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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, 2022

Day in the Life: Mixologist Colleen Hughes of Supperland

The mixologist and community leader tailors a wide range of cocktail menus for a growing restaurant group

Colleen Hughes is the undisputed doyenne of Charlotte’s cocktail scene. A decade and a half ago, her idea of a sophisticated mixed drink was a flavored martini. But after a craft cocktail bar in Atlanta opened her eyes to the format’s potential, she dedicated herself to learning the spirits and science of mixology. The self-study paid off. When Jeff Tonidandel opened Growlers Pourhouse in 2010, Hughes was behind the bar. As the Tonidandels’ slate of restaurants grew, so did Hughes. Today, she manages the beverage programs at Growlers, Haberdish, Supperland, and just-opened Ever Andalo. She’s won a slew of awards, appeared in numerous publications, and sits on the U.S. Bartenders’ Guild’s national board of directors. But she hasn’t quit learning: When she’s not in USBG meetings or hosting curated speakeasy experiences at Supperland, she’s behind the bar in her backyard, tinkering with the drinks that will soon be on everyone’s lips.

Here’s what a day in her life looks like.

Colleen Hughes at The Bar at Supperland, inside a small building adjacent to the main dining room. Photo courtesy

10 a.m. “I work late, so I tend to sleep a little later,” Hughes says. “I go for the 10 o’clock hour.” Though she starts her day when many people are starting to think about lunch, her day begins in typical fashion: She checks her email and gets a sense of where the day is going. Her workdays vary widely, from participating in USBG meetings to developing recipes and working behind the bar.

12 p.m. Hughes’ USBG meetings include members from all over the country — a boon for the late riser, since a 9 a.m. PST start time means she doesn’t have to get in gearbe up till noon. Hughes was a founding board member and president of USBG’s Charlotte chapter. Under her energetic leadership, the group grew to more than 70 members and snagged a Rising Star Award at USBG’s 2019 national conference. Before the local guild existed, Charlotte’s bartenders worked largely in isolation. Hughes says she didn’t have a mentor. But meetings allowed her to bond with the city’s heavy hitters, including Bob Peters and her now-boyfriend, Dot Dot Dot’s Stefan Huebner. But after three and a half years as president, she was ready to let someone else take the helm. She decided not to run again and looked forward to regaining some time and energy. 

Then she was asked to run for the national board of directors, which keeps a sky-high perspective on the industry and sets the organization’s direction for the next few years. “I was like, I’m going to be running against, like, seven people,” she recalls. “I don’t know anybody. I’m from a minor market. No one’s going to vote for me.” But they did.

She joined the board in January 2020. “We all went out to Sonoma. It was the first time I met the board of directors,” she says. “And then two months after that, every bartender in the United States lost their job” — including Hughes. Her volunteer work with USBG became a nearly full-time commitment. Liquor companies donated $10 million to USBG’s charitable arm, which distributed grants to out-of-work bartenders. Hughes helped screen applicants.

This year, in addition to her work on the governance committee, which keeps the bylaws up to date, she’s also chairing a national committee — the membership committee — for the first time. Hughes mentions that she’s on “a few” other committees, too. It’s a lot of work but perhaps not as much as it seems. “I’ll have some weeks where I might have two or three USBG meetings, and they’re all over the phone or Zoom because people are all over the country,” she says, “but then I might go three weeks without having one.” The board, she says, is cautiously optimistic about the industry’s prospects in the wake of the pandemic. They’re hard at work planning for the organization’s 75th anniversary next year.

