10 things to know about Foundation, Raleigh’s first craft cocktail bar as it turns 10

Foundation, Raleigh’s first cocktail bar, turns 10 years old this week.
Foundation, Raleigh’s first cocktail bar, turns 10 years old this week.

For a bar in a basement, the name Foundation is kind of perfect. Over the last decade it has grown into something prophetic.

There, down the steps on Fayetteville Street, where the word Foundation glows in neon, is the cavernous bar that launched Raleigh’s modern cocktail scene.

Owners Will Alphin and Vincent Whitehurst opened Foundation in a different Raleigh, at a time when a cocktail meant little more than a spirit and sour mix. Today, Raleigh and the greater Triangle are teeming with well-mixed drinks, be it faithful renditions of the century-old classics, or boozy inventions tickling the senses with local spirits and seasonal ingredients.

The cocktail lover’s soul is easily shaken and stirred these days, and Foundation helped set the tone

Wednesday, May 29, is Foundation’s 10-year anniversary, and the bar is celebrating with a party and a book launch. To mark the occasion, Alphin and Whitehurst self-published a thick, softbound magazine devoted to the history of their bar, complete with tales from bartenders and regulars, artistic menus and cocktail recipes. It reads like a yearbook, offering a decade-long snapshot of Raleigh’s drinking thoroughfare and the influence a not-quite 50-seat bar can have on the trajectory of taste and community.

On the day of Foundation’s 10th trip around the galactic mixing glass, here are 10 quotes, notes and remembrances to trace the Fayetteville bar’s role in Raleigh’s drinking history.

1. The name Foundation

In an interview with The News & Observer, Alphin described the evolution of the name’s origins.

“Part of my philosophy is you don’t need to name the band until you’ve written a few songs,” Alphin said. “We chilled on that for a while. We tried all these names and had these lists, and then finally Vince’s wife looked around and saw all the work we were doing on the foundation of the building and was like, ‘Why don’t you just call it Foundation?’ We were like, ‘Thank God you said that.’ That was perfect.”

2. A bar born from a crawl space

Fayetteville Street had barely reopened to traffic, having spent years as a pedestrian mall. But the owners said they believed in leaders’ vision for revitalizing the city center, so they took a gamble.

They built the bar around bourbon, viewing it as the spirit of the South. But Alphin credits founding bar manager Andrew Shepherd for shaping a philosophy into a drinkable vision. Shepherd spent five years in New York, Alphin said, in the formative years of what is now a national cocktail craze, and set a tone for making as much as possible in house, from seasonal syrups to tonics.

“I wish I could say opening a bar was a lifelong dream,” Whitehurst wrote in the Foundation book. “Rather, the bar was dreaming of us. In 2007, Will Alphin and I were involved in the renovation design work for 213 Fayetteville St., and we were spending some time in the then-crawl space. Intrigued by the stone and brick foundation work, we discussed the possibility of excavating out a basement and creating a space for — what else could it be — a bar!”

3. More sophisticated drinkers

“We didn’t do it to be trendsetters,” Alphin said. “Vince and I were drawn to the craft cocktail thing because it felt authentic. It felt culinary. It felt like you could pull in those values of integrity and locavore. It seemed like a great palate to center around. That really hasn’t changed. What’s changed is the drinkers. They’ve become more sophisticated and know more about things. And there’s a lot more people in the Triangle now who know how to make a great drink and know all the basics of cocktail bartending.”

A bartender pours a beer at the cellar bar Foundation. New York Times

4. The rise of the $15 cocktail

“When we first started out, we were never that $15 cocktail bar, and we still aren’t,” Alphin said. “But people weren’t used to paying a little extra for a cocktail. Because a cocktail is a Choco-tini or something before that. So we got a little bit of pushback that we’re a little expensive and we were just like, ‘Well that’s what it is.’

“But over the years, especially as the rents started going up, we watched everyone’s prices go up and more in line. …. We try to keep the price very fair, but also not something people can take for granted.”

5. Changing what it means to be a cocktail

“Our original bar manager Andrew Shepherd was really great about four-ingredient cocktails: three ingredients and a garnish,” Alphin said in an interview. “And he could make these really great cocktails very simply. That was really important to him. And we watched the ingredients (in cocktail bars) get more and more involved, the operation for each ingredient more and more involved. At times with more or less success.

“Every restaurant has a cocktail menu, and new cocktail bars are popping up all the time. ... It’s not as special, it’s commonplace,” Alphin said. “When we opened, people came in and were like, ‘Oh there’s an egg in the drink.’ Our whole cocktail culture has evolved.”

6. The bourbon boom

Foundation takes pride in being one of the first to create great bourbon drinks, and they have plenty of leftover Pappy Van Winkle whiskey to show for it.

“It’s been an ongoing gripe, if you will,” Alphin said of the bourbon boom. “Now with everyone having trying to have a really great bourbon list, we get in line with the rest of them. And that kind of burns us a little bit because we’re like, ‘Hey, we were doing this first.’”

7. The Foundation influence

Some of Foundation’s friends in the food and beverage industry chime in with their thoughts on Foundation’s impact. Kim Hammer, owner of Bittersweet Cocktail, Dessert & Coffee Lounge, said she thought about what she loved about Foundation when she set out to open her own cocktail bar, also in downtown Raleigh.

“I wanted to create something that was mine, but would also complement this bourbon bar I loved so much,” she said in the book. “I knew Bittersweet would be desserts and coffee and cocktails, but when I sat down to write the beverage program, with my love of gin looming heavily, it seemed almost like I was creating a ‘girlfriend bar’ for Foundation.”

8. Notable alumni

Meanwhile, recent James Beard Award winner Ashley Christensen wrote that a well-crafted drink in the Triangle likely can trace its roots back to Foundation. Christensen, herself, opened a craft cocktail bar, Fox Liquor, in downtown Raleigh.

“If you’re sipping an expertly executed drink somewhere in the capital of N.C., its past or present can likely be traced on a family tree that connects back in some way to Foundation bar,” Christensen wrote in the book.

Alumni of Foundation have gone to open their own bars or manage bar programs at other notable Raleigh restaurants. That includes Kevin Barrett, owner of Dram & Draught in Raleigh; Matthew Bettinger, owner of Sidebar in Cary; Chris Powers, co-owner of Trophy Brewing and its restaurants in Raleigh; and Zach Thomas, head bartender at Crawford & Son.

9. Are we at peak cocktail?

Cocktail bars have grown across the country. Across the Triangle, they continue to flourish, with new ones popping up.

“I honestly don’t think they’re fully saturated, as much as we think,” Alphin said. “Cocktail bars are still largely in the city center. I still think they’ve got a long life ahead of them.”

10. Celebrating a decade

Foundation is at 213 Fayetteville St. The book on Foundation will be sold at a 10th anniversary party Wednesday May 29 at 6 p.m. It typically costs $40 but will be $30 that night. The party will feature 10-year old bourbon specials and appearances by Foundation alumni bartenders.

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Drew Jackson writes about restaurants and dining for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun, covering the food scene in the Triangle and North Carolina.