Strange Acquaintances in Chapel Hill

by Daren Wang

Gary Crunkleton behind the stick at Chapel hill's crunkletonPhotograph by Lissa Gotwals

Gary Crunkleton behind the stick at Chapel hill's crunkletonPhotograph by Lissa Gotwals


“If you are drinking bourbon in Chapel Hill, you must go to The Crunkleton.”

“The Crunkleton is the best bourbon bar in the South, you gotta go there.”

“There’s no better place to drink bourbon than the Crunkleton.”

This is what you hear if you are planning to drink anywhere near North Carolina’s triangle.

I’ve been looking forward to this evening for a long time. Tonight, I drink with Haven Kimmel and Daniel Wallace at what most consider the best bourbon bars in the Country.

I’ve met Daniel Wallace only once — earlier this year when he was in Atlanta for Theatrical Outfit’s production of “Big Fish,” the play based on the Tim Burton movie based on Wallace’s book of that title. “Big Fish” is something of a fantasy novel, telling of giants and magic lands tucked in the Alabama landscape. But it is also a remembrance of Wallace’s outsized character of a father. Its narrator is delightfully unreliable. Nonetheless, you can’t help feel you they know something important about Daniel Wallace when you finish.

And although I’ve never met Haven before, somehow I feel like I’ve known her forever.

Her posts are always a highlight in my Facebook timeline. We go at each other a lot — we work out the world’s problems. We make jokes about Donald Trump. I know all about her early childhood, having read “A Girl Named Zippy,” and her teen years, having read “She Got Up Off the Couch.”

When you sit down to drink with people you know through their writings and their online presences, you can’t help but ask what is real, and what is not real?

I had been planning to have drinks with two writers I had admired for years at the Crunkleton, which everyone knows is the best bourbon bar in the country. Right up until that afternoon, when Daniel sent a Facebook message.

“The Crunkleton can be loud. If you want to talk, we should go to The Lantern.”

Part of the problem is that The Crunkleton requires a $5 membership fee. And as Saint Groucho once said, “I’d never join a club that would have me as a member.” And as Doug Bennett of Doug and The Slugs once sang, “I would never take my own advice, but for what it’s worth, I’ll throw it your way.” I’m of that age where my advice is that If you have a chance to drink with virtual friends, go where you can talk.

Brent Winter, a friend from a lifetime ago and author of “Blood Family,” also joined us, along with Amanda Ibarra, bookseller extraordinaire from nearby Flyleaf Books.

The Lantern is an Asian-influenced maze of three different business concepts, owned by local-produce-obsessed, James Beard Award-winning chef, Andrea Reusing. We end up in the bar, eating dumplings. I tell the waiter I’m on the quest for the best bourbon cocktail in the South, and he brings me the appropriately named “Strange Acquaintance.”

Normally made with the more generic “whiskey,” I’ve upgraded to Bulleit bourbon. Ruby Port, lemon, egg white. I cringe when I see the lemon on the description; in my experience, there’s seldom room left over for the flavor of bourbon in these lemon drinks. But I always put my trust in a confident server.

It comes out, looking a little Polynesian for bourbon. Given the egg-white head, I imagine that much shaking is involved. Given Reusing’s passion for local food, I imagine the egg came from a chicken living comfortably in a coop on the roof of the bar.

The lemon, blessedly, is a complement to the bourbon, adding a nice subtle bite to the mixed sweet of the port and bourbon. Even the showy egg white froth adds a fun, unexpected mouthfeel.

I would not have expected it to work, but it’s magical.

It’s an odd mix of people for me — Brent I’ve known for nearly three decades, Amanda I met that evening, and these two other writer colleagues, friends of friends. We are all Strange Acquaintances.

We talk of the ways these things come together — egg white, lemon, old friends and new. And of how sometimes, we don’t cross the lines that exist, the awkwardness of transforming an online friendship into one that happens in real life, over drinks. We talk of the times we’ve chosen not to cross that line, to consciously agree with online friends not to meet in person, for various reasons.

At one point, I lean back and watch as these four people talk. Though Haven and Daniel have been friends for years, they aren’t talking to each other — Haven is chatting with Amanda, and Brent with Daniel. It is a cocktail of friends mixing themselves in ways both unexpected and fun.

Next time, perhaps it’ll be straight bourbon at the Crunkleton, but for tonight, I’m happy we all ended up somewhere we could talk. And listen.