By John Trump
Naming the best bourbon bar in your own defined universe is akin to choosing your favorite burger or brewery.
It’s an effort in futility. Tastes evolve. Discoveries are made. Things change.
Even in my own little sliver of an indescribably vast universe, I have dozens of wonderful choices: Whiskey Kitchen and Dram & Draught in Raleigh. The Mayton Inn and Tribeca Tavern in Cary. Gia – Drink, Eat, Listen in Greensboro. Just a few examples.
I enjoy these bars; they’re familiar.
But it’s the strange, the unfamiliar, that sometimes — for a just a moment or for much longer — reaches out and in no small way declares a high place among the best.
Dr. Allen Dobson has extended such a skillful hand. For decades a family physician in tiny Mt. Pleasant, North Carolina, Dobson played no small role in creating 73 & Main Restaurant, an upscale yet comfortable eatery and bar about 30 minutes northeast of Charlotte.
The food is exceptional yet affordable. Dobson’s way of giving to a community, which, like so many in North Carolina, was left to be forgotten as the textile industry faded and mostly disappeared. The restaurant, in fact, is a former hosiery mill. In the early 1900s it was home to a mercantile. Before that a livery stable.
“Gosh, I wonder what you could do with that building,” Dobson remembers thinking.
“I started looking and kind of fell in love with the building. We talked about reinvesting in community, because it’s been good to us.”
Dobson is also part of a group of investors who believed in another local entrepreneur, Leanne Powell, the de facto warden and a mastermind behind Whiskey Prison, or Southern Grace Distilleries.
The former Cabarrus County Correctional Center includes 19 structures comprising 36,332 square feet, according to a posting by the state, and encompasses 22.5 acres.
Dobson, at one time, helped care for its prisoners, now long gone. Replaced by stills, barrels, and fine bourbon.
“I really think she’s onto something,” Dobson tells me, recalling a conversation with Powell.
As is Dobson. Onto something, I mean.
The restaurant, just a couple of miles from the Whiskey Prison, was about half full on a recent Saturday afternoon. A few hours later people huddled around the door and gathered in the bar. Waiting for a table, now elusive.
Part of a community, once left by the wayside, now inching toward relevance. The idea of thriving now much more than a nice thought.
In the bar, Dobson served appetizers. Shrimp and calamari. Cheese and charcuterie.
On the shelves, behind Dobson’s right shoulder, were dozens of bottles. High on shelves were the antiques. Regal bottles. Real-world unicorns. New and old.
The collection built on itself.
“We got 15 and said, ha … why don’t we do 30?”
“We were going after an experience.”
Ancient Age Barrel 107, a 7-year-old released in 1992. Old Crow Chessmen a 10-year, from 1969. Maker’s Mark Black Label, a discontinued 95-proof offering released in 1995. I sampled a 12-year-old Elijah Craig from 1990, produced before the Heaven Hill fire. Wonderful oak aroma, vanilla and cinnamon. Truly a historic pour.
Traci Allen is the mixologist behind an inventive cocktail menu, including “Campfire on Main,” a smoked and toasted — it’s literally smoked at the bar, using charred wood from bourbon barrels — version of a Manhattan featuring Conviction Bourbon, from the Whiskey Prison. “Cell Block” is its Old-Fashioned cousin.
“Best bourbon-based cocktails you can imagine … signature cocktails you can’t get anywhere. Listen to the customers and learn what they want,” Dobson says. “But you need to be brave, too. People want the experience, and it’s all about allowing them to taste and experience things, so they don’t have to drive to D.C. and New York.”
Or Charlotte, even.