The Bitter Southerner No. 8
In The Bitter Southerner’s humble opinion, the most delightful place to have a cocktail in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is called The Crunkleton. The joint is named after its owner, Gary Crunkleton, who is himself delightful company. He is also the creator of the latest in the BS cocktail series — a lemony bourbon concoction that is perfect for summer.
Story by Chuck Reece | Photographs by Lissa Gotwals
Talk to enough skilled bartenders, and one name inevitably comes up: Dale DeGroff, the man some folks call King Cocktail.
DeGroff was the head bartender at Manhattan’s storied Rainbow Room, an old-school nightclub with a revolving dance floor, high atop the 30 Rock building. In the late 1980s, he set out to revive proper bartending and classic cocktails. By the mid-2000s, DeGroff had influenced enough New York bartenders to start a “cocktail culture revival” that now seems to have swept most American cities. But in 2008, when Gary Crunkleton opened the bar that bears his name in Chapel Hill, the great cocktail revival was nowhere in view in the North Carolina city.
“I had to advocate,” Crunkleton says. “I had to create a market for people to drink these drinks.”
Crunkleton had to educate the college town’s populace about classic drinks, well made, so he cooked up something he called the “siposium,” a drunkard’s pun on the symposium — a fixture of academic life in college towns like Chapel Hill. He wanted to bring in experts who could help his patrons “talk about the spirits in the drink and learn,” he says.
“I had a plan of who I wanted to bring in,” Crunkleton recalls. “I wanted to start off small. I didn't want to get too big-time first, so that when it was time to get the big-time people in, all the wheels would be greased. We would know what we were doing. But these people that are big-time, you got to set it up way in advance. I called Dale DeGroff and asked if he could come — I was looking for like six months out. He said, ‘I can't do it in six months. But I tell you what, I can do it in two weeks.’”
Crunkleton got scared. “I didn't want him to be first; I wanted him to be, like, sixth,” he remembers. “But I felt like, well, if Dale says he can do it in two weeks, you got to say yeah.” That meant the guest at Crunkleton’s very first “siposium” would be none other than King Cocktail.
“At that time, we opened at 4, and every day at about 4:30, we would get these mechanics from Chapel Hill Tire up the street,” Crunkleton says. “There would be about six of them. They'd leave work and come down, greasy and smelling like gasoline. They would drink about five or six Budweisers each and then go home. Dale comes in, and I'm a little embarrassed because here's the Cocktail King and I got six mechanics drinking Budweisers in a can. I'm trying to pitch to Dale that we're a cocktail bar.”
So Crunkleton did what any raised-right Southerner would do: He introduced his exalted guest to his mechanic regulars, who neither knew nor much cared who this gray-haired New Yorker was.
“I said, ‘Dale, I want you to know we're cocktail-focused, but these guys come in every day, and they're paying the light bill for the bar because they drink all these Bud cans,’” Crunkleton remembers. “‘They're friends, good guys. I just believe a bar should serve A to Z.’ Dale says, ‘Absolutely, Gary.’”
Since then, Crunkleton has heard, DeGroff occasionally tells that story in his seminars to bar professionals. It reminds them that a proper bar should be a place of pleasant discourse for people from all corners of society.
“You have to be a bar for the people,” Crunkleton says. “If you try to be a bar for a particular kind of clientele or market, you're cutting yourself short. The best bars in the world serve everybody. It's true. You got to be a bar that serves everybody, and that welcomes everybody, and gives everybody the same service, whether they are a mechanic or a CEO.”
Today, with The Crunkleton approaching a decade on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill — and with Gary about to open another joint in Charlotte — that hasn’t changed. You can feel as comfortable ordering a brew as you would a finely made cocktail. Speaking of which, we’re proud to add Gary Crunkleton to our list of Bitter Southerner cocktail creators.
Herewith, the No. 8 — a high-potency drink clothed in lemony, icy goodness.
Since our founding in 2013, The Bitter Southerner has challenged great bartenders of the South to make a drink that bears our name. This is the eighth in the series. If you aren’t familiar with the others, we suggest clicking here.
The sweetness in the BS No. 8 comes from two things: lemon curd (your own homemade or store-bought) and one of Gary’s own concoctions — a syrup that combines the flavors of ginger and lemongrass.
This cocktail will do well enough if you order a bottle of Torani Ginger Lemongrass Syrup, but to make The Bitter Southerner No. 8 perfectly, a little Saturday-afternoon kitchen time will serve you well, because this recipe is the bomb. We can imagine it being of use in a variety of cocktails, and it really is the secret weapon in the No. 8.
We’ve downsized Gary’s three-gallon batch recipe to give you the perfect instructions for a home-sized batch of 16 ounces. Follow the recipe below. It takes only about 30 minutes, end to end, and you'll have enough syrup to make a round of 10 BS No. 8s.
Put the water, allspice berries and citric acid into a small saucepan.
Chop the ginger root roughly, or throw the whole piece in a food processor and pulse-chop until in small pieces. Do NOT process it to a puree. Add to the pot.
Chop the fresh lemongrass roughly on your cutting board. Add 2 teaspoons of the chopped product to the pot.
Bring the pot to a boil and maintain at a full rolling boil for 1 minute, then turn heat very low, cover, and simmer for another 10 minutes. When simmering is complete, pull pot off heat and allow the mixture to cool all the way down to room temperature, about 20 minutes.
Once cooled, strain the mixture into a 16-ounce bottle or Mason jar (anything shakeable), add the apple juice to the bottle, and shake.
Fill the space that remains in the bottle with light agave nectar and shake hard to combine. Store in the refrigerator and shake well before each use.
Gary relies on a high-proof bourbon to give this cocktail the punch it needs against the zing of the lemon flavors and the sweetness of the syrup.
At The Crunkleton, Gary is making the No. 8 with Old Forrester 1920 bourbon, which is 115 proof. At home, you’re good with most any bourbon as long as it is at least 100 proof, or 50 percent alcohol by volume. A good, relatively inexpensive choice would be Wild Turkey 101. But you do need the high-proof bourbon to provide some punch behind all that lemony goodness.
Plain and simple: Take some lemons, squeeze the juice from them, and strain it to get out the seeds and pulp.
Grate the zest off of one lemon.
Take a double handful of ice cubes, wrap them in a Lewis bag or a clean kitchen towel, then use the flat side of a meat tenderizer or a mallet to crush the ice. Save the crushed ice to serve the drink.
Then, to a pint glass, add:
The lemon juice
The lemon curd
Fill the pint glass with ice cubes (not crushed ice), cap and seal with a shaker tin, and then agitate like hell, until the tin is almost too cold to hold onto.
Fill a double old-fashioned glass with your crushed ice, then strain the cocktail with a Hawthorne strainer over the ice.
To garnish, drizzle a thin path of sorghum syrup around the top of the drink, then sprinkle it with lemon zest.