Last Call: Bartenders on Their Final Drink and the Wisdom and Rituals of Closing Time

Last Call: Bartenders on Their Final Drink and the Wisdom and Rituals of Closing Time

by Brad Thomas Parsons
Last Call: Bartenders on Their Final Drink and the Wisdom and Rituals of Closing Time

Last Call: Bartenders on Their Final Drink and the Wisdom and Rituals of Closing Time

by Brad Thomas Parsons


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From the James Beard Award-winning author of Bitters and Amaro comes this poignant, funny, and often elegiac exploration of the question, What is the last thing you'd want to drink before you die?, with bartender profiles, portraits, and cocktail recipes.


Everyone knows the parlor game question asked of every chef and food personality in countless interviews: What is the last meal you'd want to eat before you die? But what does it look like when you pose the question to bartenders? In Last Call, James Beard Award-winning author Brad Thomas Parsons gathers the intriguing responses from a diverse range of bartenders around the country, including Guido Martelli at the Palizzi Social Club in Philadelphia (he chooses an extra-dry Martini), Joseph Stinchcomb at Saint Leo in Oxford, Mississippi (he picks the Last Word, a pre-Prohibition-era cocktail that's now a cult favorite), and Natasha David at Nitecap in New York City (she would be sipping an extra-salty Margarita). The resulting interviews and essays reveal a personal portrait of some of the country's top bartenders and their favorite drinks, while over 40 cocktail recipes and stunning photography make this a keepsake for barflies and cocktail enthusiasts of all stripes.

Praise for Last Call

“[Parsons] captures the people and places through stunning photographs and prose. Like a perfectly balanced cocktail, it is equal parts cocktail recipes, travelogue and mixtape.”The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Measure equal parts travelogue, tell-all, discography, and cocktail companion—in service of an obituary of all patrons—and you have Last Call; Brad Thomas Parsons’s best book yet.  Through soulful photos and gritty interviews, he and photographer Ed Anderson capture the rawness, vulnerability, and ecstasy of the metamorphosis between the end of a guest’s night and the beginning of a bartender’s.”—Jim Meehan, author of Meehan’s Bartender Manual and The PDT Cocktail Book 

“This book is a delight. Last Call shows us the sense of community evoked by bartenders across the country, whose wisdom and tenderness are captured here both in words and beautiful photographs. It made me—an erstwhile bartender and faithful customer—happy to remember that we all have nights when we unexpectedly hear the words ‘last call,’ and that noble and fascinating bartenders are out there waiting to share it with us.”—Alan Cumming 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780399582769
Publisher: Clarkson Potter/Ten Speed
Publication date: 10/22/2019
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 502,101
Product dimensions: 10.10(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Brad Thomas Parsons is the author of Bitters (which was the winner of the James Beard and IACP Cookbook Awards, and a finalist for the Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards), Amaro, and Distillery Cats. He received an MFA in writing from Columbia University, and his work has appeared in Bon Appétit, Lucky Peach, Food & Wine, Travel + Leisure, PUNCH, and more. He lives in Brooklyn.

Read an Excerpt

The Crunkleton
Chapel Hill, North Carolina | Gary Crunkleton

“Goin’ home, goin’ home
By the waterside I will rest my bones
Listen to the river sing sweet songs
To rock my soul.”
—Grateful Dead, “Brokedown Palace”

Among southern bartenders, Gary Crunkleton’s reputation is larger-than-life. In fact, it veers toward American folklore proportions. The North Carolina native opened The Crunkleton in Chapel Hill in 2008, offering an elevated drinking experience that focused on classic cocktails and a deep spirits list that ran counter to the area bars, which mostly catered to the drinking habits of local college students. The first time I had the good fortune of meeting Gary was on a late-summer night at The Crunkleton (which, as a bar name, is impossible to say out loud without smiling). Crunkleton is built like the late Chris Farley, with a head of mussed-up hair and a hint of mischief always brewing just beneath the surface. As we were saying our good-byes, he sized me up and down, grabbed me by the shoulders, and said, “Brad, you and me, we’re a couple of Clydesdales. And Clydesdales have got to stick together.” He’s truly one of the most generous, thoughtful, and downright hilarious souls I know, and I’m honored to call him a great friend.

