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Sean Umstead measures out a mixture of rum and simple syrup that’s been infused with toasted Carolina Gold rice. He pours the concoction into a shaker along with sake, lime juice, and Krupnikas, a Lithuanian spiced honey liqueur. After shaking, he pours the daiquiri — frothy from the starches in the rice — into a glass and sets it on the bar.
This cocktail is just one imaginative offering created by the mixologists at Kingfisher, the funky basement-level bar on Chapel Hill Street in Durham that Umstead co-owns with business partner Michelle Vanderwalker. At Kingfisher, Umstead aims to create an atmosphere with a certain magic. “You cannot have the best cocktail in the world at your house,” he says. “You need the sound of shaking tins. You need that weird citrus smell that cocktail bars have because they’ve juiced too many limes and lemons in a given day. The music’s got to be right; the bartender’s got to be right. And then when it clicks, it just clicks.”
Umstead first discovered how transportive a bar can be when visiting a speakeasy in New York City. While working in New Jersey as a production assistant and, later, video editor for the NBA, he began to explore the city’s craft cocktail scene during a time when the revival of what he calls “thoughtful cocktails” had just taken hold. When a work stoppage in the NBA resulted in the league laying him off, he started bartending. Although he had worked in restaurants in college, he began to see, for the first time, how restaurants and bars could be a viable career option.
“There’s a creative aspect to it,” he says of the industry. “There’s an entrepreneurial aspect, and there’s a community aspect.”
After moving back to the Triangle area to work at The Umstead Hotel and Spa in his native Cary, and later at 21c Museum Hotel in Durham, Umstead started looking for opportunities to open his own bar, realizing that Durham was the right place for what he wanted to offer. “It’s such an energetic food town,” he says. “The people who work, bartend, and cook in it are so passionate about putting out a really good product that’s unique and kind of iconoclastic.”
“You need the sound of shaking tins, the citrus smell that cocktail bars have.”
Umstead and Vanderwalker thought that they could add something new that would complement the city’s already vibrant food and cocktail scene. They opened Kingfisher in 2019, offering inventive craft cocktails that celebrate local ingredients — like Krupnikas, from Durham-based distillery The Brothers Vilgalys — using recipes developed by a talented team of mixologists. Two more ventures quickly followed: Queeny’s, a casual bar and restaurant located above Kingfisher, and QueenBurger, a burger joint that, despite its fast-casual atmosphere, still offers craft cocktails with quality ingredients.
And that best-in-the-world cocktail? You just might get it at Kingfisher. The toasted rice daiquiri hits the taste buds in layers — tart from the lime; just a touch of sweet; nutty and earthy from the rice. But if that particular drink isn’t on the ever-revolving menu, there’s sure to be something else with just as much depth of flavor — something just as magical.