The bar's new, but the face is familiar. Shannon Healy of Crook's Corner in Chapel Hill has opened his own spot, Alley Twenty Six, in downtown Durham.
There are obvious carryovers from the old restaurant to the new bar, including a plate of pimento cheese, a spread that Bill Neal, Crook's first chef, helped place on the national map. But what persists from the Crook's well—housemade syrups, tonics and a carefully considered wine list—is mostly Healy's doing.
Crook's chef Bill Smith credits Healy with building a strong drink program at the restaurant. "He created a grown-up bar for us," Smith says, adding, "He's probably the best [general manager] I've ever had. He sees the bar and wine and everything as an art rather than commerce. He's artful about it."
Gary Crunkleton of The Crunkleton, Chapel Hill's first classic cocktail bar, concurs. When Crunkleton took all of his bar staff to the Tales of the Cocktail symposium in New Orleans, he left his place under Healy's watch.
"I feel like Shannon and I have the same kind of vision in putting an authentic product out there," Crunkleton says.
Alley Twenty Six's air of maturity comes from Healy's attention to flavor and quality rather than the checkered curtains and mustard-colored walls (which appear more apt for a gentleman's sitting room) or the lack of televisions and bottled sodas.
Although Healy's target demographic ranges from ages 35 to 65, the bar is more widely appealing. For downtown Durham, it's Whiskey without the minimum age (23) or the smoke. It's a spot for those who fancy a considered beverage. And that goes beyond booze.
Healy uses the kitchen at Crook's, where he still oversees the wine list, to create a zesty tonic syrup from cinchona bark powder, sugar, citric acid and lemongrass. It's perfect served alone on ice, as is Healy's homemade cola syrup.
The cola takes several run of the mill drinks up a notch. At Alley Twenty Six, a Jack and Coke becomes a well-balanced cola and bourbon. (There are no Tennessee whiskeys stocked on the single shelf behind the bar.) Other traditional cocktails benefit from in-house syrups, too. For instance, the Jibe Ho! dresses a classic Rusty Nail (Scotch and Drambuie) with homemade pineapple syrup, lime juice, egg white and bitters.
Whatever the added ingredient, Healy says the goal is "not to hide or drown out the base [liquor], but to flatter it. You should be able to taste all the ingredients."
Healy credits his training as a wine steward for his focus on taste, having completed two courses through the Court of Master Sommeliers. "Once you start paying attention to the flavors of things very specifically—whether wine, beer, coffee or food—you can use that skill set to apply to a lot of other things," he says.
Healy adds that his stint with Smith at Crook's reinforced the "attention to flavor." He calls Smith "a library of information" and acknowledges that one benefit of continuing to create tonics, syrups, pickles and jellies at Crook's is access to Smith's palette.
Smith offers input when Healy is working on a new project, which is often these days. Syrups change according to what's available or in-season, and Alley Twenty Six has continually made changes to its menu of nine cocktails since it opened in September.
"It's a small curated list, but the idea is that we can be nimble," Healy says. "One of the reasons I love to do cocktail lists is because I'm a very of-the-moment consumer. I don't have, 'I drink this. This is my drink.'"
For those that do, Healy is happy to create something from the limited products he stocks. He's also pleased to suggest something new. When I asked to sample the housemade tonic, he mixed it with a dark 12-year-old rum instead of an expected gin. It was refreshingly familiar, like a syrupy, sweet Coke with a lime on the side.
The latter is something Healy wouldn't serve. Beyond not having sodas, he prefers that a lime or other fruit is squeezed, not presented perched on a glass for a customer to tackle. "When I give you a drink, it should be made," he says.
And under Healy's lead at Alley Twenty Six, that also means making it well.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Adult swim."