by Eric Ginsburg
They may technically be part of the same venue on paper, but the only real thing Recreation Billiards and the Whisky Box have in common is that you have to walk through the former to access the latter.
The basement area of this local favorite in downtown Winston-Salem next to Bulls Tavern used to be Pete’s Cellar, but after its namesake passed away, the dimly lit downstairs became the Whisky Box. The bartenders on the different floors don’t share tips, and drafts from the main floor aren’t welcome down below.
For the most part, the clientele is separate as well, though several drinkers including state House Rep. Ed Hanes Jr. wandered into the Whisky Box a couple hours after it opened last Saturday.
The two spaces complement each other, with three pool tables upstairs — the foosball table is gone now, a bartender said, since it took up too much space — and four dartboards downstairs. Recreation Billiards feels more like Swaim’s in Washington Park, while the Whisky Box acts almost like an unofficial VIP, specializing in more expensive mixed drinks and only opening at 6 p.m. on Wednesdays through Saturdays.
Those who have grown used to the quality cocktails at Single Brothers or who enjoy the ambiance of Tate’s will find that the Whisky Box embodies elements of both. Plus, it often boasts one of the city’s most racially diverse group of drinkers.
A bartender admits that college students sometimes dominate the Whisky Box, a fact that a 26-year-old native said bums her out, but in the earlier hours of a Saturday, a 31-year-old native sipping an off-menu whisky drink he requested was likely among the youngest present.
A black, buttoned leather booth matching one in Recreation Billiards greets patrons at the bottom of the stairs, but most of the seating down here runs along the back wall and a few prime seats line the bar. A list of about 60 whiskies rests inside a folding wooden box — hence the name of the secluded bar — but the “house medleys” on the cocktail list are a better place to start.
A friend claims the Mr. Gingerson — one of the house medleys with George Dickel American whisky, ginger, lemon, honey and whiskey barrel bitters — is the best whiskey drink she’s ever had, and it’s easy to see why. The smooth drink with a speared, candied lemon in the center and served in a coupe glass is worth experiencing. But the more popular ELP — for “Everybody Loves Pete” after the space’s former patron saint — is the kind of house medley that should be ordered on repeat.
A basil leaf and an orange wedge are added to whiskey, amaretto, lemon and freshly grated nutmeg on the rocks. It’s fantastic.
The dark & stormy, made with Fever Tree ginger beer, is good too, and the Seigel sounds bizarre, with carrot, vanilla, orange and cinnamon alongside whiskey. The shelves are full of liquors to try, mostly whiskeys, including Tincup, a top-shelf bourbon from Colorado that will still smack you right in the face if consumed straight.
Even though my compatriot Sam joked that “Whisky Box” sounds like a bad idea for something people do at frat party, there’s a lot to like about this basement haunt, including the dark hardwood floors and a clean design. But that ELP and the intimate vibe are first and foremost; those are the reasons I said, before we even made it back to the car, that I wanted to come back.
Visit the Whisky Box at 412 W. Fourth St. (W-S) in the basement of Recreation Billiards.