Gary Crunkleton possesses a larger-than-life reputation among Southern bartenders that veers toward American folklore proportions. The North Carolina native opened The Crunkleton in Chapel Hill in 2008, offering an elevated drinking experience that focused on classic cocktails and a deep spirits list that ran counter to the area bars that mostly catered to the drinking habits of local college students.
The 30-foot bar at The Crunkleton runs the length of the front room with over 600 unique bottles on display on 10-foot-high bookshelves that reach toward the ceiling. Crunkleton credits the Grateful Dead for inspiration, modeling the backbar after the band’s legendary Wall of Sound speaker set-up that spanned the entire backdrop of the stage during their 1974 tour. Assembling that many bottles in a control state was not an easy feat to accomplish, and when Crunkleton wanted to expand his collection to offer rare and vintage spirits to his guests, he lobbied state legislature. In 2015, North Carolina General Assembly House Bill 909 was passed—Crunkleton calls it the “Crunkleton bill”—allowing the “sale of antique spirituous liquor” in North Carolina bars, restaurants and distilleries. “Owning a bar meant I would need to be there everyday to serve guests. I thought it best to create a place full of things that I love in order to sustain my enthusiasm and appreciation for the place,” says Crunkleton.
Even with a collection filled with “some of the best whiskey ever made in America from the 1940s through the 1970s,” and bottles dating all the way back to 1906, you’re most likely to find Crunkleton drinking a cold Miller High Life at the bar. “To me, this simple, inexpensive beer captures what the bar is all about,” says Crunkleton. “It’s a place for everyone that strives to bring out the best in people. A guest can come in here for the first time and be intimidated by all of the bottles, the fancy cocktails, the bartenders in bow ties and the higher costs. The Crunkleton is not a common bar. But a simple bottle of beer can be the drink that shows guests what we are by showing them what we are not—pretentious, assuming, chichi or jerks.” And that level of Crunkleton-style hospitality will expand this year with the opening of the more casual The Neighborhood Bar in Chapel Hill, and the much-anticipated Charlotte outpost of The Crunkleton that’s slated to open in November of 2018.
So what does Crunkleton do when he’s not busy seeking out rare bottles of bourbon or opening a new bar? Here, he takes our Lookbook Questionnaire to share why you shouldn’t mess around with tobacco infusions, the best things he ever drank, as well as his go-to Bojangles’ order. — Brad Thomas Parsons
My name is Gary Crunkleton and my line of work involves food and drink. I am a bartender that owns a few bars and a restaurant in North Carolina.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
It seems as though the only thing I am good at is bartending, but I would love to be a game show host. Hosting “The Family Feud” or “The Price is Right” would be amazing.
Best thing you ever drank:
Please know that I love Miller High Life from a bottle, but when I think back at some of the best things I have ever drank I have to mention whisk(e)y. Ardbeg Provenance Single Malt Scotch Whisky from 1974 is pretty nice. Drinking that bottle with good friends is about as good as it can get for me. Another pour that comes to mind is an Old Overholt Pennsylvania Rye Whiskey bottled in the 1940s. I stumbled upon those bottlings and wish I had more.
Worst thing you ever drank:
Around seven years ago, I was asked to create a Southern cocktail for a magazine story. Being from North Carolina, I wanted to use tobacco as an ingredient. I took a bunch of cured tobacco and infused it in bourbon for a few weeks. Although the aroma was delightful, the infusion was horrible and beyond intoxicating. The drink I was trying to create was never made and I learned a valuable lesson from messing with tobacco.
First time you ever got drunk:
The 10th grade in high school represents my first days of drinking to excess. Parties at friends’ houses were the weekend routines and PJ—a punch made from Everclear and fruit juices. There is cut up oranges, pineapple and those cheap red cherries. I don’t know its etymology, but it is redneck—mixed in a trash can was the in-vogue drink of choice. The parties were something like you would see in the movie “Dazed and Confused.” I miss those high-school days. Looking back, those days may be as good as it gets.
If you had to listen to one album on loop, for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Gosh, this is a tough one. I had an older sister that was really into classic rock. From her, I learned about the Allman Brothers and the Rolling Stones. My older brother, Tedder, liked rock and roll that sounded best on reel to reel. I used to sneak into his room and listen to Pink Floyd and Steely Dan. My other older brother was into punk music and the alternative stuff during the early ’80s. All of them influenced me, but if I could only listen to one album it would be the Grateful Dead’s Cornell 5/8/77 from their May 1977 show at Cornell University. I have listened to that show many times through the years in times of celebration or inspiration.
What’s the weirdest hobby you currently have or have had?
I think it is weird that I buy and collect books although I do not read them. I’ll hear about one that has come out and sounds interesting only to buy it and let it sit on my bedside table or on a shelf never to he opened. I think that is a weird habit or hobby.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago?
It is difficult to choose just one. Given that I own bars, I wish I had anticipated the bourbon shortage that hit us five years ago. I also wish I would have bought more antique whiskeys when they were dirt-cheap five years ago. Both of these wishes could have helped me maintain a great selection to offer my bar guests as part of the the “Crunkleton bill,” which makes it legal for bars in North Carolina to sell vintage spirits.
Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted:
The tobacco-infused bourbon I made ended up being pretty weird given all of the nicotine that leached into the bourbon. I had some of it tested and was told a half-ounce taste of the infusion was equal to inhaling a draw from 2000 cigarettes. When I would work on creating a drink with it, I could only get through a couple attempts before feeling too dizzy to continue. The magazine that asked me to create a Southern cocktail would email me weekly to check my progress and I always replied that I needed more time. I always thought they were thinking I was blowing them off, but I wasn’t.
What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not eating, drinking, or drink-making?
I enjoy shopping for antiques. As a kid, my mom would drag me around looking at antique stores on the weekends. We would stop at every yard sale on the road. I ended up resenting antiques and pretty much anything used. I recall thinking I would never buy antiques when I got older. Now that I am older and can buy what I want, I gravitate towards antiques. My mom instilled the value of them within me and I find shopping for them to be a relaxing gift from her.
Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten:
The Cement Mixer. It’s lime syrup and Bailey’s Irish Cream served in their own separate shot glasses. The drinker pours both into his or her mouth, shaking their head and swooshing the mixture around in the mouth. This effect causes the two liquids to meld together in a thick dry paste that is disgusting. They are not ordered as much as they used to in the ’90s, but are still a pretty stupid thing order.
Your favorite bar, and why:
My favorite bar is the Napoleon House in New Orleans. I love going there and grabbing a seat at the bar. I am not sure why, but it is my secret getaway from all of the stresses of life. The surroundings are simple. The drinks are fine. The service is adequate. For me, the Napoleon House makes the ordinary extraordinary.
Best meal you’ve ever had:
I am embarrassed to admit it, but I love Bojangles’ Famous Chicken.
What’s your go-to drink in a cocktail bar?
Probably a Manhattan or a Vieux Carré depending on what part of the country I’m in.
Zinfandel from California. I like Ridge Vineyards.
In a dive bar?
Miller High Life in a bottle and a pour of whiskey.
Your preferred hangover recovery regime:
One Mr. Goodbar and a cold Mountain Dew. If this does not work, then it’s probably best to go back to bed.
The one thing you wish would disappear from drinks lists forever:
The last text message you sent:
“I think the last 36 percent will be the toughest.”