The Walter cocktail contest

Walter Cocktail contest

Kevin Barrett of Foundation, left, receives congratulations from judge Wilton Barnhardt

by Wilton Barnhardt,  author of the new novel Lookaway,  Lookaway

I suspect Sir Walter Raleigh, back in 1618, went to the executioner convinced of the utter failure of his ventures, having fallen out of favor with Queen Elizabeth as well as King James, having seen his North American colony become the Lost Colony, having squandered his own and several other people’s fortunes trying to find a kingdom of gold in South America, never imagining that anything would be named for him in the New World.  If he weren’t busy being beheaded, I’m sure he’d have headed to the tavern for a nice stiff drink. How comforted in his final breaths might he have been to know that immortality would be his a mere few centuries later:  the Walter Cocktail!

Well, yes, there’s the Raleigh cigarette,  and the capital city of North Carolina – and some other small S.W.R. tributes along the way, I’ll admit. And of course there’s this magazine (celebrating its one-year anniversary!), of which I’m sure a man of taste, poetry and letters such as Sir Walter would approve.

But back to the cocktail. Who among the City of Oaks’ bartenders, mixological masters all, would earn the honor of creating the drink known as… the Walter? Walter magazine sensed its sacred historical duty to preside over such a contest…and asked me to be the judge.

What better place than Humble Pie on South Harrington Street, the scene where thousands of hangovers come to die for weekend brunch.  Actually, Humble Pie provides an array of gourmet delights to sober up, say, the tipsy judges of cocktail contests, too, but more on that in a moment.

I, your cocktail sampling servant, was looking for either 1) an allusion to our beloved city of Raleigh. in the ingredients of the drink itself, or 2) a specific allusion to the drink’s inspiration, Sir Walter.  Perhaps a drink that was half hot sauce, one that would “take your head off”?  (Get it?) Perhaps a Black Russian sort of drink, with a layer of Dubonnet or crème de framboise resting on the top of it… representing Sir Walter’s velvet cloak laid atop the Elizabethan mud puddle upon which the queen might step?  Fortunately, our contenders were more subtle.

Walter Cocktail contest

The Umstead’s Kyle Davis in foreground

Ingenious in its way was the cocktail offering of Kyle Davis, bar manager of the Umstead Hotel & Spa. It was bold and lightly sour with a base of tobacco-infused Hefeweizen and rye whisky. Above it, a rolled leaf of cured tobacco, lit at one end, and supporting a cloud of cotton candy foam on the other.  The foam could be happily deposited into the drink and blended in with the smoldering tobacco stirrer.  This was meant to be sipped with the hint of smoke on the palate.  Sir Walter spent his whole life in get-rich-quick schemes, pirating foreign ships and plundering Spanish colonies, but if he’d only nailed down the patent to tobacco, which he was the first to introduce to the Old World, he wouldn’t have had to worry. Davis’s smoking cocktail, the most inventive of the night, provided the union of Old and New world boozing.

Walter Cocktail contest

Jordan Hester of Bida Manda

Another superior offering was Bida Manda bar manager Jordan Hester’s entry, which invoked the oak in the City of Oaks.  In a champagne coupe, Hester had combined an oaky chardonnay with just enough sweetness and oaky bitters to make a lovely wine punch. (There was not a lot of distilled liquor in Sir Walter’s time, and wine punches and mead were the tipples of choice.) Atop this summery libation was an expertly firm froth – this was certainly the most picturesque drink of the evening.

My crack team of connoisseurs (author Richard Butner and movie/TV sound engineer Geoff Gann) joined me in sampling an entry from Corey Mason, co-founder of Raleigh’s White Whale Bold Mixers. It was heavy on the bourbon with a chocolate tinge… No Southern drink need ever apologize for overuse of bourbon, and, by God, we demanded no apology.

Walter Cocktail contest

Corey Mason, co-founder of White Whale Bold Mixers

Very intriguing was the rich purple cocktail – ah, the velvet cloak at last! – of John Anton from Mandolin, where the hint of purple basil, bourbon, and tart liquors put us in mind of the tropical jungles Raleigh wandered hopelessly in along the Orinoco, failing to find his land of gold. (This drink should be called El Morado.)