The thirty-foot-foot bar at The Crunkleton runs the length of the front room and has over six hundred unique bottles on display on ten-foot-high bookshelves that reach toward the ceiling. Crunkleton credits the Grateful Dead for inspiration, modeling the backbar after his favorite band’s legendary Wall of Sound speaker setup that spanned the entire backdrop of the stage during their 1974 tour. Assembling that many bottles in a control state was not an easy feat, and when Crunkleton wanted to expand his collection to offer rare and vintage spirits to his guests, he lobbied the state legislature. In 2015, North Carolina General Assembly House Bill 909 was passed—Crunkleton calls it the “Crunkleton bill”—allowing the “sale of antique spirituous liquor” in North Carolina bars, restaurants, and distilleries. “Owning a bar meant I would need to be there every day to serve guests. I thought it best to create a place full of things that I love in order to sustain my enthusiasm and appreciation for the place,” says Crunkleton. “I’m a big guy. I’m into sports. I look like a good old boy who lives in a trailer park and eats fish sticks, but that’s not who I am. I created a place that’s regal and rich and complex. I created a place about who I am, or who I esteem to be.”

Crunkleton is the first to tell you that he gets easily distracted, and even though I’ve known him for years, it was difficult to pin him down to interview. But his good-natured charm is always on display. “I know you’re a writer, Brad, and I buy a lot of books,” he says. “But I’m going to tell you right now, I’ve only read two books cover to cover in my entire lifetime: The Bible and John Grisham’s A Time to Kill.” We talk on the phone and text each other quite often, but every time I tried to sit down to talk with him during my time in Chapel Hill, we’d last around twenty minutes before he’d get antsy, stand up, and say, “ready for lunch?” or “feel like dinner?” or “let’s go for a drive.” But just spending time riding shotgun in his Suburban as he drove me around the University of North Carolina campus, stopped in for a slice of pizza at his favorite pizzeria, or caught up with our good friend Bill Smith at Crook’s Corner for plates of pimento cheese and hot pepper jelly with crackers, cold fried chicken, and Atlantic beach pie revealed more to me about Crunkleton as a bar owner and father, but, more important, a friend.

Crunkleton started out making good money bartending, but as he was getting older, he wanted to settle down and establish permanent roots in Chapel Hill and meet someone to settle down with. His regular spot to try to meet women was an Italian restaurant on what he calls the “older side” of West Franklin (the undergrads run wild on the other side). “The problem with me is that when I was trying to feel sexy and cool and attractive and all that, there would be people in there eating pasta. So I’d have a glass of wine so I would look cool, but all the while I was thinking, man, that pasta looks good,” says Crunkleton. “So I’d eat a bowl of pasta and feel bloated and full and not sexy and not appealing at all. I’d say to myself, Well, I had a great bowl of pasta but didn’t meet anybody. I’ll try tomorrow night.”

Crunkleton eventually did meet his future wife, Megan, there, and they now have three sons, Montgomery, Hudson, and Beaufort. The running gag in town is that there are four boys at home when you include Gary. But his agonizing pasta travails gave him the idea for what would become The Crunkleton, a bar where adults could enjoy themselves and have great drinks and good conversation, but there would be no food to distract people. “I said, let’s open a bar. It’s the only thing I really know how to do that I’m good at. And I made it happen.” It took about two years for people in Chapel Hill to understand that The Crunkleton was unlike any other bar in town. “We literally had to create a market—to create a culture,” says Crunkleton. “And we did it through cocktails. There are people around here with discerning palates, and we transferred that to what they’re drinking.”

One of his favorite last call stories at The Crunkleton is when he had a bar full of guests who were having so much fun they wouldn’t leave, even chanting, “Hell no, we won’t go,” to make their intentions known. Worried that the local police would drive by and see people at the bar drinking after 2:30 a.m., Crunkleton came up with an idea, jumped out from behind the bar, and started chanting in unison with the rowdy group. “The music I was playing was good for doing a conga line, so I started one and everyone got in line as we danced throughout the bar,” says Crunkleton. After a couple loops around the room, Crunkleton shouted, “Let’s take this outside,” and led the group out onto the street. “After the last person from the conga line was out the door and I had a good angle, I ran back inside the bar and locked the door,” he says. “They were all unhappy being tricked like that, but they understood and laughed about it.”

Despite running a place with over six hundred bottles of spirits, including what Crunkleton calls “some of the best whiskey ever made in America” with bottles dating back to 1906, you’re most likely to find Crunkleton drinking a Miller High Life at the bar. “To me, this simple, inexpensive beer captures what the bar is all about,” he says. “The Crunkleton is a place for everyone who strives to bring out the best in people. A guest can come in here for the first time and be intimidated by all the bottles, the fancy cocktails, the bartenders in bow ties, and the higher costs. The Crunkleton is not a common bar. But a simple bottle of beer can be the drink that shows guests what we are by showing them what we are not: pretentious, assuming, chichi, or jerks.”

