When Leah & Louise opens its dining room on June 12 at Camp North End, mixologist Justin Hazelton will be ready. Hazelton directs the bar program at the modern “juke joint” with two mandates in mind: original cocktails that fit the vintage soul aesthetic and a kinder culture behind the counter for staff.
Background: Hazelton, who previously ran the bar programs at Sophia’s Lounge and 5Church, has been partnering with Leah & Louise owners Greg and Subrina Collier since the start of Soul Food Sessions, a themed dinner series highlighting the creativity of some of Charlotte’s most influential Black chefs. The series, which began in 2015 with other co-founders Michael Bowling, Jamie Barnes, Greg Williams and pastry chef Jamie Turner, expanded its roster of tastemakers and made them rockstars within the Charlotte food scene.
[Related Agenda guide: Leah & Louise, Camp North End’s first restaurant, is now open]
Diversity: Diversity is increasing in the culinary industry, but Hazelton worries it hasn’t yet spread behind the bar. So he’s enthused to lead in an environment where he can build the culture from the ground up.
That means building in time for bartenders to train and learn techniques. It also means speaking to each other with respect, even when the bar is slammed and tensions are high.
“This is a pillar I stand on, making sure the culture at work is positive. In this industry there’s no human resources office, so people are treated horribly,” he says. “You think it’s just the nature of the game to get treated badly. And it’s very hard to create in an environment with all that pressure on you.”
Cocktails: Still, Hazelton acknowledges that a kind culture behind the bar is only half of the equation. The other half is the cocktails themselves, which he was very deliberate about developing.
Although juke joints still survive, the culture saw its heyday from its birth in the Jim Crow South through Prohibition into the 1950s, so Hazelton turned to those eras first to build Leah & Louise’s bar profile. Most drinks will feature gin or whiskey, and tiki drinks with local rums such as Muddy River and Queen Charlotte will play a big role.
Hazleton’s specialty drinks menu includes the Rubee — made with Earl grey and hibiscus-infused Conniption gin, lemon oleo, honey, and rosemary bitters — and the Tomboy with Zacapa rum, pineapple-cilantro cordial, velvet falernum, tiki bitters, and coconut milk. The Zodiac Punch on draft, which will change seasonally, is another original creation from Hazelton.
Another drink taps into Hazelton’s childhood memories of family. Growing up, Hazelton’s Trinidadian stepfather passed down the custom of drinking sorrel, a drink made from dried hibiscus flowers and rum at Christmas.
“Sorrel was always used at celebration times. It represents the flavors and spices of Caribbean areas,” Hazelton says. At his first Soul Food Sessions dinner in 2016, he infused hibiscus flower in a South African rum and mixed it with house-made ginger beer over crushed ice, garnished with a sprig of mint and herbs. It hasn’t been enjoyed in Charlotte since 2016 and is one of the few original recipes Hazelton has ever repeated.
“I think I represent the future of Black people behind the bar,” Hazelton says. “We make new, modern, classic cocktails. But I can’t go forward without paying homage. This menu is a dedication to the history of black cocktails. I care about the narratives, and make drinks based on that.”
Hazelton rebels against the extremes of some trendy Charlotte bars.
“They’re all reading the same cocktail books. And I read them too,” he says. “But without creativity, the end result is … the same orange peel in the same twist on the same ice block. I’m pushing myself to be different.”
Premium whiskey: Hazelton says every ingredient in his cocktails is intentional, like the use of Uncle Nearest, an award-winning premium whiskey named for Nathan “Nearest” Green. Mr. Green was an enslaved man who taught Jack Daniels how to distill using African filtration methods.
Since its national debut not quite two years ago, continuous high demand has made it almost impossible for ABC stores to keep in stock. Not only will Leah & Louise patrons be able to enjoy the small batch spirit, Hazelton plans to host tastings with experts to educate people on Green’s history.
“If Uncle Nearest was around today, he would be coming here,” Hazelton says.
Mark your calendar: On Friday, June 19, Leah & Louise will celebrate Juneteenth with a special reservation-only prix fixe menu featuring dry rubbed ribs, grilled potato salad, and sorrel in addition to the regular menu.
“Come replenish yourself, get a good drink and chill out in full blackness,” Hazelton says. “You won’t regret it.”
Location/hours: Leah & Louise is located inside the Camp North End complex just north of Uptown. The exact address is 301 Camp Road. It’s open Wednesday through Sunday from 5 to 10 p.m.
Explore more of Camp North End with our user’s guide: Camp North End, a 76-acre development near Uptown, now home to 28 cool tenants