This past summer, I had what I think of as a “light bulb” moment—a time when the right set of circumstances and events all come together to help me solve a problem that had been rooting around in the back of my head for years. The lead up to this moment started when two women friends of mine (thank you Kenie and Laura) took me out bar hopping in downtown Raleigh. I know I am showing my age here, but I think the last time I had done that was in the mid-1980’s when going “downtown” to the bars meant the stretch on Hillsborough Street near NC State campus—you know, the Circus Room at Darryl’s, Edward’s Grocery, The PR, Crazy Zacks, and Mitch’s Tavern—and the drink of choice was the nickel draft, usually Schlitz or PBR.
So this lovely summer evening we eventually ended up in Raleigh’s new downtown at Bida Manda where Laura wanted us to try “the best Old Fashioned she had ever had”. She was so right. The three of us completely fell in love with the perfectly balanced cocktail with the single large ice cube, garnished simply with a large fresh cut swath of lemon peel.
Fast forward to a few weeks later when one of these same friends, Kenie, met me up at Relish where we sat outside enjoying our regular Saturday night acoustic music on the patio drinking our usual wine. At the end of that evening, Kenie and I decided we wanted something different from the wine to “cap” off the night and we remembered that perfect Old Fashioned. Excited we ordered two, and sadly we ended up with the worst Old Fashioneds that we had ever had. Not to throw my wonderful bartenders under the bus, I take 100% responsibility for how different this Relish Old Fashioned was from the Bida Manda one.
In their defense I hired most of them out of craft beer centric bars and have spent the past five years with them focusing on increasing their wine knowledge and paying more attention to perfecting what comes out of our kitchen rather than how to make a good cocktail. Never having been a bartender myself (just a cocktail waitress at the Angus Barn’s Wild Turkey Lounge back in 1985 and 1986), I didn’t really know as much about liquor and cocktails as I do about food and wine. I was the one that created Relish’s original “retro” cocktail list with just this description that I had copied and pasted from somewhere online, “Old-Fashioned made like the original with a lump of sugar splashed with bitters and topped with bourbon, soda, and a cherry”. It sounded good to me, the clever writer and menu designer, but I did nothing but hand them the list and say make these drinks please—no recipes, just drink descriptions and prices.
This is so very different from what I have done in the Relish kitchen where I test all recipes over and over, provide my kitchen manager and cooks with perfectly typed up copies and instructions to check with me before changing anything, and work at the line during the shift making sure everything goes out just right.
What is really funny (now in retrospect) is that I spent these same five years wishing that we had a better bar crowd and wondering why we don’t. I made a conscious decision back at the start to NOT fill my place up with the sports bar requisite wall to wall large screen TV’s (my best decision ever, thanks Kim) and have had to limit my draft beer selection to a rotating 6 due to space and storage limitations (our walkin cooler is just too full of food to squeeze in any more kegs). So I knew I would never get a big beer and football crowd in here. I was happy that we had managed to create such a popular wine list that our wine sales are higher than our beer or liquor sales, but I wondered why we couldn’t keep our barstools full or our alcohol sales any higher than a meager 10% of our total sales.
And then comes the “light bulb” moment. What we have been missing all along is the craft cocktail, right? I’m not talking more dessert flavored specialty martinis here; I am talking well balanced, consistently prepared, handcrafted drinks that are made from high quality and fresh ingredients that are based on classic recipes that sometimes incorporate a new and improved twist. In short, more like what we do in the kitchen.
Brilliant, right? So last fall my managers, bar staff, and I embarked on a fun journey to completely overhaul and upgrade the bar and the cocktail menu here at Relish. This included both physical renovations (have you noticed we smoothed out the bar edge so you don't have to worry about tipping your drink or food onto your lap anymore?) and intensive training for all of us. Don’t worry, we didn’t complain too much at all of the booze we had to try or the other bars we had to visit—it was for a great cause, right?
After a long five months of working on this, we are excited to strut our stuff for you. Come on out and check out our new cocktail and whisk(e)y flights list. We believe you will fall in love with the whole package—new glassware, homemade ingredients, special large dense ice cubes, upgraded well liquors, fresh squeezed juices, small batch bitters, well trained bartenders, and of course our NEW Relish Old Fashioned.
See you at the bar,
Sharon May, Relish owner