The new speakeasy at Supperland provides space for head mixologist Colleen Hughes to push the cocktail experience to a new level.
by Cathy Martin • photographs by Justin Driscoll
It takes about six man hours a day just to open the bar at Supperland, according to head mixologist Colleen Hughes, and even longer on weekends. Hughes, the 2021 North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association’s Mixologist of the Year, is known for original, inventive cocktails made with complex, housemade ingredients you won’t find at ABC stores or local markets. But Hughes wanted somewhere she and her staff could create a more intimate, immersive experience, with cocktails too technically difficult to serve in volume.
Bars with cocktail tasting menus are a rarity outside of large metros such as New York, Los Angeles and London, Hughes says. “So, I had the boss build me this space to do something that nobody does in minor markets.”
Already one of the hottest reservations in town, Supperland debuted its exclusive speakeasy in late September. The reservation-only, prepaid and prix-fixe “spirit experience” is available Thursday-Saturday, but you have to move fast to snag a spot once reservations open up for each seating — the tiny basement bar beneath the cocktail bar at Supperland seats only 10. For $115 (about $150 including tax and tip), guests will be treated to four cocktails accompanied by four small plates from Supperland Chef Chris Rogienski, along with detailed explanations from Hughes, who sounds as much like a chemist as a bartender as she describes the elaborate recipes and the science behind the complex libations she creates.
Take for example, the Science is for Girls dessert cocktail, currently on the speakeasy menu (though Hughes says it could make its way to the bar upstairs in the near future). To make the clarified milk punch, Hughes and her team employ a sous vide method to create a chocolate milk with cinnamon and freshly ground nutmeg. The punch is made with the Colleen Hughes-branded single-barrel Maker’s Mark (Hughes and Bar Manager Rhea Buck recently blended their own barrels for sale in North Carolina ABC stores), “which is a chocolate-toffee bomb in and of itself,” she says, and a toasted hazelnut orgeat. “You need to have acid to break a milk punch, but I didn’t want to add lemon or lime because I didn’t want to add a bunch of astringency. So I made fresh squeezed orange juice, and I acidified that to the same acidity as lemon juice.” The ice cube is a cold brew coffee “lightly sweetened to control the melt point” with a hint of gold glitter for a little sparkle.
At press time, the speakeasy experience was centered around bourbons, including a few limited releases no longer available in stores. Later this month, Hughes says the speakeasy will pivot to a holiday-themed experience. SP