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Editor's Note: This story is unlocked for everyone to read courtesy of the CRVA, our partner in nourishing culinary exploration for residents and visitors of the Queen City.

March 8, 2024

Behind the Stick: Roger Kongkham – Supperland

Charlotte-born mixologist is inspired by his travel and pursuit of balance

by TM Petaccia

Roger Kongkham behibd the stick at Supperland. TM Petaccia/UP

“Behind the stick” originally comes from taphouses, as in pulling the draft beer taps, but has been adapted over the years as an industry-wide term for who is working the bar. This series profiles working bartenders in the Charlotte area to learn a bit more about them and what you can expect when they are behind the stick.

This week, we spoke with Roger Kongkham, one of the top-tier mixologists at The Bar at Supperland. Kongkham is part of Charlotte hospitality royalty. His family’s Thai Taste has been part of the Charlotte restaurant scene since 1988. He also owned and operated his own place, Hibiscus until it closed in 2021. These days, you’ll find him behind the stick at The Bar at Supperland, particularly its Speakeasy where he crafts a wide range of cocktails for the hideaway’s special popup themes. He’s also quite active on the bartending competition circuit, winning five at this point, including the recent Malort contest held last month at Dram & Draught. “I’m continuing to grow in my career even though it’s already been more than 24 years in the service industry,” Kongkham says, “and I don’t plan on stopping any time soon.”

Where are you from originally?
Charlotte, N.C. (I’m a Presbyterian Hospital baby) — although I did intermittently spend a few years in Puyallup and Tacoma, Washington.

What got you into bartending?
I guess it was a natural progression of things since I’ve been in the industry since such as young age. I started seeing more and more cocktails on menus, realizing that this was a blooming culinary niche that simply hasn’t reached its full potential. When I realized that you could be as bold behind the bar with flavors as the kitchen, it was on. There was something beyond bartending college parties.

What was your first restaurant/bar job?
Thai Taste on East Blvd. I’ve been there for as long as I can remember, but I started bussing tables at the age of 12. I still help out with operations there to this day.

How would you describe your bartending style?
I like to draw a lot of inspiration from Japanese-style bartending because it’s very methodical and clean. If anyone has ever worked with me behind a bar, I have OCD to the point where I need everything reset and cleaned to the exact spot between every round built. You’ll never find a sticky jigger or tin reset in my well, ever. I also don’t believe in garnishes that aren’t functional in cocktails. I don’t like to waste ingredients simply because it looks better on your social media accounts.

What spirit are you currently into right now?
Asian spirits. I really hate to play up my Asian heritage, but I feel like our three-tier liquor system has restricted many global spirits, especially Asian spirits, and their representation in North Carolina. Baijiu, shochu, soju, and sake need to be more incorporated into cocktail programs and available in the state. Baijiu is by far the most consumed spirit in the world, yet there are none available to order in North Carolina. Flavor profiles of Sichuan peppercorn, taro, sweet potato, barley, and so many others are represented and present in many of these spirits. I’m always picking up more as I travel to different states and countries. I would like to be able to use them in cocktail programs in this city somewhere soon. In addition, those who really know me, know that I also have a huge love for amari.

Do you have a particular approach or philosophy when creating a new cocktail?
I’ve had a lifetime of travel and exposure to unique flavors of my culture and others. There are simply no limitations on inspirations around me, so I often like to build my flavor profiles for cocktails based on food and soft drinks I’ve had in my life. Sometimes inspiration even comes from different aromas in places I’ve traveled, or based on the way things make me feel. I also like to seek balance and highlight certain flavor characteristics of the base spirit that I like to accentuate. I truly believe that every flavor has a place where it can shine.

What Charlotte-area bars do you like to go to when you’re not on the clock?
There are so many great bars in Charlotte, but I can’t go on listing them all. The ones that have a close place to my heart are currently: Dot Dot Dot — I love the team there, and Stefan (Huebner) is my industry Dad, Humbug — great cocktails in neighborhood bar setting, and Larry (Suggs) is my homie), Anju — a Korean pocha that opened not too long ago where I can drink one of my favorite mixed beverages, somaek), Sir Edmond Halley’s — this is basically my “Cheers” bar, and Super Abari — I’m here more than I would like to admit.

What’s your favorite cocktail?
Depending on the mood, it could be Vieux Carre or a split-based daiquiri with Fernet Branca and Plantation pineapple rum.

Anything else you’d like us to know?
There are so many talented individuals and minds in the city right now pioneering new things, but we don’t always know how difficult it is to navigate in an ever-changing scene. To transplants or others just beginning to explore the Charlotte bar scene, be patient. Appreciate and patron the businesses you enjoy, which will create a new market direction that others could invest in to expand our universal palettes. Try something new. You might like it.

Roger’s Split Daiquiri. TM Petaccia/UP

Recipe for the home bartender
One of my favorite cocktails, as I stated earlier, is a split-based daiquiri. You can also make several variations of this simply by swapping out the sweetening component. Just try to keep it around 50 brix (2:1 ratio, liquid: sweetener). It’s really delicious.

Roger’s Split Daiquiri
1 oz. Fernet Branca
1 oz. Plantation Pineapple Rum
1 oz. lime juice
1 oz. simple syrup

Combine all ingredients into a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake until your hands feel very cold. Strain into a coupe or martini glass. Garnish with lime slice.


Check out our other Behind the Stick bartender profiles.

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