Syrup, Gin and Ginger Beer: One Man's Journey to Great Cocktails in Charlotte

Bartender Brian Lorusso shares his secrets to mixing the city's best drinks.

If Brian Lorusso, bar manager at Dogwood Southern Table & Bar, were a cocktail he’d be an old-fashioned. And although he makes what may be the best old-fashioned in the city, his cocktails are anything but old school.

Behind a bar made of corrugated metal and concrete lives a collection of house-made infusions and syrups: gingerbread, autumn, pistachio milk, blackberry gin, ginger beer—a lot of modern flavors, made by this old-fashioned kind of guy. There are whiskey drinks, including the ruff rider (Bulleit rye whiskey, cocoa and coffee bitters, burnt sugar simple syrup and orange peel), bourbon drinks, gin drinks, tequila drinks and vodka drinks. The drink menu is listed on an iPad.

As Lorusso discusses how the Winter Mule is made, he mentions he’s not big on crazy names for drinks. With his titles, you know what you’re getting. The winter mule is a seasonal play on the Moscow mule. Simple.

At 34 years old, Lorusso has worked with Jon Dressler and his restaurants for 12 years, moving over from Dressler’s to open Dogwood in 2014. There is continuity in the way Lorusso imagines cocktails and executive chef Scott Hollingsworth plans the menu here; the restaurant’s dishes have a Southern influence and layers of flavors, yet remain unpretentious and approachable. Each of those words describes Lorusso, who should be among the city’s best-known bartenders. Yet Dogwood’s crowd remains mostly SouthPark residents.

“I feel like if you’re in Plaza Midwood or like, NoDa, you automatically get more street cred for being a cocktail bar,” he says. “I don’t wear the hipster uniform, so maybe people don’t take me seriously sometimes. But I’m alright with that.”

dogwood Southern cocktail bar, Charlotte
"They may seem like just a garnish, but each slice of orange is boiled in simple syrup, covered in aromatic bitters, and then sprinkled with sugar and baked before it hits a glass." (©Peter Taylor)

Lorusso brings over a plate of drink accoutrements, candied oranges and cherries. They may seem like just a garnish, but each slice of orange is boiled in simple syrup, covered in aromatic bitters, and then sprinkled with sugar and baked before it hits a glass.

These touches—the syrups, infusions and fruits—allow the Dogwood staff to have a full bar and still serve quality cocktails without taking longer to refill a glass than a customer takes to drink it.

Dogwood Southern cocktail bar, Charlotte
Lorusso and Dogwood put much effort into drink accoutrements. (©Peter Taylor)

Lorusso recalls a trip to Charleston with his boss while they were researching the Dogwood concept. There, he had an epiphany.

Lorusso, Dressler, Hollingsworth and general manager Tim Buchanan were eating at the bar of McCrady’s, Sean Brock’s renowned restaurant. As the bartender described a beef tartare dish, Lorusso was struck by the effort that went into one appetizer.

“After that moment, coming back home, [I thought,] ‘How do you take those simple ingredients and make them better?’ ” he says. “And that was the jumping-off point for me for the cocktail program and what I wanted to do here.”

With so many tempting options, the easiest decision at Dogwood may be to order the Barkeep’s Call. Simply give the bar staff a few tips on what you like, and they’ll shake or stir a fitting match. There were more than 500 ordered in the restaurant’s first year (its one-year anniversary was in November).

“It’s more of an honor than anything else—they trust you to make a great drink,” he says.

Lorusso gestures to his old-fashioned, adorned with the brandied cherries and candied orange. It’s his interpretation of the Charleston dish, a cocktail with a complexity that you don’t know about until you ask.

“I’m really proud of this,” he says.

Brian Larusso, Dogwood Southern, Charlotte
Lorusso doesn't seek attention for his drink-making capabilities, which is one reason he likes Dogwood's SouthPark location. (©Peter Taylor)