Let’s all raise a glass to the cocktail, which has been making a remarkable comeback. After decades of languishing in the purgatory of fluorescent green appletinis and frozen margaritas, the mixed drink has returned to a level of craft not seen in decades.
“Craft” is indeed a fitting term for what this new generation of bartenders is practicing. And their handiwork – a tantalizingly varied mix of inventive new concoctions and accurate recreations of the classics – is attracting a rapidly growing fan base.
It sure looks like we’re entering a Golden Age of the cocktail. It’s certainly easier than ever before to find a bar where you can count on a quality quaff. That includes restaurants, where a list of craft cocktails has become almost obligatory.
In fact, in the course of “researching” the subject, I’ve stumbled (not literally; always drink in moderation) across so many of them that I’ve divided my list into two categories.
This week, I’m sharing my list of favorite bars in restaurants, and next week I’ll cover standalone bars.
Alley Twenty Six
320 E. Chapel Hill St., Durham
Drink a toast to: Going Against the Grain. Most restaurant bars develop their cocktail menu to complement their food menu. Alley Twenty Six, which had already earned a reputation as one of the area’s premier bars, did just the opposite. Earlier this year, it expanded into the neighboring space and added a restaurant.
Typical tipples: Southern Gin Cocktail (Conniption American Dry gin, Cointreau and orange bitters), or bring friends and share the Punch for Four.
And some nibbles: chicken liver and foie gras mousseline, Scotch egg, jar of pickles.
The Bar & Lounge at the Umstead Hotel
100 Woodland Pond, Cary
Drink a toast to: Going Barefoot in the Mansion. House specialty cocktails, frequently showcasing local produce and North Carolina liquors, are as down-home as the luxury hotel setting is elegant. If you haven’t made reservations at Herons, the hotel’s superb restaurant, you can take your time in the lounge and order from a “limited” bar menu that would be the envy of many restaurants.
Typical tipples: Picnic (Redemption rye, watermelon, lemon, sugar, Angostura bitters); Porch (Pinetop moonshine, peach shrub, iced Darneeling tea).
And some nibbles: tuna spring roll, truffled potato croquettes, lobster roll.
105 S. Mangum St., Durham
Drink a toast to: Old School ... or New School. Depending on which of these schools gets your allegiance, you’ll order from one of two lists: Classic Cocktails (a meticulously researched selection of drinks from your parents’ – and their parents’ – generations) and Seasonal Drinks (a changing list of house specialty creations).
Typical tipples: Old School: Manhattan (Wild Turkey rye, Carpano Antica and Angostura bitters, garnished with a Luxardo cherry and orange peel, served in a historically accurate Nick and Nora glass); New School: Perry Mason (thyme-infused vodka, St-Germain elderflower liqueur, Bartlett pear, lemon, Prosecco).
And some nibbles: marinated olives, fried oysters, charcuterie and cheese plates.
16 E. Martin St., Raleigh
Drink a toast to: Saving Room for Dessert. A menu consisting entirely of house-made desserts (OK, and a few savory nibbles) plus cocktails designed to go with them equals a sweet tooth’s dream.
Typical tipples: Amanda’s Dark Roots (The Kraken black spiced rum, Blackmailer root beer liqueur, ginger ale, lime); Oove in Idleness (lavender-infused vodka, Citadelle gin, grenadine, mint, lemon).
And some nibbles: sweet and spicy pecans and pretzels, corn and blueberry crème brûlée, Derby pie.
Death & Taxes
105 W. Hargett St., Raleigh
Drink a toast to: Deadly Puns. The names of drinks are witty (or painfully punny, depending on your attitude toward dad humor) allusions to the restaurant’s name. They go down well with the wood-grilled fare that is the specialty at this venture by James Beard Award-winning chef Ashley Christensen.
Typical tipples: Tequila Me Softly (tequila, Lillet Rose, strawberry, jalapeño, lime); Berried Alive (cachaça, blackberry, pink peppercorn, lime).
And some nibbles: roasted oysters, embered okra, fingerling potatoes fried in dry-aged beef fat.
106 S. Wilmington St., Raleigh
Drink a toast to: Agave. Mezcal, tequila’s smoky cousin, is the featured liquor at this upstairs offshoot of the popular downtown Mexican restaurant, Centro. In addition to some five dozen labels available by the shot or flight, the bar also offers a list of signature cocktails created to showcase mezcal.
Typical tipples: Agua Santa (mezcal joven, pepper-infused yellow Chartreuse, Benedictine, fresh citrus blend, rosemary and agave nectar, served in a lava salt-rimmed glass); Midnight Gunfight: Kentucky straight bourbon, mezcal joven, jalapeño-infused coffee liqueur, local smoked bitters, salt, orange twist).
And some nibbles: Chimi-Guac & Queso, elote fritters, capirotada (Mexican-spiced bread pudding; goes great with a Midnight Gunfight).
1201 Raleigh Road, Chapel Hill
Drink a toast to: Asian Fusion in a Glass. The craft cocktails at this Chapel Hill hidden gem (and at Juju, its younger sibling in Durham) should serve as inspiration for all of those self-styled “Asian Bistros” to up their game.
Typical tipples: Xi (Snow Maiden Nigori sake, St-Germain elderflower liqueur, cucumber, Thai basil); Raise the Red Lantern (Botanist gin, Solerno blood orange liqueur, Aperol, cardamom, saffron bitters and a splash of cava sparkling wine).
And some nibbles: pan-fried bacon and collard dumplings, sweet potato fritters, salmon spring rolls.
202-107 W. N.C. 54, Durham
Drink a toast to: Gluten-Free Without Sacrifice. The food at Primal is so good, you have to keep reminding yourself that the menu is entirely gluten-free. Excellent cocktails (good thing there’s no gluten in alcohol) are icing on the cake.
Typical tipples: Moscow Mule (potato vodka, Fever Tree ginger beer and fresh squeezed lime, served over shaved ice); New Fashion (Johnnie Walker scotch, crushed cardamom pods, mesquite honey, muddled lemon, medicinal and organic orange bitters, served on the rocks).
And some nibbles: bacon-wrapped dates, N.C. crab dip, grilled octopus with preserved lemon, shaved fennel and kalamata olives.
The Roof at the Durham
315 E. Chapel Hill St., Durham
Drink a toast to: Fine Booze and Skyline Views. Situated atop the restored mid-century modern building that is home to The Durham Hotel (and James Beard Award-winning chef Andrea Reusing’s restaurant on the ground floor), The Roof offers a view of downtown Durham that’s nearly as intoxicating as the bar’s topnotch drinks.
Typical tipples: Sunset Park (strawberry-infused rum, Yzaguirre vermouth, pistachio oil); The Durham (cognac, rum, 10-year tawny port, Benedictine, Angostura bitters).
And some nibbles: deviled “picnic” eggs, hot chicharron, anything from the raw bar.
205 E. Franklin St., Raleigh
Drink a toast to: The Garden. Taking their cue from the locavore focus of the menu, drinks are often garnished with herbs harvested from the large urban garden behind the restaurant.
Typical tipples: Negroni Primavera (gin, Torino vermouth, Cappelletti aperitivo, orange oil and a garnishing sprig of lemon thyme from the garden); Halfway Crook (Brazilian rum, St-Germain elderflower liqueur, curaçao, lemon, absinthe, soda and a bronze fennel garnish).
And some nibbles: mushroom fritti, oysters (raw or roasted), rabbit liver paté.