A sphinx cat creeps in from the right side of the square. Though scrawny and wrinkly, he invades the square with menace. He rests a paw on an ornate, round, mirrored tray, and his alien-like ears perk up on high alert. There’s a wine glass, accented by an orange Gerber daisy and filled with the ingredients for mixologist Kate Swearingen’s simple syrup: lemongrass stalks and raw brown sugar. The cat looks straight at the camera, one ice-blue eyeball illuminated by natural light.
I began to question my own Instagram obsession when I noticed @three.sheets—and could not look away.
Indeed, every little square on Three Sheets Cocktails’ feed features the same rascal-and-tray setup. Sometimes, two sphinxes even anchor items on the tray, pimping liquor bottles like beautiful women in music videos. Classy cocktails I’d love to imbibe contrast these tiny, posing, imposing monsters. I’m not a cat person, so the unusual aesthetic, frankly, disgusted me. Still, I follow.
When I finally meet Swearingen, I tell her as much. The sphinxophile smirks and says: “I find it a compliment when people think it’s really weird.”
Swearingen dabbles in various art forms: She is a local curator (she leads the Durham Storefront art project) with a passion for cocktails. But this Instagram experiment started about three years ago after she began developing a steady stream of followers in real life—friends and family eager to have her invent cocktails with both foreign and local ingredients. She’d get rare liquors and liqueurs as gifts from travelers coming home from Japan or California and collect her own. To complement them, she’d concoct her own shrubs—simple syrups, mixed with vinegar, and sometimes fizzed—and dose out customized cocktails for anything from a birthday celebration to a first date. Now she’s working with local bars, like Allley 26, to help design special edition drinks.
As Three Sheets evolved, Swearingen figured a quirky social media presence might garner some attention. Plus, those sphinxes needed to pull their weight at home. “I’ve been telling my cats for years that they really need to get a job,” she jokes.
It turns out that Oscar and Berlin—along with Swearingen’s roomate’s sphinx, Mumriken—have no problem hamming it up. “As soon as I start setting things up for a picture, they start fighting,” she says.
The boys pose on Swearingen’s dining room table in Old North Durham. All photos are taken with an iPhone 6.
Swearingen picks up subtle flavors in liquor that allude to where and how they were made, inspiring her to pull out that nuance with complementary ingredients from our own local terroir. For example, as we settle into chilly weather, Swearingen is experimenting with the warming smokey flavors of scotch. “It lends itself to fruits and to fig, balsamic, maple,” she says.
For us, she shares the Swallowtail, an all-North Carolina cocktail anyone can make at home with products from local distilleries. In it, you’ll find Cardinal gin (distilled in the Blue Ridge Mountains), Brothers Vilgalys Beatnik liqueur (from Durham) and Crude bitters (out of Raleigh). Swearingen named this drink after our state’s butterfly.
No sphinxes were harmed in the making of this drink.
Swallowtail by Three Sheets Cocktails
1 1/2 oz. Cardinal gin
1/2 oz. dry vermouth (this is from Dolin and came from Wine Authorities)
1/2 oz. The Brothers Vilgalys Beatnik savory liqueur
2 drops Crude ‘Pooter’ Smoke and Salt bitters
Combine all the ingredients into a cocktail shaker with several large pieces of ice. Shake vigorously for at least 15 seconds and serve up in a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon peel and a fresh bay leaf.