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Barkeeps Bring Exclusive Whiskey Programs to Charlotte

Gary Crunkleton approached his small business like any other young, intelligent entrepreneur would — by combining his passion with education, fortified by market research. It just so happened that his education came from his father’s old liquor collection and his market research was 17-year Pappy Van Winkle bourbon.

Gary Crunkleton is a name that echoes in serious whiskey circles from here to his original cocktail bar The Crunkleton on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill to the hills of Kentucky Bourbon country. His Chapel Hill spot was named one of the top five bourbon bars in the country in 2015 by Garden & Gun magazine.

The bar at The Crunkleton Charlotte. (Photo courtesy of The Crunkleton)

Now that Crunkleton has arrived in Charlotte, opening a local bar by the same name in Elizabeth in December 2018, he is one of three local barkeeps working behind the scenes with state government to provide a unique whiskey experience to guests that’s hard to find elsewhere in North Carolina.

Crunkleton points to 2014 as the year when the whiskey wave broke on North Carolina. According to Crunkleton, he was the only one under the North Carolina Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) system at that time who had for years been buying cases of whiskies like Pappy Van Winkle to W.L. Weller, Willett Family Estate and other labels that are now impossible to find. His Chapel Hill bar was packed with boxes of Pappy Van Winkle 15-year, 20-year, and 23-year — bottles that now go for thousands of dollars on the secondary market.

Around 2014, Crunkleton noticed a slow decline in his ability to receive his full order from the local ABC Board. “Bourbon’s getting hard to get. It’s getting popular. Pappy Van Winkle is hard to get,” Crunkleton recalled of that time five years ago.

He later found that a memo was circulating among local ABC boards warning of unwelcome “depots” of rare whiskies like his.

“The memo was sent to prevent these ‘depots,’” said Crunkleton. “I took it personally and I did what any normal business person would do. We had to figure out how to make this work within the parameters.”

Crunkleton reached out to ABC and to the manufacturers, then he went back to market research, finding the best available whiskies he could, many of which were not in the state ABC system at that time — whiskies like Belle Meade Bourbon, which won its first Double Gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2015.

In Crunkleton’s words, he set out, “to find the next Pappy.” But his real passion was still in his collection of antique whiskies — the dusty ones from his father’s liquor cabinet.

“The bourbon made a long time ago is much better than the bourbon being made today.”

I asked Crunkleton to explain.

“There’s a bunch of different reasons, a bunch of different reasons. Let’s save that. It’s too much to talk about here. We’d have to talk about it while we drink it.”

A 17-year Pappy Van Winkle at The Crunkleton. (Photo courtesy of The Crunkleton)

I eagerly await the date for my own “market research,” but for the time being, Crunkleton sufficed to say that his position was firm due to his own research.

“Because of my dad’s collection of old whiskey, I knew those products were superior,” said Crunkleton.

One afternoon in Chapel Hill in the fall of 2014, before the Tar Heels tipped off against North Carolina State, Crunkleton arranged a private tasting. When North Carolina Speaker of the House Tim Moore and his friends arrived, he told Crunkleton, “You just let me know if there’s anything I can ever do for you, Gary.”

Crunkleton wasted no time.

“Well, there is something,” Crunkleton replied. “I could use some help. I have a bottle right here that I can’t pour in my bar legally.” Crunkleton presented a pint of Old Special Reserve whiskey from 1911, which was passed around “like a baby,” according to Crunkleton.

“I want a waiver for this old spirit. So I can sell it,” he told Moore.

Within days, Crunkleton found himself answering emails to help inform a new law proposal in the General Assembly, aptly nicknamed “The Crunkleton Bill,” which would change North Carolina ABC laws to allow the regulated sale of antique liquor.

Now, Session Law 2015-98 House Bill 909 defines an “antique spirituous liquor” as one that’s at least 20 years old and from a distillery no longer producing that spirit. The bill also stipulates that the bottle is unopened and sealed.

After the bill passed, Crunkleton took his father’s whiskey collection over to the ABC Board in Raleigh, creating a five-digit code, paying the tax and tagging each bottle with information from the name of the distillery to the time spent aged in an oak barrel to the year it was bottled.

Very, Very Old Fitzgerald (Photo courtesy of The Crunkleton)

A few of his prized champions include a 17-year Old Van Winkle Reserve, aka “Pappy,” and a Very, Very Old Fitzgerald from Stitzel-Weller. The juice from both is from old distilleries that are no longer functioning and instead whose prominent names — and subsequent reputations — have since been bought by Buffalo Trace and Heaven Hill, respectively.

The bottle of Very, Very Old Fitzgerald was originally barreled in 1954 and bottled in 1966. A one and half-ounce pour will cost you $510 at The Crunkleton in Charlotte.

But Crunkleton isn’t the only local barkeep working closely with local government to put special whiskey in your glass.

Dot Dot Dot owner Stefan Huebner and renowned local mixologist Colleen Hughes of Haberdish, Crepe Cellar and Growlers Pourhouse have launched barrel-pick programs that allow them to offer bourbons chosen specifically to their desired flavor profile.

