WILMINGTON — Local photographer Matthew Ray is on the hunt for antique whiskey bottles recently. In fact, bourbon has been a personal passion for the past 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 always wanted to be in business together and it just wasn’t the right time until now,” McGee said. “So I asked him, ‘Ready to open a bar?'”
By the end of March, the two will launch The Starling, a whiskey and wine bar, which stands out for rare and vintage bottles, while also offering a full portfolio to customers.
McGee is leasing his property to Louis North, founder of the Charlie Graingers hot dog franchise – who closed his flagship store at 702 S 17th St. during the pandemic. Salt + Charm opened in March 2021. North also owns the gravel lot behind McGee’s business.
“And I told him when I moved into the kitchen that if he ever wanted to put something in there, I wanted him to let me know,” McGee said.
Now stacked behind Salt + Charm are three shipping containers that McGee and Ray have transformed into an indoor-outdoor bar. The interior space of the container – which will be designed in deep greens, golds and corals – measures 320 square feet, enough for 16 customers to fit into a craft bar, designed by Leslie Smith, who has built and expanded The Cargo District since 2017.
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A 45-foot-long platform will be built on top of two containers, with an overhang providing sheltered outdoor seating below. The gravel pitch will also be paved for more outdoor seating, with a capacity of up to 100, according to McGee.
Ray and McGee are in the early stages of developing The Starling menu. A cocktail tasting on Tuesday evening produced a few drinks prepared by bar manager Kaley Shirley. One included whiskey-coca meets Old Fashioned: Old Grand Dad bonded bourbon, a homemade syrup created from cola reduction, orange and vanilla peel, citrus bitters, and garnished with a twist of lime and a cherry.
“We’ll also be offering standard classics,” Ray said.
Ray is in charge of procuring the whiskey, while McGee will oversee the wine. The Starling will have a standard menu and regularly surprise customers with hard-to-find bottles.
“There’s an ancient law with the ABC Commission where anything 20 years or older, from a private collection, they’ll let you incorporate into your inventory,” McGee said.
Ray said potential bottles will include a 1968 Old Crow and a ’90s Austin Nichols Wild Turkey. 80s before the distillery changed hands”.
The menu will evolve as the bar opens.
“I want to take people back to that time,” Ray said, “to tell the story of the whiskey, the distiller at the time, their process.”
He found an old Time magazine advertisement for one of the whiskeys and said he planned to share it, among other finds, on the bar’s Instagram account whenever The Starlings shared a rare bottle.
Apart from the whiskey list, The Starlings will also offer the full range of spirits from neighboring End of Days and some traditional expectations (Titos, for example). But don’t expect a run-of-the-mill Jack Daniels.
“We may have some variants of Jack – lately they’ve been rolling out some really good gun-proof options,” Ray said.
Rare offerings will be available as the basis for specialty cocktails. But Ray suggests neat or on the rocks.
“I’m not going to tell people how to drink their whiskey in any way,” he said, “but I’m going to get a little sore inside if it’s ordered as a cocktail.”
McGee said The Starlings will have a non-alcoholic cocktail list ($6 and up) and, in addition to craft beer, will offer non-alcoholic beers to appeal to non-social drinkers. Wine prices will range from $12 to $25 by the glass and bottles will vary. Cocktails are estimated between $12 and $20.
Bar and table service is also provided. While food isn’t offered on-site, a myriad of restaurants in the neighborhood offer options to bring food to the bar, which McGee says will be allowed. Among them are Mess Hall and Cheesesmith, “and a few other restaurants that will be opening here soon,” she revealed. Salt + Charm is selling take-out items, although they are closed at 5 p.m. for now.
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“But we’re going to partner up and have wine and bourbon pairing dinners on deck, hosted by Salt + Charm,” McGee added.
Ray would also like distillers to speak at events.
Live entertainment is provided with music on 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 scheme of all businesses in the neighborhood — with their branding featuring starlings. The leader was obsessed with their flight patterns, a beauty to behold, she said. One day, while researching, she said she found another piece of information that stood out appropriately.
“Starlings will get drunk on fermented berries and I thought that was funny,” McGee said. “They are also known to bring luck and fortune.”
The Starlings will be a private club — memberships will cost a dollar a year — with preliminary hours Wednesday through Friday, 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. The bar will open earlier in the afternoon, probably around 2 p.m., on Saturday and Sunday.
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