As Charlotte, North Carolina-based mixologist Justin Hazelton explains, craft cocktails are just that—a craft, an art form even. It means using creativity to curate recipes and marry ingredients in a way that goes beyond just mixing a spirit with juice or soda. After picking up a job at a bar to earn extra cash, Hazelton found himself not only looking for a new creative outlet, but falling in love with mixology as an art form.
"I didn't know I was going to fall in love with the craft. When I would create things, it was like people instantly fell in love with it," Hazelton shares. "I could really go deep and express myself, whereas with some art forms it can take years to really get good at an art medium. But when it came to mixology it came naturally for me."
Moving around and rising to leadership roles in some of Charlotte's most swanky bars, Hazelton was also to help build bar programs across the city as well as the entire Southeast. But, the journey wasn't always easy.
"I've experienced everything from racism to people just trying to gate-keep within the industry," says Hazelton.
After a few years of solidifying himself as a premiere craft cocktail artist, he was able to connect with a few of Charlotte's then rising Black culinary talents—Chef Gregory Collier, Chef Jamie Barnes and more. Working closely with them on a food event series called Soul Food Session, which paid homage to Black food ways and culture, the Charlotte Magazine "best mixologist" was able to fully display his talent to an even larger audience.
His skill set eventually landed him in the role of bar manager for Leah & Louise, an upscale, award-winning Black-owned restaurant also in Charlotte. Although he has since moved on to further develop and grow his individual brand, Hazelton has become one of the elites in the game—now hosting his own pop-ups and offering consulting to bars and brands across the country.
"To me, creating craft cocktails requires a certain intentionality. I'm literally building the drinks from the ground up. I don't go and buy vanilla syrup, I make vanilla syrup," he explains. "I don't buy anything processed, I make it myself. The outcome is a lot better, it's more balanced and fresh. And, a consumer will definitely taste the difference. Every part that goes into making craft cocktails means making a very intentional experience."
EBONY tapped Hazelton to share one of his favorite, easy-to-follow recipes that we all can make at home. If you're ready to take your craft cocktail game to new heights, check out his suggestion below, as well as everything you'll need to bring it all together.
Justin Hazelton's Honey Old Fashioned
Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with 1 cup of ice and stir 20 revolutions. Strain into rocks glass over fresh ice. Express orange peel over drink by squeezing to push out citrus oil and garnish. Enjoy!
Uncle Nearest 1884 Small Batch Whiskey