by Brian Clarey

“Scotch on the rocks,” I say. “What do you got in the well?” “I got Dewars,” says John Gardner, “but we use Cutty Sark in the well.” Cutty Sark: a dependable old blend that came to prominence during a scotch-drinking boom that began in the ’40s and lasted through the ’70s. I remember seeing ads for Cutty in the pages of my dad’s old Playboy magazines when I was a kid. “I’ll have it,” I say, and Gardner pours a generous portion in a rocks glass that’s almost too big to hold with one hand. Old school. I light a smoke and sip slowly. The scotch, the cigarettes… hell, even a barroom you can smoke in… it’s all falling out of fashion. But there was a time when scotch and cigarettes — and you can throw in red meat —constituted a sort of gentlemanly trifecta. And it was places like this, Churchill’s bar on South Elm Street, where these arts were practiced. It’s a swanky joint — has been since the day it opened as Hemingway’s in 2005 in a black-tie, invite-only affair. Tall cocktail tables line the room, luxuriously appointed in burgundy, dark wood and etched glass. The bar is an expansive thing, corralling the back of the room in cherry stain and brass. And Gardner, who has been here from the very beginning, is the closest thing you’ll get in downtown Greensboro to an old-time bartender. He listens judiciously, advises sagely and knows when to keep his mouth shut. “I’d be hard-pressed to say who ‘the owner’ is here,” he says. I’m asking because the place has recently undergone a renovation of sorts — not in the d’cor, which remains a bastion of downtown elegance; nor in the libations, because Churchill’s still slings many draft and bottled beers, high-end liquors, fine wines and creative martinis. The change has been administrative in nature, and Gardner is wise enough to know not to speak about his bosses to a man with a notebook. Here’s the skinny: The high-ceilinged barroom beneath the Empire Room was opened in summer 2005 by silent partners Mike Wheelihan and Simon Solomon, with Jeff Schleuning brought in as managing partner. Together they created a space defined by elegance, innovation and cigars and saw the business through its first major hurdle: a potential lawsuit by the estate of Ernest Hemingway, which took issue with the place’s name. Hemingway’s became Churchill’s in March 2006 (no word from the estate of Winston) and went about its usual business, expanding the live-music lineup from piano players to include torch singers, R&B bands and rock outfits. This month, Wheelihan and Simon tapped Alex Ritchy, scion of the storied Ritchy family that helped establish downtown Greensboro nightlife, to run the bar. It’s been a few weeks now, and according to Gardner, things are just fine. “We’re still going after and getting the same crowd we’ve always wanted,” he says. He’s still making infused booze — there’s a huge vessel of Woodford Old Reserve bourbon on a back-bar shelf soaking up the essences of apples and cinnamon, and Gardner promises to start a batch of pineapple vodka when it’s done. He also says he’s discontinued the pepper-infused vodka, the main ingredient of one of my favorite drinks ever, the Tomatopolitan, which I think should have been called the Bloody Martini. It’s basically a spicy vodka martini with a splash of Bloody Mary mix and some interesting garnishes. Gardner says he can still make me one using a new product, Three Olives brand tomato vodka, which carries the flavors of peppers, horseradish and the love apple itself. None for me, I say. I drink brown liquors until it gets hot outside. It’s a Wednesday, early in the week for drinkers with jobs, yet there a still a few guys in office casual drinking cheap bottled beers, a couple of women nursing fruity cocktails and a bigshot in a sportscoat who backs them up a round. I get myself another scotch, and as Gardner pours, the bottle of Cutty runs out. He spins another one open. “You know,” I say, “in the old days, when the bottle poured out in the middle of a drink, the house would buy the drink.” “Really,” Gardner says. “Yeah,” I say. “Like Starbucks. I used to tend bar at a place that did that. And if you bought three drinks, you got a free one.” “Really?” “It was great for a bartender,” I say. “A guy comes in and has a beer. Then he has another. Now, he knows if he drinks another one, he’ll get a free one.” “That’s pretty good.” “Oh yeah,” I say. “Then, by this point, he’s had four beers. At least half the time they’d end up spending the whole afternoon there.” Gardner considers this as he serves my drink. “They don’t do that anymore,” he says. “No,” I say. “They don’t.”

John Gardner at Churchill’s on Elm is one of the great downtownGreensboro bartenders. He doesn’t like to have his picture taken.(photo by Brian Clarey)

Churchill’s 213 S. Elm St., Greensboro; 336.275.6367