Behind the Bar Bar Talk

Bob Peters of The Punch Room on How to Keep It Local

Emily Arden Wells

Bob Peters is perhaps best known for his drool-worthy Instagram feed filled with photo after photo of beautifully presented drinks that have earned him more than 40,000 followers and have opened up countless opportunities, including serving cocktails at New York City’s James Beard House and the Cayman Cookout hosted by Eric Ripert. Peters is the head bartender of Charlotte, N.C.’s Punch Room, a gorgeous gem of a cocktail bar located on the top floor of The Ritz-Carlton hotel.

At first glance, The Punch Room seems like any craft cocktail bar: a perfect array of garnishes lining the bar, impressive glassware and a shimmering back bar of well-known spirits. Upon second glance, however, the lesser-known bottles pique one’s interest—carefully selected local offerings that are showcased on the cocktail menu along with locally harvested raw ingredients, as well as beer, wine and mixers. Peters’ interest in local ingredients comes not only from his appreciation for North Carolina craft producers but also from the challenge of not having access to the wide array of spirits that bartenders based in large cities often take for granted.

Bob Peter’s rooftop garden at The Punch Room (image: Joel Tracey)

Below, Peters discusses six ways that limitations in product availability can create opportunities for relationships with local vendors, better customer experiences and, ultimately, a uniquely creative bar program.

1. Learn the blue laws in your state.

“There are a lot of challenges opening a new bar in a smaller market. In a large market, you can get any product at any time no matter how obscure or rare. Sometimes smaller markets have more regulations that restrict purchasing. For instance, in a controlled state, all liquor, sometimes beer and wine as well, is only sold in a state-owned or -run store. They have exclusive control of the market and have specific preferences on how things work from order to pickup. If they don’t carry a specific liquor that you want to order, some will let you special order a single bottle. However, in other states, you have to order an entire case and pay for it upfront before the order is even placed. Depending on your working budget, this can present its own set of challenges.”

2. Can’t get a particular product? Create flavor profiles through other ingredients.

“Say you have a brilliant concept to use Strega [an Italian herbal liqueur with prominent notes of saffron and fennel] in a groundbreaking earth-shattering recipe that will change the face of your cocktail community, but your small budget will not allow for the purchase of a case up front. Instead of accepting defeat and scrapping your recipe, take this opportunity to make homemade saffron syrup that you can customize more specifically to your recipe. It will probably be better and more delicious than bending your recipe to someone else’s ingredients anyway.”

The Punch Room’s A Wise Man’s Conniption, made with navy-strength gin, plum sage syrup and Lillet Blanc (image: Justin Driscoll)

3. Vendor relationships with local vendors are of paramount importance. Find amazing local products that you are proud to offer your guests.

“I have a plethora of magnificent wares that I have housed at The Punch Room. I always take great pride in finding the finest ingredients to offer my guests.... I love my North Carolina products beyond words. I am very proud of the fine product that is coming out of my great state, including craft beer, craft spirits and produce.

“I have a tiny beer selection, but I am thrilled to offer four different beers from Noda Brewing Company, which is located about 10 minutes from The Punch Room’s location in Uptown Charlotte. I use a Charlotte-brewed alcoholic ginger beer (that’s exclusive to The Punch Room) for my less-sweet, more-adult version of a Mule created by Lenny Boy Brewing Co. I also carry several North Carolina wines by Fair Game Beverage Co. out of Pittsboro, N.C. These delightful wines are irreplaceable in creating one-of-a-kind cocktails that reflect the flavors of our region.

The Punch Room’s Chai’ed & Gone to Heaven Punch, made with 1792 small-batch bourbon, chai, fresh orange and lemon, and prosecco and garnished with fresh orange and organic violas

“The main ingredient in a proper cocktail is, of course, the spirits. Last time I counted, North Carolina had a whopping 49 distilleries. There’s an incredible amount of high-quality booze coming out of this state, including whiskey, bourbon, brandy, gin, vodka, liqueurs, rum and various moonshines. For fear of forgetting one, I will say I carry too many to name them individually.

“Finally, I use as much local produce whenever possible in my cocktails. From tobacco to sweet potatoes, North Carolina has a magnificently rich history embedded in agriculture. I have thoroughly enjoyed building relationships and sourcing produce over the past years with local farmers. I am a firm believer in knowing where your food comes from. In fact, I have tried to take this idea to the next level by selecting herbs, fruits and vegetables to grow in the organic garden on the rooftop of The Ritz-Carlton Charlotte, which is complete with two incredibly productive beehives.

The Punch Room’s Cardinal Penicillin, made with Cardinal Barrel Rested gin, freshly squeezed lemon juice and house-made honey ginger syrup using honey from beehives at the restaurant and bar’s rooftop garden.

“There are very few things that I have done that are more satisfying to my soul than picking ingredients off the roof, walking down to The Punch Room and making vibrant garden-fresh cocktails to the sheer delight of my guests. I have also reconnected with the brilliance of rich fresh-out-of-the-hive honey over the past two years since The Punch Room has been open. The difference between store-bought honey and fresh honey is more than extreme. Using fresh honey as a sweetener in your bar syrups is a simple and easy way to add depth and dimension to even a basic recipe.”

4. Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate.

“I love doing collaborations with local producers, especially distilleries. In the spring, I was fortunate enough to be able to collaborate with Top of the Hill (TOPO) distillery out of Chapel Hill, N.C. I helped them create an experimental Southern American amaro, which they donated to the James Beard House. With that, I made cocktails one evening alongside some amazing Charlotte chefs for a Taste of Charlotte dinner. I made an apéritif cocktail served as the guests arrived that was sherry based, with notes of bitterness, tarragon and hibiscus. It went over exceptionally well, to say the least. That night, I was able to scratch off a big item off of my bucket list: making cocktails at James Beard House. I still get chills.”

Bob Peters

5. Let the local ingredients become part of your bar’s experience.

“The hands-down greatest benefit to working closely with local producers is the unique experience that you’re able to provide to your guests. Making drinks is easy, but creating an experience is more difficult; it takes a bit more care and planning. Using locally produced products, whether it’s handcrafted spirits or produce that is lovingly grown by you or by a farmer whom you know on a first-name basis, is only one of several possible details you should pay attention to when starting this process. Nevertheless, using local flavors that are one-of-a-kind for your location is a great start to creating a particularly remarkable experience for your guests. And after all, isn’t that what it’s all about?”

6. Invite your local producers in for a drink. Your customers will love it.

“I have built strong friendships with most of the people that distill the local spirits that I constantly use. Occasionally, they will have a chance to break away from their stills and have a cocktail or two at The Punch Room. Inevitably, I will pick up one of their bottles to use in a cocktail in front of other guests, and someone will ask how that product tastes. I will testify for a couple of minutes about the quality of the product and then introduce them to the good folks that make that particular spirit—the ones sitting next to them at the bar. It’s a very special and memorable experience for all of those involved. That never gets old no matter how many times it happens.”