At Barrel and Fork, a quaint restaurant located on Cornelius’s Main Street of tree lined old Victorian homes, I stood behind the bar to ply my trade. Surrounded as I am with whiskeys, botanical spirits, bitters, and elixirs of all varieties, as if in some ancient apothecary. I prepared to make a drink, the old gal herself, the Manhattan cocktail. Imagining for a moment the residents of the very home I stood, who 1920 almost certainly went through an identical process for their invited guests, I picked up a copper jigger, mixing glass, and bottle of 10 year barrel charred and aged New York rye whiskey to begin.
The process and what it creates, is every bit as sacred a local institution as the soft North Carolina accent, hospitality, and gentile culture that now attracts people from all over the country. In the 1600s and 1700s taverns were places of social gathering in the Carolinas, and some towns grew up around crossroads establishments, not the least of which were the Davidson/Cornelius neighborhoods. Distilled spirits and the art of making them were important in European heritage, and, after the American Indians introduced the settlers to corn, the crop became an instant staple of local whiskey makers. In western North Carolina counties, settlers raised fine apple crops in addition to corn, and with apple cider came apple brandy. So important was this economy that during the 1880s as many as 450 distilleries were shipping their products through Statesville, North Carolina and great fortunes in the whiskey trade where made from the mountains to the Piedmont, prospering towns and communities all along the way.
However it was the social aspect that really greased the wheels of life in the Carolinas. If you were new to town and interested in getting to know the local mayor, tradesmen, (and yes, even the pastor), or simply enjoy interesting conversation, the process was quite simple: head to the tavern located in the heart of town, sit down on an impossibly uncomfortable wooden bar stool, order a Flip from the bartender -a blend of beer, rum, molasses (or dried pumpkin) and eggs whipped into a froth by plunging a hot fire poker (called a flip-dog) into its midst- and strike up a conversation with your bar mates. Here you would find out the gossip of the day, town scandals, upcoming elections, and business opportunities. But most importantly you would “cheers” to some local residents and make invaluable friendships.
When you sit down at my bar and you’re greeted with a smile, hear the laughter and conversations loosened by imbibing all around you, and presented with a Manhattan served up in an etched Heisey orchid coupe glass from 1938 know that you are part of our community, our history, and our people no matter where you come from. It is here, in this great democratization and connection to the past, where imbibing breaks down political and cultural barriers and allows us to understand one another. You’ll see few cell phones, not because they are disallowed but because conversation and watching the social interactions are just far more interesting, just as they always have been here and, hopefully, always will be.