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Moose in a Santa Hat: Christmas at the Crunkleton

Holidays at the Crunkleton mean two things: making merry, and making drinks.

The Crunkleton on Franklin Street is a Chapel Hill institution. Serving up hooch in a warm, old-timey atmosphere since 2008, the bar has become a downtown staple. Owned and operated by Gary Crunkleton, the bar serves patrons an ever-growing list of specialty liquors and features a cocktail menu that rotates by season while maintaining the old standards customers know and love.

“Holiday cocktails are fun because they’re celebratory,” said Gary Crunkleton. “They’re fun, but they’re also hard to make. People were doing them a lot in the 40’s and 50’s, but you don’t find them around a lot currently.”

Classic seasonal cocktails such as Hot Buttered Rum, Tom & Jerry, or even just mulled wines and ciders, all have a special effect on people. The literal and figurative warmth found in these drinks draws customers to the Crunkleton throughout the holiday season.

“People love it because they’ve never had it,” says Crunkleton. “They’ve heard of them, but never had them. [Holiday cocktails] often have a creaminess to them, but it’s not as simple as just adding cream. It’s a different kind of drink.”

Classic cocktail culture is undergoing a renaissance of sorts, fueled by nostalgia and pop culture icons. When Don Draper ordered his first Old Fashioned on AMC’s “Mad Men” in 2007, a drink that had fallen out of favor suddenly was back in the public conscious. Cocktails went through a period in the end of the twentieth century where the focus was towards easy drinking and clever names, but the emergence of “foodie” culture signaled a change.

“You can’t make a good drink with bad ingredients,” said Crunkleton. “Whatever the ingredients are, you have to balance them so that you can taste everything. If a cocktail has five ingredients, you should taste them all equally.”

For Crunkleton, the flavors of the season are represented by cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, eggnog, and bourbon. There’s even a special Aspen mulling spice he personally recommends and uses in his yearly apple cider punch at his own family gatherings. Crunkleton recommends using spices delicately, to avoid overpowering the rest of the ingredients.

“Often times, you can just garnish with them to get the notes, go for an olfactory effect,” said Crunkleton. “We try and balance things so that all the ingredients in a drink are tasted and noticeable … when tasting a drink, I tell people to keep it on their palate for a second, to appreciate every taste. If you take a sip and taste one thing, take a second drink and taste another, take a third and taste something else, that’s three drinks you’ve already used up. Why not taste it all the first time?”

This measured approach to cocktails has made The Crunkleton into Chapel Hill’s premier source of classic cocktails, from the old-timey Negroni to the crowd-pleasing Manhattan.

“I think when we get older, we want our sugar in different ways,” said Crunkleton. “It’s nice to sit back and reflect, to enjoy family and the season … You find a lot of heavy holiday food on the table. Pecan pie, turkey, dressings, ham. Bourbon or Scotch goes well with all those things. My Dad wasn’t a big drinker, but every Christmas Eve he would pour a couple fingers of J&B Scotch.”
Gary Crunkleton also prefers a simple glass of nice whisky, but he does have a favorite cocktail to drink around this time of year. It’s one of his signatures, the “Roycroft.”

“It’s an ounce of bonded rye, a half ounce of Cherry Heering liquer, half ounce of Benedictine, half ounce of Chartreuse and an ounce of fresh lemon,” said Crunkleton. “Shaker, cubed ice, shake and strain. Garnish with a thick slice of fresh ginger.”

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