Industry pundits spent the last week predicting and prognosticating trends like the “return to the neighborhood bar.” It just so happens that the oft animated Gary Crunkleton owns, The Crunkleton, a neighborhood bar, itself, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Since Crunkleton is already ahead of the curve, we decided to chat with him about all these new trends we’ve been hearing about in the new year.
Crunkleton had his own unique experience on that neighborhood bar concept. “We’re a neighborhood bar, but, we wanted to make really good cocktails. So, I had Dale come down,” said Crunkleton. That would be the Dale DeGroff, the man known as “King Cocktail” he’s talking about.
Indeed, in 2010, Dale DeGroff did arrive at the Carolina bar for event called a ‘Siposium.’ Upon walking into The Crunkleton, DeGroff was greeted by a group of six regulars, the crew from a tire shop next door. The jumpsuit clad men were friendly enough to King Cocktail as Crunkleton introduced them, “I told him, ‘Dale, these are our locals. They’re drinking Bud cans and probably always will, but they’re good guys.”
DeGroff was unfazed, replying, “I get it. Bars are for the people.”
Therein lies the crux of Crunkleton’s take on the state of the drinks world. “In 2017, maybe we spent too much time really trying to focus on drinks that really pushed the envelope. We were looking for something under a rock that we could make a drink out of,” he said. “But, maybe what’s important is sticking to the basics and giving the guests what we want—whether it’s a can of Bud or a $30 Scotch. If anything has failed, it may be the movement trying too hard to come up with something new.”
That’s not to say that Crunkleton was immune to passing fads. “Everyone is talking about charcoal, tobacco, quinine. As far as the tobacco goes. I was asked to do a recipe for Garden and Gun once and figured that it was a good reason to make a tobacco infusion because tobacco is linked to this region,” he explained. “First I bought a bottle of a Perique liqueur, but it was too sweet, couldn’t taste the cocktail. So, I made my own bourbon based liquor with pipe tobacco. The magazine guy kept calling me for my recipe, but I couldn’t finish it. Every time, I would make a trial and try to tweak it, I had to stop because I got too dizzy.”
Crunkleton decided to take it one step forward and called up a scientist buddy. “I sent some to a lab—the professor said that a barspoon was like smoking 2000 cigs at once,” he learned. “So, I don’t serve that.”
Still, there are shifts afoot. “Palates are getting more discerning and customers are looking for quality drinks. For example, last year, we sold a ton of Moscow Mules. That drink is two dimensional; now, they’ve learned and want more complexity,” Crunkleton mused. “So, in a way, the classics are going coming back because of this wave…back into Manhattans and Rob Roys. We’re proud of it, but it also weeds out the novelty bartenders who are dependent on lime-basil-thyme-syrup with vodka. Those people have had their fifteen minutes. Now, it’s about people who can actually make the drinks. Esoteric ingredients are out.”
On the beer side, palates are changing also. For years, the pride and joy of The Crunkleton was the “Cadillac,” a big Perlick dixie cooler under the bar. “I had to put in six feet of pace for it when we did the buildout. I was so proud of it, but now I’m taking it out,” Crunkleton lamented. “People just want draft. It’s all draft beer these days, lots of IPA.”
But, some things don’t change. Crunkleton decided to treat those mechanics from the tire shop to some MacAllan 30 Year. “I poured them out nice, little tastes and then went to put the bottle back on the shelf, the southern steward recalled. “When I walked back to toast them, their glasses were already empty. They shot the 30-year-old whiskey… but they liked it. All of them told me, ‘That was good, that was good.’”