Before Mark Weddle takes a tall shot of Jäger, he rises from his barstool and walks nonchalantly to a metal cabinet at the back of the bar, rolling open a drawer and grabbing two Koozies. He walks back over to me, the top couple buttons on his short-sleeved plaid shirt open, and we slide the Koozies over our Miller Lite cans. Our shot glasses clink, touch the bar top and then empty.
Now we can talk.
If you live in Greensboro and know anything about bars or bartending, you know Mark Weddle. Probably from his days slinging drinks off a secret cocktail menu he covertly created at Green Valley Grill, or maybe from his glory days at the bygone Josephine’s.
If you’re an oldhead, you might remember Weddle from his flair years at the Rhino Club, his self-described “shock and awe” era at Darryl’s or another deep cut like Houlihan’s, Ham’s or Sky nightclub. If you’re newer to the game, you just know Weddle as the affable guy with a curled mustache who — until recently — was inventing some of the Triad’s most creative and delicious cocktails at Traveled Farmer.
The restaurant — formerly known as Marshall Free House and owned by developer Marty Kotis — closed suddenly at the end of 2017. We’re not here for an autopsy, though. Instead, Weddle and I are taking down our shot and a beer at his go-to dive to talk about his future.
We’re at the Taproom, a dive among several in the stretch along Lawndale Avenue not far from the former Traveled Farmer or the Lawndale Shopping Center. There’s liquor, of course, but not cocktails exactly — if anything it’s more like a less trafficked Fisher’s or one of Weddle’s gigs from his early days. But the man known for upping cocktail culture in Greensboro would rather be here than just about everywhere, tapping the bartender’s hand to encourage her to keep pouring on his Jäger shot and nursing the light version of the champagne of beers.
“I love when people know me from the bar and then they see me here,” Weddle laughs. He likes throwing people off, which makes sense with his experimental approach to making drinks.
Weddle was sorry to see Traveled Farmer close — “I put a lot into Traveled Farmer, and I had fun, man,” he says. “I wish we could’ve kept that going. The gloves were off there.” But now, good luck getting him to go back to the old days, working somewhere until 3 a.m.
“I’m tired of mopping other people’s floors,” he says.
Now, Weddle has “every iron in the fire.” He’s doing pop-up bartending shifts at places like 1618 Midtown, hoping to expand his one-night stands to every cocktail bar in the city before year’s end. He’s now the operations manager at Sutler’s Spirit distillery in Winston-Salem, and he’s partnered with a local crew to put out short instructional videos teaching people how to make some killer drinks at home.
Probably most importantly, Weddle is stepping out on his own. He hands me a black, semi-slick business card with curved edges. He’s calling it Cocktail Culture, and the mission is to “demystify mixology.” His business will have several components to it, including trainings, classes, selling shrubs or other handmade cocktail ingredients and maybe even a physical space that acts as a sometimes-bar. Weddle is just getting going — his website will be live shortly, if it isn’t already — but his decades of experience behind the bar are starting to coalesce into a venture of his own.
Weddle is in the middle of recounting his non-linear timeline to me when our Taproom bartender pulls out a bottle of Old Weller Antique wheat bourbon. Ever the host and friendly professor, Weddle nabs us a sample and explains that when you smell liquor, you should open your mouth to better take in the aroma. Demonstrating, he says, “This really smells like banana pudding.” And it does.
Weddle’s career trajectory zigs as much as it zags. He’s been making drinks here since he turned 21, back at Darryl’s, and loves it in part because it’s “a platform to be as silly and nerdy as I want.”
“I always consider myself the host of this great party,” he says.
The party hasn’t always been great to him, exactly, but other times it’s surprised him. Weddle was riding high in 2013, coming in second place in Absolut’s national Bloody Mary competition. But two years later, Josephine’s closed and he needed to have his hip replaced. The restaurant’s owners, Sarah Keith and Chris Blackburn, came through in a big way, organizing a fundraiser for his medical bills at the Blind Tiger and raising $10,000 for his medical expenses. The unsolicited, generous gesture reaffirmed his belief in people, Weddle says, and really helped him move forward.
That same year, Weddle’s mom passed away.
“I wish I could tell her about this,” he says, slowly tapping his Cocktail Culture business card on the bar top with a heavy finger. She used to tell him that “sometimes you have to nudge fate.” This chapter, and so many aspects of his story up until now, are him doing just that.
“All I really wanna do is inspire other people,” Weddle says. “It’s not about being the best. It’s about being meaningful and having an impact.”
But Weddle, in my semi-expert opinion, is the best in the city, at least right now. He knows he’s good, but he’s too humble and kind to boast.
“If I was gone tomorrow,” he says, taking a long pause before continuing, “I would want people to say, ‘That guy could make a great drink.’”
And with that, he orders us another round of Jäger shots. It’s the middle of the afternoon, so I wave off a second Miller Lite to accompany it. Weddle taps the bartender’s pointer finger across the bar, signaling a stronger pour again, and turns toward me with a wry smile.
“Oh,” he says, “I thought we were going to Westerwood [Tavern] after this.”