Food & Drink

A spirit for NC mixology – Jordan Keiper



Every once in a while, Chow has to be about Drank. As a matter of fact, Drank might be a good idea for a new column altogether in this weekly…hmmm….a discussion for the powers that be.

One of the premiere mixologists in our area can be found at a most unassuming spot for cocktails. Jordan Keiper is part of the family-owned Tavern in Old Salem. It’s the oldest tavern in North Carolina and one of the most historic places in the country. It’s an icon that the Keiper family has owned for just four years, but it has been transformed into a restaurant that’s not only chef-driven with local ingredients, but to say the tavern is stepping up its bar game is an understatement. And Keiper has made it his calling.

Like his brother, Jared (the chef), the younger Keiper went to culinary school and spent his first few years in the downstairs kitchen after his family took over as “tavern keepers.” That’s where I first met him. The Tavern, with its quaint bar, certainly wasn’t known for its beverage program and he wanted to change all that.

“When we first came to the Tavern, I was all about the food and never thought I’d do anything with the bar. But we soon realized we had this small, but great bar and we needed to do something with it.” So he came upstairs and that’s where he flourished. Keiper wanted to add some of the best beers you could find in the Triad, a great selection of North Carolina wines, as well as boutique wines that had a story, and really get with the cocktails, so he immersed himself in every kind of book he could get his hands on and tasted as much as he could taste.

“My training in the kitchen translated to the bar really easily. I learned to taste a whiskey and learn its profiles and use my culinary knowledge to think about what flavors worked together to make a really great cocktail.”

At the young age of 26, Keiper is in good company in the Triad with some well-known mixologists that have already made a name for themselves regionally and nationally, such as Winston’s Tim Nolan and Greensboro’s Mark Weddle. And he says he has huge respect for their artistry and attention to the science of mixology. Keiper has also gotten attention from bourbon expert and author, Steve Akley of St. Louis, who writes the magazine Bourbon Zeppelin.

When writing the book, Akley declared The Tavern in Old Salem as one of the nation’s iconic bars, the only one from North Carolina. Akley told me, “With a lineup like I had in that book, in terms of the bars featured, it meant I was talking to some of the top bartenders in the country. You might think a younger guy like Jordan would get lost in these legends of the world of mixology, but it was quite the opposite from the moment I first spoke to him. Here’s a guy who decided to push himself to develop some unique cocktails.”

Akley is currently in the middle of working on a book featuring some of the top bartenders in the US, sharing their signature cocktails. He says, “As soon as I started the project, Jordan was the first person I spoke to, truly the top mixologist in the country.” Last year, Keiper created a whopping 1700 cocktail recipes, 1500 the year before that and is now working on a book to be finished in the next year. Akley adds, “Jordan is simply a great guy who is trying to elevate the potential of cocktails in the Winston-Salem area.” And in doing so, Keiper is putting Winston-Salem on the map as well as gaining the ear of up and coming North Carolina distillers as well as local ABC officials, and in turn that’s getting NC spirits on the shelves of our local stores.

Keiper has become somewhat of an ambassador via his Twitter and Facebook pages for NC spirits, as well as NC wineries and craft breweries.

“What’s driving me right now is teaching and showing people that we need to do more. We have extremely talented distillers here as it has been quite hush hush in North Carolina. It’s a lot of fun to be able to bring that small distillery, that may not have much recognition outside of their city, into an ABC store here in Winston- Salem as well as other locations around the state.” His social media pages make a habit on staying focused on what’s popping up in the Triad. “Our local distillers are on the way to making some incredible whiskeys, but the barrel aging process takes years and years, so Fainting Goat, Sutlers, Broad Branch…I love what they are doing with gin and vodka while the aging process of the whiskey takes place.”

The same goes for the NC moonshine industry, “They’re coming out of the woods literally with their original recipes, only this time, legit.” He says they don’t feel confined in their bar with its whopping nine seats, “We’ve been told we should expand it,” (they can’t as it’s a historical landmark), “but with it being this size, it’s fun.” Plus Keiper has been able to collaborate and extend his presence outside of the Tavern to a great degree with special events, bringing a dozen or so distillers in at a time. And he really wants to spearhead a NC Distillers convention.

“We don’t have anything like it. But I’d love to bring it to Winston-Salem, engage chefs and restaurants, have classes, learn about the science of it and on day two, open it up to the public.”

For now, Keiper is proud to be the voice of the spirit makers in our state, stressing, “Everyone has their favorite national brand of rum, gin, vodka, whiskey. We’ve got that here. You have to give it a shot, go outside the box and give North Carolina spirits a try.” And in that small, iconic Tavern bar, one of the things that drives him is seeing how the food or the drink can create an experience. “I want people to come to the Tavern and not only say they had really great food, but also say ‘and my drink was crazy good’. What drives my passion is to be in the bar and see that person take that very first sip, you can tell right away if you did it right or not. I love seeing their eyes light up.”

Keiper’s picks for NC spirits you can buy locally:

Sutler’s Spirits Gin, Winston-Salem’s own, found in multiple ABC stores in the area as long as they can keep them on the shelves. Durham Distillery: “Super small, started out doing Conniption Gin and it took me months begging and pleading to get them in our local store. They also have liqueurs with all- natural ingredients that are amazing.”

Covington Vodka, Snow Hill: “It’s the one I drink at home. Made from sweet potatoes, it’s replaced my Grey Goose. It’s hides great in every cocktail.”

Rua, Aged Whiskey from Great Wagon Distillery, Charlotte: “Generations of distillers with a killer aged whiskey that’s super smooth and a personal favorite.”

Copper Barrel Moonshine, Broad Slab Moonshine for their generations-old original recipes brought from the woods to the land of the legal.

What to look out for: Coming soon….Greensboro Distilling’s Fainting Goat Spirits Tiny Cat Vodka, followed closely by Emulsion Gin, and eventually whiskey. And…Kill Devil Hills Honey Pecan Rum- “You taste the slight sweetness of the honey, nuttiness of the pecan and it’s absolutely soft and beautiful but you can’t get it here yet, only in the Outer Banks…. for now.”

But he’s working on it. !

WANNA see? Want to see a favorite distiller on the shelves of your local store? Follow Jordan Keiper on Facebook or @jordan_keiper on Twitter to see what’s hot in NC Distilleries. If you know of a NC spirit that should be added, give him a shout and he can help get the ball rolling in our local stores. The more requests to your local store, the more likely they’ll get it in.

KRISTI MAIER is a food writer, blogger and cheerleader for all things local who even enjoys cooking in her kitchen, though her kidlets seldom appreciate her efforts.