Even before your eyes have a chance to adjust to the low lighting when you step inside Whiskey, sultry Jazz Age vocals set a retro mood. The deep shotgun space of the room begins to take shape, and its furnishings -- dark wood paneling, molded tin ceiling, barrel-shaded lamps and leather upholstery -- reinforce the 1920s speakeasy vibe. You take a seat at the Art Deco bar, whose cigarette-scarred top glows with the patina of some 90 years of use, and are greeted by a bartender with a handlebar mustache. All your senses tell you that you've stumbled across a bar that has been frozen in time for nearly a century.
But in fact, Whiskey has barely been open a month. The antique bar was salvaged from a now-shuttered bar in Queens, New York. The mustachioed bartender is John Richie, an avid student of pre-Prohibition era cocktail recipes. Richie's fellow bartender is owner Rhys Botica, who is also a partner in Federal, the gastropub down the street. Botica has stocked the bar with more than 140 liquors, including one of the area's most extensive selections of rum, tequila, vodka and variations on the whiskey/whisky theme. There's an excellent selection of North Carolina-brewed draft beers, as well as an impressive assortment of vintage ports.
But, for fans of classic cocktails, it's the list of house specialty drinks that instantly places Whiskey among the crème de la crème of local bars. Not surprisingly, given Richie's passion, many of these cocktails are based on well-researched pre-Prohibition era recipes, rendered as faithfully as possible working with the ingredients that are available today. A prime example is the Dykki, a silky elixir of Plymouth gin, St. Germain elderflower liqueur and Lillet Blanc, served chilled in an absinthe-rinsed cocktail glass. Based on an obscure recipe, the original drink "had an unpronounceable French name," according to Richie, "so we named it for one of our best customers."
That's not to say that the entire cocktail list consists of esoteric drinks you've never heard of. Richie is justifiably proud of his Sazerac, which is made with Jim Beam rye, Peychaud's bitters, simple syrup and and absinthe rinse. The Manhattan -- 12-year-old Elijah Craig bourbon, Boissiere sweet vermouth, and Fee Brothers bitters -- is an elegantly rendered classic.
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To make an Old-Fashioned, Richie starts by muddling orange, a sugar cube and cherries that he has macerated in bourbon. Canadian Club Reserve, Regan's orange bitters and a splash of club soda complete a beverage that is as refreshing today as it was a hundred years ago. If only all history lessons were so palatable.