Bar Talk: A trip to a Beard semifinalist in N.C.
What makes a bar program so outstanding that it gets nominated for one of the most prestigious food industry awards in the country?
I recently went home to North Carolina to visit my parents and paid a visit to Kingfisher — a craft cocktail bar in downtown Durham just announced as a semifinalist for the 2023 James Beard Award for Outstanding Bar — to see what makes them stand out from the crowded bar scene.
Kingfisher opened in July 2019 and enjoyed less than a year of operation before the COVID-19 pandemic shut things down. After re-opening, the bar quickly made up for lost operating time garnering buzz and accolades for its unique and inspired cocktail program.
Much like a farm-to-table restaurant, it rotates its drinks seasonally with a focus on highlighting local, sustainable ingredients.
The underground bars slogan is “Ground-to-Glass Cocktails served in an Artful Basement,” and I felt like that slogan was spot-on during my visit.
To find the bar, look for the neon kingfisher (a brightly colored bird) outside, and then descend the stairs with an installation of glowing jellyfish floating above. You’ll emerge in an artsy, jazzy (The libations spot hosts live jazz on Tuesdays) speakeasy setting with exposed brick walls. There are some tables scattered in the space, two lounge areas with inviting and plush furniture, a few booths tucked behind draped velvety curtains, and the curved bar protruding from one corner of the long basement space.
One of the first things I noticed is that while there is bar seating, there is a chunk of the actual bar that faces the rest of space without seats and with a dedicated bartender that seems to be earmarked for customers to walk up and order drinks without having to squeeze in between people sitting at the bar or reaching over their shoulders. If this design is intentional, it’s much appreciated and thoughtful for all involved, and this eye for detail extends into the cocktail program.
The drink menu is arranged into three sections, and while I was there, they were: Cocktails “ground-to-glass drinks showcasing the present and past seasons of Durham and the South”; Classic & Modern Cocktails, “other people’s or near-classic cocktails we are into right now”; and Preserved Summer Series.
The Preserved Summer Series specifically highlights the creative ingredients and methods the Kingfishers bar staff uses to create drinks, plus their promise to be ground-to-glass. According to the menu, the Preserved Summer Series takes local produce harvested in spring and summer, artfully preserved and then resurrected for cocktails to be enjoyed “in the coldest nights of winter.” This section does come with a disclaimer: “Due to the out-of-season nature of these ingredients, everything on this list is limited in quantity and liable to change often over the next few weeks.”
I was drawn straight to the Preserve Summer Series section and ordered the first drink to catch my eye: the Summer Dew Sour.
Made with house-made melon liqueur, vodka, lime, “maraschino-ed’ and pickled honeydew rind, it was served in a coup glass with a citrus slice floating on top and was everything I wanted it to be and nothing like I thought it would taste.
The cocktail was light, well-balanced between sweet from the melon and tart from the pickling and lime, and perfectly captured the feeling of an excellent Southern summer day — for me slightly reminiscent of time spent outside drinking the nectar from honeysuckle.
It was a strong honeydew flavor, which I love, but if you’re not a fan of that melon, this is definitely not the drink for you.
Another tick for the plus column for Kingfisher is that while the libations are well crafted, the bartenders waste no time in taking orders and turning out great cocktails in a timely manner, breaking the assumption that the craftier the cocktail bar, the longer your drink will take to make.
The crew I was with ordered libations off the Cocktails section of the menu that were also delicious and worthy of mentioning. The Return of the King cocktail — bourbon, rosemary-fig jam, cinnamon wine, and lemon — was rich, earthy and spiced, very nice for sipping. The Bee Durham, Kingfishers’ take on the classic Bee’s Knees cocktail, is made from waxed Conniption Navy Strength Gin (locally made at Durham Distillery), local honey, and lemon and served a ceramic vessel that co-owner Michelle Vanderwalker makes for the bar.
It’s the small but important touches, such as: homemade cups; drinks made with house-made preserves, tinctures, liqueur, etc.; and a rotating menu so you can never get bored even if you’re a regular who makes this place worth talking about, returning to, and nominating for big-time awards.
The cocktail program, led by co-owners Vanderwalker and Sean Umsrtead, not only features locally-sourced ingredients and liquor, but also highlights the creativity that comes from caring about and honoring where you’re from.
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