

THIRD STOP: Stoke Charlotte (100 W. Trade St.)

I told you: I have a love affair with great hotel bars. Unfortunately, most are cheesy, overpriced, and serve mediocre drinks. But if you can pick them right, you won’t be disappointed. Our third bar of choice is more of the quintessential hotel bar than the Punch Room—meaning, it’s easy for anyone to find and conveniently located in the Marriott lobby.

I found Stoke to be a happy medium between the Punch Room and 204 North.

The pricing is halfway between the two other options, we were able to engage in energetic conversation with the bar staff, much like 204 North, but still had the romantic setting we enjoyed so much at The Punch Room.

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Photo by Kathleen Purvis

One of the biggest differences was the vibe. The space, with its copper bar top and other accents, reclaimed wood, industrial furnishings and dramatic lighting give it a cosmopolitan, big city feel that the other spaces don’t quite live up to. The other difference was the drinks.

Maybe it was the numerous cocktails that came before, but I felt like Todd Bayley, the Bar Manager of Stoke, got us. He shared his wisdom, offering us stories, and a little bit of cocktail history. His knowledge translated directly into the cocktails he hand picked and made just for us. 

My drink pick: The “Stoke Fashioned,” made with Knob Creek Single Barrel, demerara syrup, orange bitters, flamed Angostura bitters.
Her drink pick: “The Day the Music Died,” made with Doc Porter’s Gin, Campari, Aperol, Dolin Blanc Vermouth, grapefruit juice. grapefruit bitters.screen-shot-2016-10-31-at-11-23-55-am

I asked him to make me his favorite cocktail on the menu. I was already riding the bourbon train, so he made me the Stoke Fashioned, a clever take on your traditional Old Fashion. Instead of using a sugar cube, stoke uses Demerara Syrup, a simple syrup made with Demerara sugar, a lightly refined sugar that retains a lot of the natural molasses that is traditionally processed out to make white sugar. It adds a complex smoky caramel flavor to the drink and enhances the flavor of the single-barrel bourbon and orange bitters.

To make the cocktail even more dramatic, Todd used a torch and an atomizer (a fancy spray bottle) to give us a pyrotechnic show. This technique isn’t just for show, however; it activates the aromas and the flavors in the Angostura bitters, giving the cocktail an alluring taste and smell.

For my wife’s cocktail, I had mentioned our love of both grapefruit juice and Campari, he had just the cocktail to fit the bill, the cleverly named “Day the Music Died.” It was by far the most refreshing drink of the night, and used gin from Doc Porter’s, made just a few light-rail stops away. It was everything I expected and it has been an oft-imitated-but-never-duplicated cocktail in our household.

We left Charlotte the next morning, a little hung over but amazed to see how much the cocktail culture had grown. Next up on our Charlotte to-do list: the Cotton Room at Belfast Mill, the Cellar, and The Imperial.

Lead photo by Michael Tulipan

Sip Charlotte is a weekly email newsletter for beer, wine, and cocktail enthusiasts across the region.Click here to subscribe. Have a story idea? Feedback? Connect with editor Caroline Portillo atcportillo@charlotteobserver.com. Cheers!

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