Mixing It Up

Mixologist Bob Peters Talks Garden-to-Glass Cocktails and Charlotte’s Spirits Scene

Bob Peters is easily Charlotte’s most renowned mixologist. His brand of fine dining cocktails exhibit unparalleled taste, balance and depth, which have earned him a devoted following among locals and visitors alike.

You’ll find him most nights at The Punch Room, an intimate bar on the 15th floor of The Ritz-Carlton, Charlotte, that opened in 2015.

Punch Room
Handcrafted cocktails and fresh local ingredients fill The Punch Room menu. (Photo: The Ritz-Carlton, Charlotte)

The Punch Room doesn’t accept reservations, and on weekends, the wait for a seat can run up to three hours. Peters recommends that you swing by on Wednesday or Thursday when it’s quieter and you likely won’t have to wait at all.

Here, he chats with Marriott TRAVELER about his cocktail philosophy and why he loves working in Charlotte.

I'm proud to be from Charlotte. We have all the advantages of the big city without all the headaches.

Bob Peters

You’ve lived and worked in Charlotte all your life. How has the cocktail scene evolved over your career?

I’m proud to be from Charlotte. We have all the advantages of the big city without all the headaches. There’s plenty to do, and it’s beautiful here.

I’ve been bartending since I was 21, so it’s over 20 years now that I’ve been bartending in Charlotte. I’ve seen a ton of change, to say the least. Right when I first started bartending, the imported beer shifted.

The only imported beer when I was a kid was Heineken. When I started bartending, there were dark beers like Newcastle and Guinness. Little by little, microbreweries started opening up across the country, including Charlotte. We have so many, and they’re all doing really amazing work.

To mirror that … craft beers have led the way for craft cocktails. People figured out that you could have this really beautiful experience with beer in a different way than you might have realized you would have liked. It’s opened up a lot of people’s minds and eyes to the fact that you can do really outlandish things and craft it for a person sitting in front of you in the cocktail world.

You may not think that apricot sounds good in your drink, but if you do it right, it certainly is. That in combination with the culinary world exploding in Charlotte has helped. We’ve seen a lot of fresh cockails come to life.

You even have a rooftop garden at The Ritz-Carlton! That’s a pretty special luxury for a bartender.

Punch Room
Bob Peters inspects his future ingredients at the property’s rooftop garden. (Photo: The Ritz-Carlton, Charlotte)

I’m very lucky. The lengths that The Ritz-Carlton lets me go to in order to make amazing cocktails has been incredible. They allowed me to put an organic garden on the roof, along with beehives. It’s a pretty substantial garden and takes up a large portion of our roof. This will be our third year having it.

I submit a list of things that I would like for the next year, and most of that stuff happens. Some of it doesn’t if it’s really crazy and hard to find. I tried to get some pine berries, but the seeds are hard to find. They look like an albino strawberry, and they are really delicious, but I haven’t been able to find any seeds yet. I keep seeing them around in the world, and it’s driving me crazy.

There used to be only one or two places where you could get a proper cocktail, but now there are tons. Cocktail culture is exploding. Charlotte now has a permanent chapter in the USBG [United States Bartenders’ Guild].

I'm very lucky. The lengths that The Ritz-Carlton lets me go to in order to make amazing cocktails has been incredible.

Bob Peters

After working at Soul Gastrolounge and Pisces Sushi Bar & Lounge, you opened The Punch Room. How is The Punch Room unique compared to anywhere else that you’ve worked in Charlotte?

We only have 37 seats — we’re tiny — and we don’t allow standing. It’s sitting-room only, which allows us to give an extraordinary level of service. We don’t get overwhelmed by an unexpected crowd. If we’re full then we start a queue and take your name and number and text you as soon as we’re ready for you.

It’s really not the end of the world; if you’re waiting in line, you can sit in the lobby lounge in The Ritz-Carlton and have drinks. It’s not like you’re on a cold street corner in Chicago waiting to get into a bar.

What are your favorite local ingredients to use in cocktails?

Punch Room
From farm to cocktail glass. [Photos (clockwise from left): The Ritz-Carlton, Charlotte; Joel Tracey; Justin Driscoll]

I love using sorghum, which is like the molasses of the South. And I love using my rooftop honey. I did a sorghum Ferris syrup. There’s a local distillery in Durham called Fair Game Beverage Company doing wines as well as some liqueurs.

One of the wines is made with local grapes, and they call it Ferris. I had this crazy idea to do a really interesting cocktail with Ferris Red wine and sorghum. Think about a sweet molasses red wine, so you get this sweetness and depth. I did that with mezcal and a local apple cider and served it with chocolate shavings. It tastes like cigarettes, chocolate and red wine. That one was really unexpected because it was mixed with mezcal for smokiness.

Any favorite small-batch spirits produced in Charlotte that you’re excited to be incorporating in your bar program?

There’s a great company called Doc Porter’s Distillery, and they’re doing a bourbon, gin and vodka and have plans to expand and do some liqueurs. Cardinal Gin is another favorite, out of Kings Mountain, just 30 to 45 minutes away.

And there’s Muddy River Distillery, which is a rum distillery on the outskirts of Charlotte, just past the airport. They’ve got some amazing rum. I did a winter cocktail with lemon tarragon in dark rum, garnished with a ridiculously amazing Perigord black truffle from France.

You’re pretty famous on Instagram — 44,100 followers and counting! How does it play into your creative process?

It’s all about what I’m doing with cocktails … I eventually ran across this guy named Justin Driscoll who did beautiful work. He was easy to work with, fast and took beautiful images, so we became a team.

I come from a family of artists and so I grew up with an eye for art. I basically just applied that to the aesthetics of my cocktails. A lot of that is just simplicity. I think simple things are sometimes the most beautiful.

I come from a family of artists and so I grew up with an eye for art. I basically just applied that to the aesthetics of my cocktails.

Bob Peters

What cocktail trends do you forecast in Charlotte and nationally this year?

I see more and more things going seasonally, and more things going very fresh as far as garden cocktails and garden-to-glass. That’s what I call my style. I definitely see ethnic spirits exploding, things like mezcal and sotol from Mexico and krupnikas, which is a spiced honey liqueur that’s Eastern European in origin.

There’s a company that does krupnikas in Durham, here in North Carolina. Two brothers from Lithuania. I see more and more of that stuff happening.

Is there a signature drink at The Punch Room that you’ll never be able to take off the menu?

Punch Room
A mainstay at the bar. (Photo: The Ritz-Carlton, Charlotte)

There’s this really amazing bourbon cocktail called Strange Brew. It’s been there since day one. I make it with my favorite bourbon — Old Scout bourbon is from Smooth Ambler in West Virginia, so I’m claiming it’s local. It’s mixed with homemade hazelnut milk and poured over a double-brewed coffee ice cube. People would freak out if I took that off the menu.

Also, my pisco sour with homemade St. Germain foam on top. It’s a rearranged pisco sour, like floating a cocktail on top of a cocktail. I go through so much of the pisco sour that I now put it on tap. We just fly through those things.

You have so much passion for cocktails, flavors and also a real heart for hospitality. What’s your favorite part of your job?

When I watch somebody take their first sip of a cocktail and their eyes roll back in their head and this disbelief invades their smile. And they’re like “Wow, that’s amazing!” That’s easily the most pleasurable part of my job.