2:30 p.m. Hughes shares a home in Country Club Heights with her roommate, Supperland bar manager Rhea Buck, whom she calls her “nonsexual life partner,” and a motley crew of cats. Hughes is putting the finishing touches on the cocktail menu for Crepe Cellar’s rebrand as Ever Andalo, which means she’s not behind the bar as often these days. She has a bar set up in a backyard shed for R&D, but it’s not insulated, which made Supperland’s downstairs speakeasy a more attractive workspace in the winter. Now that Crepe Cellar is closed, she’ll finesse the  bar and train staff. “And then I actually plan to spend a good bit of time just hanging out with the NoDa stores,” she says. When Supperland’s launch monopolized her attention, she promised her staff in NoDa that she’d be back in three months. Nine and a half months went by. After the monumental effort to open one of Charlotte’s most heralded cocktail bars, she’s ready to make good on her promise.

5 p.m. “I had beverage director on my business card for a while, and then I finally read something about being a beverage director,” Hughes didn’t strongly identify with her job title, beverage director, until she came across a description of the role that resonated with her: says. “That really is my job. You set up the tone and idea and this thing that will ride with the restaurant pretty much forever.” But she can’t set it and forget it. The job requires constant engagement with the various stores’ personalities. She hangs out at the Haberdish bar, for example, and keeps a close eye on not only her staff but also customers. Do they smile after a sip? How do they interact with bartenders? What kind of impressions do the drinks make?

Growlers is the group’s highest-volume bar. The demands on the bartenders call for quick and easy recipes. This “shot-and-beer bar,” as Hughes calls it, challenges her the most: She has to design quality drinks that bartenders can whip up in less than 45 seconds. The other stores give her the luxury of complex prep. At Haberdish, she focused on drinks that make you feel good. The bar there was one of the first in Charlotte to embrace the trend toward low-ABV options. Once you drop the focus on getting drunk, you can lean into liquor’s other properties. Like the aperitivos, Hughes says: “They’re a little bit bitter. They make you hungry. They put you in a better mood.”

Supperland challenged Hughes to design a bar program that minimized waste. Take lemons, a bar standby that typically requires daily juicing. Hughes developed a once-a-week system to juice the lemons, then boil the remaining hulls in water, which is acidified to match the juice. The liquids are combined to create a shelf-stable, zero-waste product with three times the mileage of traditional lemon juice. (Staff use the peels for a separate product.) Likewise, Supperland’s bar menu features creative chemistry that pushes the boundaries of Charlotte’s cocktail culture.

And Ever Andalo? Hughes’ menu includes cocktails influenced, but not pigeonholed, by Italian tradition. “I’m putting an Italian-inspired Margarita on the menu,” she says. “Is a margarita Italian? No. Do Italians drink margaritas? I mean, everybody does. They’re fucking delicious.”

12 a.m. Hughes bartends from anywhere between 9 p.m. and 1:30 a.m., often at Supperland’s speakeasy, where she curates a custom experience for a small group. She prepares her ingredients and psychs herself up for an evening of deep interaction with guests, easier some nights than others. For Hughes, one of the perks of working at a bar that closes before 2 a.m. is that it affords time to go out herself. “My boyfriend and I go to a little bar around the corner from my house all the time called Tommy’s Pub,” she says. “I honestly drink Michelob Lite and Maker’s Mark, and he drinks High Life and Fernet.”

Otherwise, she says, “I like watching TV, going to the movies, like normal Americans. I do have one real weakness time suck thing, which is that I bought an Oculus VR headset, and I use it almost entirely for working out.” It’s been especially nice during COVID, since her workout games take her to volcano rims, Swiss mountaintops, and other exotic locales. Accustomed to a late energy rush — “I’ve been doing this job for a long time” — she does her workouts at night. When everyone else is calling it a day, Hughes is just getting started.

More in this series

Bruce Moffett of Moffett Restaurant Group
Alyssa Wilen of Chef Alyssa’s Kitchen

What the Fries’ Jamie Barnes and Greg Williams
Kindred’s Katy Kindred
Freshlist’s Jesse Leadbetter

The Hot Box NC’s Michael Bowling
300 East’s Ashley Boyd
Aria and Cicchetti’s Pierre Bader

Sea Level N.C., The Waterman, and Ace No. 3’s Paul Manley

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