Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Whiskey and wine lovers will get their fix at The Starling

The Cargo District will get a new drinking experience with a finely curated whiskey and wine bar touting vintage releases and rare finds

The Starling whiskey and wine bar will serve rare and vintage bottles and create one-of-a-kind cocktails, like the whiskey and coke meets an Old Fashioned, served with Old Grand Dad bonded bourbon. (Photo by Matthew Ray Photography)

WILMINGTON — Local photographer Matthew Ray has been on the hunt for antique bottles of whiskey lately. In fact, bourbon has been a personal passion over the last five years. 

“I’ve probably collected 300 bottles now,” he said.

When a new space opened in The Cargo District behind childhood friend Abbye McGee’s private catering business, Salt + Charm — for whom Ray photographs food — she said she called him immediately. 

“We’ve always wanted to be in business together and it just hasn’t ever been the right time until now,” McGee said. “So I asked him, ‘Ready to open a bar?’”

By the end of March, the two will be launching The Starling, a whiskey and wine bar, distinguished by rare and vintage bottles, though also offering a full portfolio for customers to choose from.

McGee rents her property from Louis North, founder of hot-dog franchise Charlie Graingers — which closed its flagship store at 702 S 17th St. during the pandemic. Salt + Charm opened in its stead in March 2021. North also owns the gravel lot behind McGee’s business.

“And I told him when I moved in the kitchen that if he ever wanted to put something there, I wanted him to let me know,” McGee said. 

Now stacked behind Salt + Charm are three shipping containers McGee and Ray are having retrofitted as an indoor-outdoor bar. The indoor container space — to be designed in deep greens, golds and corals — is 320 square feet, enough for 16 customers to belly up to a handcrafted bar, designed by Leslie Smith, who has built and expanded The Cargo District since 2017.

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A 45-foot-long deck will be constructed on top of two containers, with an overhang providing sheltered outdoor seating below. The gravel lot also will be paved for more outdoor seating, with capacity up to 100, according to McGee.

Ray and McGee are in the beginning stages of crafting The Starling menu. A cocktail tasting Tuesday evening produced a few drinks made from bar manager Kaley Shirley. One included a whiskey and coke meets an Old Fashioned: Old Grand Dad bonded bourbon, a homemade syrup, created from cola reduction, orange peels and vanilla, citrus bitters, and garnished with a lime peel and a cherry.

“We also will offer standard classics,” Ray said. 

Ray is in charge of procuring the whiskey, while McGee will oversee wine. The Starling will have a standard menu and regularly surprise customers with hard-to-find bottles.

“There’s an antique law with the ABC Commission where anything 20 years or older, out of a private collection, they’ll let you incorporate into your inventory,” McGee said. 

Ray said potential bottles will include a 1968 Old Crow and Austin Nichols Wild Turkey from the ‘90s. He also will likely feature Old Grand Dad as The Starling’s well offering but hopes to procure a few vintage bottles, “one from the ‘80s before the distillery changed hands.”

Matthew Ray and Abbye McGee are the owners of The Starling, slated to open in The Cargo District in late March. (Photo courtesy of Matthew Ray Photography)

The menu will evolve as the bar opens. 

“I want to take people back to that time,” Ray said, ”tell the story of the whiskey, the distiller back then, their process.”

He found an old Time magazine ad for one of the whiskeys and said he plans to share it, among other findings, on the bar’s Instagram account each time The Starlings share a rare bottle.

Outside of the whiskey list, The Starlings also will offer nearby neighbor End of Days’ full lineup of spirits and a few traditional expectations (Titos, for example). Though don’t expect run-of-the-mill Jack Daniels. 

“We may have certain variations of Jack — lately, they’ve been putting out some really good barrel proof options,” Ray said. 

Rare offerings will be available as the foundation pour for specialty cocktails. But Ray suggests neat or on the rocks. 

“I’m not gonna tell people how to drink their whiskey, by any means,” he said, “but I’m gonna hurt a little bit inside if it’s ordered as a cocktail.”

McGee said The Starlings will have a mocktail list ($6 and up) and, in addition to craft beer, offer nonalcoholic beers to appeal to social non-drinkers. Prices on wine will run $12 to $25 by the glass and bottles will vary. Cocktails are estimated between $12 to $20.

Bar and tableside service is planned, too. Though food won’t be offered onsite, myriad restaurants around the district provide options to bring nosh to the bar, which McGee said will be allowed. Among them are Mess Hall and Cheesesmith, “and a couple of other restaurants that are opening soon over here,” she revealed. Salt + Charm sells grab-and-go items, though they’re closed by 5 p.m. for now. 

READ MORE: Burgers, booze and pups: Mess Hall to relocate and expand, offer city’s first dog bar

“But we are going to partner and have wine-and-bourbon-pairing dinners up on the deck, hosted by Salt + Charm,” McGee added.

Ray would like to have distillers come and speak at the events as well.

Live entertainment is planned wiith music on the deck once or twice a week during the warmer months.

McGee said a mural will be painted on the outside of the standard white containers — the color palette of all businesses in the district — featuring their branding with starling birds. The chef has been obsessed with their patterns of flight, a beauty to behold, she said. One day while researching them, she said she found another tidbit of information that stuck out appropriately.

“Starlings will get themselves drunk off of fermented berries and I thought it was funny,” McGee said. “They’re also known to bring good luck and fortune.”

The Starlings will be a private club — memberships will run a dollar a year — with preliminary hours being Wednesday through Friday, 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. The bar will open earlier in the afternoon, likely by 2 p.m., on Saturday and Sunday.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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