On a cold February evening, renowned Charlotte mixologist Bob Peters turns off the heater in his garage. He casts his iPhone screen to a 55-inch TV mounted on the wall and plugs a ring light into an extension cord. The professional studio light, which Peters scored for $35 on Facebook Marketplace, illuminates Peters’ quarantine venture: The Garage Bar.
When restaurants and bars shut down and his consulting business dried up last spring, Peters began to turn his double garage in Plaza Midwood into a — well, not a bar exactly. That wouldn’t be legal. It’s partly a home studio, where Peters can broadcast cocktail classes on Zoom or Instagram, and partly a sanctuary, a place to refine recipes and indulge in a craft that COVID — and at times the state legislature — has done its best to derail.
Even though this project began soon after the pandemic struck, Peters only recently began to brand and publicize the space. His new Instagram and logo, which spells out “Garage Bar” in a tool-themed font, are Peters’ latest attempts to connect his homebound community over cocktails and conversation.
The group he’s hosting tonight chats about the ingredients they had to purchase in advance, like Jarrito’s grapefruit soda, and cracks jokes about rolling in late to work the next day. Peters reads the virtual room: “It’s fun how much you can extrapolate in just a few minutes.”
He can already tell this will be a laid-back crowd; it’s seven minutes past the start time and no one is in a rush to get going. When they do, Peters reassures them that questions are welcome anytime.
“This is going to be more of a conversation among friends than a class,” he says.
Almost a year ago, lounging inside a cozy bar and indulging in a long evening of public drinking became activities that put the community at risk. But that didn’t diminish the demand for alcohol.
Last spring, lines stretched down the sidewalk outside local ABC stores. National companies offering home delivery of liquor like Drizly saw business boom.
Last fall, Nielsen market data showed that alcohol sales not on bar or restaurant premises went up 24% during the coronavirus crisis. Happy hours didn’t go away, they went virtual.
As COVID clamped down on the service industry in spring 2020, many states immediately launched bipartisan efforts to facilitate alcohol sales. Virginia, Texas, California, New York, and Maryland allowed restaurants to sell cocktails to go.
“This additional flexibility will allow more restaurants to stay open and more people to remain employed during this challenging time,” Thomas Lisk, a lawyer who lobbied for the Virginia directive on behalf of the restaurant industry, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “while also benefiting Virginia consumers who may prefer spirits over other beverages.”
Peters and other industry professionals supported similar initiatives in North Carolina. To-go beverages wouldn’t necessarily save the industry, but as Peters says, “Every little bit helps.” Sales of just two or three extra drinks per night can help a restaurant stave off closure.
In April, Republican state representatives Chuck McGrady of Hendersonville and Jamie Boles of Southern Pines fought for a provision that would allow restaurants to sell a max of two mixed alcoholic beverages per meal in closed containers during the state’s coronavirus emergency. The measure failed.
It wasn’t until last December that North Carolina authorized the sale of to-go cocktails. (Even then, the measure wasn’t what many restaurateurs had hoped for: Drinks must be sold in sealed containers, and their sale is limited to one per person.)
In the meantime, mixologists and bartenders had to design ways to keep their careers — and industry — relevant.
Peters, who stepped away from his role as head mixologist at The Punch Room in Uptown in mid-2018, knew he had to act fast to salvage some income and support his wife, Jena, and 10-year-old daughter, Georgia Beth.
“The shutdown,” he says, “threw a giant monkey wrench into my career.”
He’d started consulting on cocktail programs after leaving the Punch Room — creating the bar menu at Dilworth’s now-shuttered The Queen & Glass — but those prospects looked dim at the outset of the pandemic.
As soon as he realized that the stay-at-home order would last much longer than the initial two weeks, he started brainstorming. Life would soon take place mostly in the digital realm, and he needed a place to generate income.
“I should make a bar,” he finally decided. “OK, I’ve got the garage. And that’s about it.”
He bought some shelves and organized his extensive liquor collection. He set up an iPhone stand and learned how to replicate professional lighting with inexpensive can lights and a sliced-up opaque shower curtain.
“What are you doing out there?” he recalls Jena asking. He told her he was building a bar. Her next question, Peters says, was, “What’s this going to cost us?”
Not much, as it turned out. Peters kept the first stages of the project under $500.
He wasn’t going for a sleek, overly professional look.
“If it just looks like a nice bar in a restaurant,” he says, “that, to me, is not relatable. I wanted it to be a little rough around the edges.”
He quickly found an audience. Since the pandemic began, he’s hosted workshops and events for Amazon, grocery store chain Wegman’s and liquor delivery company Caskers, as well as dozens of private events, including birthday parties, bachelorette bashes and office socials, like the one he’s hosting tonight.
Peters teaches the group how to make three bourbon cocktails, beginning with a unique spin on Mexico’s classic Paloma, which typically features tequila. He intersperses his instructions with tips and expertise to help them get the best results not just now but whenever they mix drinks (fresh citrus juice, never artificial — and double-strain for sexy, smooth texture).
By the time everyone finishes shaking the second drink and pours it into their coupe glass — or whatever cup is handy — he’s already winning over converts. One attendee says she usually prefers wine, but she’s impressed with this alternative. Another says he wasn’t a big bourbon fan before, but he loves both of these drinks.
It can be exhausting to host these events. With everyone’s mics muted, Peters has to generate all the energy himself. But those little moments of revelation keep him going. He lets viewers in on the little tweaks that make a good cocktail unforgettable.
“Watching people’s epiphany when they see the difference — it’s so magical,” he says. “They start to put things together, and now they’re really interested in what happened.”
But he’s not worried about creating a legion of future competitors. When the pandemic is over and people can finally gather at the bar again, he knows not everyone will want to spend the time and energy required to make a whole range of truly great cocktails at home.
Instead, those who attend his events will have a deeper understanding of the effort and expertise that goes into his and other mixologists’ work.
In more ways than one, the Garage Bar’s toolkit logo is fitting. Out in the garage, among Christmas decorations, cardboard boxes of memorabilia and an enviable DVD collection, Peters is building something.
As he crafts cocktails, he also creates homes full of budding connoisseurs — ones that will support the future of cocktail bars and nights out with lovers and friends, no matter what that future looks like.
“That makes them enjoy and appreciate the cocktail because now their knowledge is greater, because of everything that they’ve done at home,” Peters says. “So I look at all of these things as a really weird blessing. I honestly think that the culinary world — and the cocktail world — is going to come out of this situation stronger. And I believe that our guests and our future guests are only going to appreciate what we do even more.”
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