He tells me that the obvious problem with considering one’s final drink is that one doesn’t know when that last drink will come. But given that he knows himself pretty well, he tells me his last drink would indeed be a cold bottle of Miller High Life and a glass of rye whiskey, most likely Rittenhouse bonded rye. “I purposely do not pluralize the word drink despite there being two different drinks in front of me. For me, the beer and the whiskey represent one drink in two different vessels,” says Crunkleton.” In a time when cocktails, mixing drinks, and knowing all about spirits are very en vogue, it is comforting for me to find enjoyment, satisfaction, and fulfillment in two simple things.”

Standing by the pool table at the back of the room, Crunkleton seems at ease and takes a moment to look over the bar and soak in the space he created here in Chapel Hill. He brings up “Brokedown Palace,” his favorite Grateful Dead song. “My guess is most people think that song is about dying, but not for me. Why wait to share all of life’s wisdom on one’s deathbed? Share it daily. Live life with meaning. Although the song appears on the surface to be about endings, it’s really about new beginning.” He racks up the balls on the table, picks up a cue, and leans in for the break—but then pauses for one last thought. “I spent many days when I was younger turning drinking into a bad thing. Fortunately, I have found the grace that comes with an occasional drink,” he says. “I hope that my final drink choice says that I am who I am, whatever that means. I try not to be anything more than who I am, and I hope that I am a caring, honest, loving, funny, authentic, and gracious man that relishes in the best life has to offer. For me, the simpleness of a cold bottled beer and a pour of whiskey is an appropriate gift for an honest day’s work of doing good.”

Table of Contents

Featured Drinks xii

Introduction 1

Nitecap 4

New York, New York Lauren Corriveau Natasha David

Harvard & Stone 13

Los Angeles, California Aaron Polsky

Maison Premiere 18

Brooklyn, New York William Elliott

Palizzi Social Club 23

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Guido Martelli

New Luck Toy 31

Seattle, Washington Mark Fuller Patric Gabre-Kidan Brendan McAuliffe

Prizefighter 36

Emeryville, California Dylan O'Brien Jon Santer

Saint Leo 47

Oxford, Mississippi Joseph Stinchcomb

Ticonderoga Club 55

Atlanta, Georgia Greg Best

Clyde Common and Pépé Le Moko 61

Portland, Oregon Jeffrey Morgenthaler

Drink 67

Boston, Massachusetts Ezra Star

Grand Army 72

Brooklyn, New York Damon Boelte

Portland Hunt + Alpine Club 79

Portland, Maine Andrew Volk Briana Volk

Bar Sardine 86

New York, New York Brian Bartels

Lost Lake 95

Chicago, Illinois Shelby Allison Paul McGee

The Crunkleton 103

Chapel Hill, North Carolina Gary Crunkleton

Friday Saturday Sunday 108

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Paul MacDonald

Rob Roy 114

Seattle, Washington Anu Apte-Elford Chris Elford

Trick Dog 123

San Francisco, California Josh Jancewicz

The Long Island Bar 126

Brooklyn, New York Toby Cecchini

Musso & Frank Grill 137

Los Angeles, California Graham Miller

Idle Hour 145

Baltimore, Maryland Brendan Finnerty

Dino's Tomato Pie 151

Seattle, Washington Jabriel Donohue

Smuggler's Cove 156

San Francisco, California Martin Cate

Horse Inn 163

Lancaster, Pennsylvania Benjamin Hash Matt Russell

City Grocery 169

Oxford, Mississippi John "Coonie" Spreafico

Fox Liquor Bar 174

Raleigh, North Carolina Travis Brown

Copycat Co. 181

Washington, DC Devin Gong

Tokyo Record Bar 184

New York, New York Ariel Arce

The Prince 191

Los Angeles, California Ryan Kim

Service Bar 194

Washington, DC Chad Spangler

Sportsman's Club 200

Chicago, Illinois Laura Kelton

Kimball House 207

Decatur, Georgia Miles Macquarrie

Bastion 213

Nashville, Tennessee Joey Dykes

Canlis 218

Seattle, Washington James MacWilliams

The Jasper 227

Richmond, Virginia Mattias Hägglund Thomas Leggett Brandon Peck

Montero Bar & Grill 233

Brooklyn, New York Kaddy Feast

Redbird 238

Los Angeles, California Tobin Shea

Roberta's 245

Brooklyn, New York Jason Kraft

Earnestine & Hazel's 251

Memphis, Tennessee Karen Brownlee

Epilogue: A Last Word with Murray Stenson 259

Directory of Featured Bars 262

Acknowledgments 266

Index 268

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