Most whiskey you’ll find on shelves is blended from hundreds of barrels to fit the intended profile of a specific spirit. Others are grouped together by master distillers into small batches, advertised and sold as such. Other distilleries bottle individual barrels, and it’s within a single barrel that specific flavor notes are strongest, allowing for flavors from vanilla to cherry to caramel to be distinctly expressed. It is from these single barrels that Huebner and Hughes make the selections for their barrel-pick programs.

Colleen Hughes is known for her cocktails. Hop over to Instagram for all the confirmation you require. But for those whiskey lovers who prefer a Glencairn glass over a Manhattan — those of us who geek out about vertical tastings and rare releases, mashbill percentages and master distillers — Hughes, like Huebner, is working with ABC to offer truly unique whiskies in a market hamstrung by outdated and regressive regulations.

These folks are, after all, creatives, working within a system the ABC created. They’re making it work by maintaining positive relationships with local government to provide personalized experiences to patrons of their establishments.
It’s not an easy glass to fill.

Huebner, co-owner Conrad Hunter and a few team members traveled to Bourbon Country to taste whiskey straight out of the barrel at Old Forester Distillery. For another pick, samples from Knob Creek were sent to Stefan, who after blind tasting all three, chose the 15-year, which ended up in my glass recently during their two-year anniversary weekend.

Stefan Huebner (Photo by Peter Taylor)

Confident in his whiskey palate, Huebner said, “Every time I taste, I taste them blind. I want no information until after I choose.”

Hughes’ cocktails are widely regarded as some of the best in the city, winning Thrillist’s inaugural Bartender of the Year award in 2016, Charlotte magazine’s BOB Voters’ Choice award in 2018 for best mixologist and landing an interview in Forbes Magazine in February of last year. She’s a powerhouse of spirits, and she, like Huebner, also prides herself on her discernment of fine whiskey.

Colleen poured me (at, ahem…11:15 a.m. on a weekday) a dram of her barrel pick from Elijah Craig — proudly stamped with the distinction, “Haberdish, selected by Colleen Hughes.” It was full of vanilla, some oak, and caramel, which paired great with my thermos of coffee.

But according to Hughes, the law that allowed her to do so is in flux. Despite traveling to Kentucky distilleries to choose her own barrels, the ABC Board is considering restricting the words printed on the label that, to Hughes, represent her hard work.

“The bartenders in the city of Charlotte are working so hard to be a drinking and dining destination, and the more restrictions, the more difficult it is to be in the national spotlight,” shared Hughes. “We’re looking for Charlotte to be in the forefront of that scene.”

Colleen Hughes (Photo by Peter Taylor)

Still, these three are making it work, employing the same care and delicate hospitality that made their cocktails famous.

For Father’s Day, the Charlotte Crunkleton offered four flight options: three Bourbons from the ’70s for $70, three from the ’80s for $80, and three from the ’90s for $90 — featuring various age-stated Wild Turkey bourbons in each decade from 1970, ‘84, and ‘91.

I recently visited Dot Dot Dot with a couple of friends. It happened to be during their two-year anniversary weekend when they were offering bottom-shelf prices for some of their top whiskies. A friend of mine, who was celebrating a job promotion that week, ordered an 18-year old Japanese whiskey for $39 — which may seem steep until you compare it to its average aftermarket price range of $600 to more than $1,000 for a bottle. And good luck finding one at your local ABC Store, nowadays.

The Hakushu 18 tasted like sweet, smoky cream in a glass before melting into nothing — leaving me only with a smile.

Eager to try one of Huebner’s latest picks, I ordered a 15-year Knob Creek, a product of Dot Dot Dot’s barrel program — a steal at $16 for a one-and-a-half-ounce pour. Try ordering a well-made dollar-per-year-stated Bourbon for that price anywhere else in North Carolina.

This is what private business partnering with local government should look like. But it’s not an easy task or a system designed with profit or individual expression in mind.

“It’s a bureaucracy. It’s government. It doesn’t matter if they sell one bottle or a hundred,” said Crunkleton.

Moves are being made — albeit slow ones. Just last week, North Carolina Bill 290 passed, permitting breweries to obtain liquor licenses, allowing for tastings at ABC stores, and allowing distilleries to open tasting rooms. In mid-July, N.C. Rep. Chuck McGrady of Hendersonville proposed eradicating the ABC system entirely — a move unlikely to occur during his tenure, according to WRAL in Raleigh.

But while it’s easy to view these moves as progressive, it’s only due to the bubble in which we’ve been allowed to function in our state.

I’m just an old cook who digs whiskey; I’m no businessman. But I applaud the work being done by these three to allow unique whiskey experiences in Charlotte. It’s finally giving us something to brag about with the ABC — even if it’s just the astonishing fact that the system can be progressively changed.

So, let’s hold up our glasses and cheers to a continued move in the right direction, before our talent starts heading elsewhere, and we’re all stuck with the shit we drank in college, when our dads drank the good stuff, and laughed.

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