When Sean Umstead is asked about his go-to cocktail, the answer is both unexpected and revealing.
"It's probably a strawberry daiquiri," said Umstead, adding a qualifier, "Made right."
In 2018, an era known for its innovative cocktail culture, that may be a surprising answer, but it may tell you everything you need to know about Kingfisher. That's the new cocktail bar Umstead is opening with his wife, Michelle Vanderwalker, at 321 E. Chapel Hill St., next to The Durham hotel in downtown. It is expected to open later this year.
A strawberry daiquiri "made right" means tart and dry, some sweetness from the rum, some lime juice and is an entire white sand world away from the saccharine sweet frozen concoction usually thought of today.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
It is the longtime cocktail dream of Umstead, who grew up in Cary and moved back to North Carolina from New York City in 2013, serving as the assistant manager at Herons at the Umstead Hotel in Cary and then launching the bar program at The Counting House when it opened at 21c Museum Hotel in Durham.
The Triangle is already teeming with classic and inventive bars, but Umstead said Kingfisher represents the next step: farm to cocktail.
"We're focused on presenting North Carolina produce as the star and then bring the booze behind that," Umstead said.
Kingfisher intends to build a drink menu that shifts the dominant flavors from the booze to strawberries, or tomatillos or celery, and then adding the spirit that complements it. Umstead said the bar will be big into pickling, preserving, jamming, dehydrating and wringing ever bit of interesting flavor from the bounty of North Carolina. He said he picked up his tricks simply by paying attentions in the kitchens he's worked at in New York and North Carolina.
"If you hang out long enough you can watch chefs do some amazing things," Umstead said. "They're masters of extracting flavors. If you watch a chef throw enough things in a stock pot, you start to think, why would I throw this out? We'll use various techniques to build a pantry of ingredients for whenever inspiration strikes. A library of flavor."
Right now Umstead has strawberries on the brain. That means strawberry tops hanging out in gin, leading to an infusion of grassy flavor. Overripe ones spending time in a dehydrator and turned into an intensely flavored powder.
Kingfisher will open essentially across the street from Alley Twenty Six, one of Durham's top cocktail bars. Umstead said he's good friends with owner Shannon Healy, who he has sought regularly sought out for advice. He credits Healy with being a major part of establishing the Triangle's cocktail bar culture.
"The bars in Durham have done such a good job of introducing and educating people and laying the groundwork for all the restaurants that do cocktails to succeed," Umstead said. "They talked to people about bitters and different whiskeys. We want to take cocktails to a different place, a place we couldn't have taken them to without their work. Once you have a group and community seeing really well-made drinks, then you can do something new and we can really focus on North Carolina produce."
Creating a vibe
Kingfisher will move into the basement of an old law office with room for around 45. Vanderwalker is a designer and artist and is creating and cultivating the cocktail bar's vibe, aiming to give drinkers a dark and intimate space to talk with friends, grab a drink with a date or chat up the bartender. She's creating all the tiles herself for the Kingfisher's horseshoe shaped bar and using lighting to create distinct areas within the space. In a way, it's a rescue mission.
"It was just the worst office space," Vanderwalker said. "Fluorescent lighting, drop-down ceiling. ... In most bars the drinks or the company are the most important thing. We really wanted this place to be an experience where you could go and have all those things, great drinks and pleasant conversation, but also be an interesting place to be. We're really designing it from the ground up."
Vanderwalker is also designing plateware, water cups and tiki mugs for the bar.
Umstead and Vanderwalker met while working at the Counting House in Durham and married a year and a half ago. They collected pieces of bars from their European honeymoon and from trips to New York and brought them to Kingfisher.
Vanderwalker remembered a drink from Paris of celery, apple and gin connecting the eventual vision of Kingfisher.
"It tasted like celery, but in the best way," she said. "We want to highlight an ingredient, to capture its essence. A drink that is understandable and relateable to everyone who wants to come in."
There will also be an outdoor patio with a few tables and a non-commission gallery inside for local artists.
Kingfisher is in the middle of construction and looks to open by the end of the year.