Belly up to the bar, and you’ll likely find cocktails infused with tea, espresso, CBD and more. along with the vast array of libations, mixologists are also working to make menus more accessible to all. We asked the experts — here’s what to expect on Charlotte’s cocktail scene in 2024.
by Kayleigh Ruller | photographs by Justin Driscoll
As Charlotte grows, shifting preferences among diners are altering the mosaic of what’s cool each year in the Queen City’s food and beverage industry. If there’s one constant, it is this: Charlotteans like to drink.
With insight from three local bartender extraordinaires — Vince Chirico, owner of The Ugly and Idlewild; Colleen Hughes, beverage director at Tonidandel-Brown Restaurant Group; and Andrew Schools, co-owner of Humbug in Plaza Midwood — it’s clear that 2024’s overarching drinking trend is approachable experimentation.
Here are six ways, from tea-based cocktails to savory sips, Charlotte bartenders are staying on trend — even spearheading 2024’s bold-yet-accessible movement.
The two-for-one cocktail
This year, cocktails that promise more than just booze are expected to rise to new cross-functional heights.
Colleen Hughes, the creative force behind the whimsical drinks at Haberdish and Supperland, says these “functional cocktails” incorporate supplemental, often wellness-leaning, ingredients, like CBD or adaptogens — herbs and botanicals thought to have medicinal qualities.
While there’s no evidence proving these drinks are health-boosting, there are claims around certain ingredients being energizing, mood-enhancing or relaxation-inducing.
“There are ingredients we can put in your drink that can actually lift your mood,” says Hughes, referencing bitters in a negroni and aperitivo-style drinks.
Caffeine cocktails, led by the ubiquitous espresso martini, are cult leaders of this dual-purpose-drink trend. This coffee craze won’t cease in 2024, according to Vince Chirico and Andrew Schools. “People really want a pick-me-up to start the night,” says Schools, who crafts a campari, cold brew and pineapple drink at Humbug.
Chirico predicts that the carajillo — a Mexican drink with espresso and vanilla-leaning Licor 43 — will be an in vogue, two-for-one libation this year.
Left: Vince Chirico, owner of Idlewild and The Ugly. Right: Vince Chirico’s carajillo, left, is made with Licor 43, espresso, sea salt and grated cinnamon. Right: an espresso martini made with aged rum, espresso, espresso liqueur, lemon oil and cinnamon.
It’s tea time
This year will introduce dazzling combinations of teas and liquor, like Earl Grey and gin, green tea and rum, or drinks like Humbug’s bestselling Thundercat cocktail, a blend of Thai tea, tequila and Fernet with an enchantingly frothy texture.
When it comes to tea’s varied uses, “that’s a whole world that people haven’t explored,” Schools says.
Well, except Hughes, who, after visiting a tea shop in New York, crafted the Tea and Spice Menu at the Supperland Speakeasy, embracing tea as a subtle, layering flavor that adds complexity to cocktails.
Mindfulness is no longer exclusive to yoga studios and meditation apps — it’s making its way into the drinking world, ushering in an era of less binge-drinking and more thoughtful consumption, says Hughes.
The popularization of sober-curiosity, like Dry January or Sober October, and the expansion of tasteful no- and low-ABV drinks — predicted to grow in volume by 25% over the next two years — represent this pivot toward intentional drinking habits. Though the hangover will be cut, the price will likely not, as specialty nonalcoholic liquors hover around $20 to $50 a bottle.
Additionally, diners that do choose to keep the booze are now “less label-driven, and more interested in the story and the quality behind the spirit,” Hughes says.
This increased intentionality exists for both the consumer and the bartender, as Hughes and Schools both feel strongly about avoiding additives in their recipes.
“We don’t want to give people a bunch of sugary stuff… We want to use better ingredients, but make it fun,” says Schools, who, alongside co-owner Larry Suggs, makes peach cordial from scratch for a green tea shooter and pares down the cocktails to three or four high-quality ingredients.
Left: Expect more tea-and-liquor cocktails in the year ahead, like Humbug’s bestselling Thundercat (reposado tequila, Fernet Branca, Thai tea, egg white and cinnamon). Right: Two-for-one cocktails continue to gain momentum, like the Rye’d or Chai (rye whiskey, chai tea, cold brew, whole egg and nutmeg) at Humbug.
Tequila out, rum in
Increased demand for tequila — up 30% from 2015 to 2020, and still growing — coupled with the geographic constraints and time requirements for agave plant growth has created a troubling supply-and-demand issue. The result is higher prices and poorer quality, with 70% of tequilas on the market containing undisclosed additives.
Given this, Hughes and Schools both predict that rum — alcohol made from sugarcane juice or molasses that can be grown worldwide — will thrive. Schools foresees the return of Tiki-style drinks, and Hughes plans to experiment with rum in spunky renditions on a Manhattan or Negroni.
Extra savory, please
Vegetables and mushrooms aren’t just on plates — they very well may be in cocktails this year.
“On Instagram now [and on the] World’s 50 Best Bars lists, there are a lot of food cocktails,” Chirico says.
While social media may have drawn newer drinkers into the savory martini world, experienced drinkers are flocking to these ultra-umami, briny and vegetal concoctions at top bars. Global hot spot Double Chicken Please on New York’s Lower East Side serves food-inspired cocktails, like the Japanese Cold Noodle or the Red Eye Gravy.
Timeless drinks that swap sweet for savory are, in a way, trend-transcending, like Hughes’ popular off-menu dirty martini. Schools has even experimented with a clarified bloody mary martini.
Alongside the savory sips, Chirico actually expects these clarified cocktails — clear drinks reduced of impurities with a smooth mouthfeel — to surge quickly and intensely in Charlotte.
Left: Colleen Hughes, beverage director at Supperland, says patrons are becoming less label-driven and are more interested in the stories behind the spirits. Out: binge drinking. In: thoughtful consumption. Photo by Justin Driscoll. Right: The Ugly, a new bar adjacent to Idlewild in NoDa, serves traditional well drinks and simple, easy-drinking cocktails priced from $10-$12 in a come-as-you-are atmosphere. Photograph courtesy Bread & Butter.
The inclusive cool factor
Making way for improved inclusivity and affordability, Chirico opened The Ugly, an unfussy beer-and-shot bar, in November 2023 next door to his more highbrow cocktail concept Idlewild in NoDa. The Ugly serves traditional well drinks and simple, easy-drinking cocktails along with a few rotating specials.
“It sounded like the right thing to do, and honestly… there’s kind of a kitschy coolness factor to it,” says Chirico, who has seen The Ugly become a magnet for eclectic groups coming together for a beer.
While a straightforward menu and a stripped-back atmosphere are ways to embrace approachability, another way is to curate fun, themed community events that nudge elitism into accessibility, like Supperland Speakeasy’s Star Wars or Ugly Sweater themed nights, which booked out in nearly 24 hours.
Humbug, too, leans into the unpretentiousness of a neighborhood bar by prioritizing a conversational yet intimate drinking environment, leaving TVs out of the main seating area and keeping a pool table in the back.
“You got to talk to each other,” says Schools. “That’s something that’s lost in a lot of bars.”
In 2024, guests and bartenders alike want fewer superfluous additives (in the drinks and the design), and more engagement with fun ingredients — and importantly, with each other. SP
Featured Image: Expect more rum cocktails in the year ahead, according to local mixologists. Andy Schools makes a Rum Old-Fashioned with Zacapa 23 rum, demerara syrup, Tiki bitters and orange bitters.