But little controversy attended the winner, from Kevin Barrett of Foundation. A clean mix of Cardinal Gin (from our own homegrown master distiller, Southern Artisan Spirits in Kings Mountain, N.C.) and a honey syrup – a tip of the feathered crown hat to the mead-obsessed Elizabethans. Two kinds of bitters, including oak bitters, round out the ingredients.  Given Sir Walter’s long imprisonment and failed expeditions, no Walter cocktail should be, I assert, without bitterness… Barrett reports that he has been working on this drink for months, and it shows.  It is a single lovely, exquisite taste – not sour, bitter or sweet, just bold and aromatic and thirst-quenching. Indeed, we had to order some more just to make sure we liked it as much as we thought we did.  No ingredient competes or overpowers any other, and it is lovely to behold, a pale chartreuse-gold, like a young vinho verde. It is the divine realm of golden treasure that eluded our hero… but in the glass, we have beheld… El Dorado. Ask for “The Walter” next time you’re in Foundation.

The Walter one-year anniversary cocktailfest raged on, but some of us who had shared the difficult ordeal of sampling and analyzing glass after glass of cocktails needed some ballast.  Some of us proceeded to unchartered territory for me: The evening menu at Humble Pie. I am abashed, having been uninformed until now that Humble Pie deserves to be mentioned in the same list as Raleigh’s other cutting-edge restaurants, serving small plates, dishes from many cuisines expertly prepared by new chef Josh Young, every bit the contender for one’s night-on-the-town foodie dollars. Tetilla cheese in a gastrique, to be scooped up with a brittle lavosh; crispy tofu (about as good as tofu gets, folks) and eggplant simmered with Chinese sausage; N.C. shrimp and grits; Vietnamese pork wraps with nuoc cham sauce; a lamb meatball and white bean plate that one dining companion, raised in Dubai, pronounced authentic. Asian, Middle Eastern, high French and Low Country Southern dishes made with equal aplomb.

Walter Cocktail contest

Mandolin’s John Anton

Such indulgences give us all the more reason to pity poor Sir Walter, with the last 12 years of his life locked up in the Bloody Tower. He would be pleased to see his name associated with so much pleasure in a town so clever about how to eat, drink, and be merry. We raise a glass to you, Sir Walter!   

The WALTER cocktail

Created by Kevin Barrett of Foundation

2 ounces Cardinal Gin (King’s Mountain, N.C.)

¼ ounce Gallberry Honey Syrup (Princeville, N.C.)

½ ounce Dubonnet Blanc

2 dashes Escazu chocolate bitters (Raleigh)

1 dash housemade oak bitters (Raleigh)

Orange zest garnish

Stir and serve over rocks


Kyle Davis, bar and lounge manager at the Umstead Hotel and Spa, combined tobacco-infused Shotgun Betty Hefeweizen beer, Bulleit Rye Whisky, Bittermens Hopped Grapefruit Bitters, and the smoke of a freshly-lit cured leaf of rolled tobacco, which he laid atop the glass. On that leaf he perched a cloud of hand-made cotton candy. Barnhardt used the leaf to tip the cotton candy into the drink and stir.

Jordan Hester, bar manager at Bida Manda, made a drink of egg white, lemon juice, chardonnay, simple syrup, and oak bitter. First he cracked an egg white into the large side of a cocktail shaker. Into the small side, he poured ¾ ounce lemon juice, 1 ounce of simple syrup, and 2 ounces of chardonnay. After shaking them together to emulsify the egg, he then added ice, shook again, and strained the concoction into a coupe. The final touch: a dash of oak bitter.

 John Anton, bar manager at Mandolin, used the bounty of the Mandolin garden to create his entry. He combined Buffalo Trace Bourbon with purple basil, blackberries, honeysuckle, and lemon. Then he added his own house-made elderberry and black pepper bitters, green chartreuse, Cava, and dried elderberry. He powdered the rim of the glass with black pepper, and garnished it with purple basil leaf.

Corey Mason of Raleigh’s White Whale Bold Mixers put together a chocolatey, bourbon-based cocktail. With 2 1/2 ounces of Buffalo Trace bourbon, 1/2 ounce of tonic water, 5 dashes of Scrappy’s bitters and 1 ounce of his own White Whale Auntie’s Old Fashioned (a combination of youngberry, rosemary, and pear), Mason added dark chocolate and mint leaves.