Whew!" Tony Ursone hoots. "Take a tap of that."
I nod, grab the bottle, shake a few drops onto the back of my hand, sniff, and then lick.
Whew, indeed: my eyes widen, and I shake my head. Ursone starts to laugh.
We met ten minutes ago. Later, we'll realize I cooked him Korean noodles as a line cook a year ago—"I thought I recognized you!" But for now, we are strangers, sitting shoulder to shoulder at the far end of the bar at Bittersweet, a drink-meets-dessert destination in downtown Raleigh. Since it opened in 2014, it has served as Ursone's second home. If you've been, you've likely met him. He's one of two bartenders here. Tonight, he's off duty to drink with me.
It is a sleepy Sunday evening, chilly enough to wear a jacket but warm enough to linger outside, smoke a cigarette, and stare at the sky. But at the moment, we are staring at a basket of bitters, which are—well, what again?
Ursone smiles. He has a full, dark brown beard and even darker eyes, which seem to lighten every time he laughs. Like a good teacher, he has the grace to make any "stupid" question seem acceptable. (Also like a teacher, he habitually carries a book in his messenger bag. Currently: The Dead Rabbit Drinks Manual.) Bitters, he explains, are a "tincture of a flavor," extracted by alcohol or glycerin.
"Like vanilla extract?" I ask.
He selects Fee Brothers rhubarb bitters from a basket that also includes rosewater, barrel-aged spicy cherry, long pepper, hibiscus, and acai. He dabs some onto his hand, and I do the same. The rhubarb bitters, turns out, are anything but. They're syrupy sweet, wildly intense.
Zack Rollins, tonight's Bittersweet bartender, has another flavor in mind: Crude "Rizzo" bitters, with rosemary, grapefruit, and black peppercorn. He uses them to make us a gin Old Fashioned, with Durham Distillery's Conniption Navy Strength gin and raw sugar. As he sets the cocktail down, a curled citrus peel bobs back and forth like a buoy. North Carolina's first bitters company, Crude launched in 2012 in Raleigh. Last year, Crude won a Good Food Award for "Rizzo," and I can see why. It is subtle and strong, floral and spicy, like winter, like the end of a weekend, like the start of a night.
Rollins also makes us a Winter Bee, with house-infused lavender vodka, honey, lemon, and an absinthe rinse. I raise my eyebrows at "rinse," so Ursone explains: Absinthe, a wormwood liquor with an anise flavor, gets swirled around in a glass, then tossed, before the drink is poured. It is a subtle accent, like a pinch of salt. Soon, all that's left is a lemon slice and a lavender bud.
"So," I say, "what's next?"
You said you wanted to go out on a night with a bartender," Ursone finally says "so a huge service industry..."
He catches a nearby server's eye, pauses, and laughs: "Where are you going after work tonight?"
"Ruby Deluxe," she offers.
Ruby Deluxe is a bar on—underneath, actually—Fayetteville Street. I almost miss the entrance as Ursone turns toward the door. An illustration of a gem leads us inside, to red walls, Dude, Where's My Car? on the television, and thumping music. The bar is embellished with ukuleles and guitars, which rest beneath the resin-coated surface. When no one is looking, I try to pluck the strings.
Ursone sets a box of cupcakes atop a ukulele. "From BS, to RD," it reads. I assume he knows the bartender but scratch that thought when they exchange names. I eventually realize that the gesture is just Tony being, well, Tony: making friends anywhere and everywhere and, most of all, treating bartenders as brethren.
We take off our coats, and he orders a can of Tecate and a shot of Fernet-Branca.
"If I'm post-work, I drink something like this," he says. He takes a sip of the deeply brown liquor and slides it toward me. "It goes down quickly."
Fernet-Branca is an amaro spirit—"bitter," in Italian. Originally formulated as a medicine, it is now lauded as a digestif or hangover cure. For Ursone, it is clarity after a long shift of tasting straw after straw of other people's cocktails. I eye its dark, ominous appearance and take a gulp. It is herbal, concentrated, maybe mysterious.
"Hipster mouthwash," he summarizes.
When I ask him to order for me, he laughs and asks for clues. I share my defaults: a dirty gin martini with olives and a twist ("Olives and a twist?"), and a whiskey sour, but not if it's from a mix.
"OK," he says, slowly. "Dirty. Like, Christina Aguilera, or Britney Spears?"
"Pre- or post-breakdown?"
"When she was dating Justin Timberlake," I decide. "Not shaved-head Britney."
He lets this sit for a second. Ruby Deluxe, he finally says, is ideal for "call drinks," like rum and Coke, or whiskey and ginger, not martinis. "Can she do a Sutler's and tonic?" he asks. "But a smaller amount of tonic, please?"
Distilled in Winston-Salem, Sutler's gin boasts lavender, bergamot, and citrus—all my favorite things, as if Ursone knew. I take a sip and smile.
We take our drinks outside, to cold metal furniture in an alley-like patio. As Ursone sits, he looks quickly behind his shoulder, then back at me.
"I'm always conscious of where my doors are," he says, with a quiet laugh as he takes out a cigarette.
I laugh because I don't know what to say.
In 2005, on his twenty-second birthday, Ursone returned to the States from his third and final tour of combat with the Marine Corps. He joined the military at seventeen and headed to boot camp shortly after high school graduation.
In retrospect, I know what I should have said: thank you.
Another place?" he asks.
We retrace our steps along Fayetteville Street, toward another underground bar: Foundation. A stairway lures us below the sidewalk, toward a glowing orange sign and into a cozy cove. There are exposed rafters and brick walls and glittering glasses and shimmering bottles and—"A giant jar of peanuts!" I feel safe here.
We take two seats at the bar. Ursone orders the night's special for himself (a $7 boilermaker, or a shot and a beer, again), a whiskey sour for me, and the world's most wonderful cup of peanuts. At least according to my notes, written as I breezily embarked upon my fourth cocktail of the night.
Ursone takes a sip of the whiskey sour and nods: "One hell of a cocktail." It is bright and vivid, with Ezra Brooks bourbon, lemon juice, simple syrup, and egg white. The last ingredient helps create that lush mouthfeel as well as form the rich, foamy head.
We talk more about the drink's "technical construction," about shaking versus stirring, about shaking styles, about North Carolina liquor laws, about where we would have gone if it weren't a Sunday (the mezcaleria Gallo Pelón), and where we might go next. Ursone already knows: Flash House.
"We could end the night there," he says. "Or, I'm going there either way."
So we go.
There is more beer and more whiskey and more cold furniture and more cigarettes and more talking, which becomes more and more off topic. Flash House's bartender is a buddy of Ursone's—who isn't, I wonder—and he comes outside and joins us. Suddenly, we are deep in conversation about jiu-jitsu. I have a Rye Smash in hand and don't mind; let's talk about jiu-jitsu forever. Isn't that what this is all about, anyway?
Soon enough, another man joins in. He is tall and smoking and wearing a graphic cat T-shirt. I tell him I love it—but come morning, I can't remember what, exactly, the cats were doing.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Social crawl"