At some point during a day of drinking with Adrian Lindsay, I ask the Durham bartender if he studied history in college.
Through the course of the afternoon, Lindsay, a forty-eight-year-old father, speaks fluently about the lineage and geography of various types of alcohol, making offhand remarks about the eighteenth-century Caribbean origins of a particular ingredient. He talks about the rise of the Durham cocktail scene with a history buff's level of detail and about the city in which he's lived for more than a decade with the insight of a political scientist. I'm new here, so maybe I'm easily impressed, but, to me, Lindsay is like a living, breathing, drinking lexicon of cocktail-hour small talk. Alas, at Howard University and then at Greensboro College, Lindsay was a pre-med student.
"I like knowing this stuff," he says, "because it's a good conversation starter."
On an unseasonably cold Sunday afternoon, Lindsay and I meet in downtown Durham and head to Pizzeria Toro.
"Killer," Lindsay exclaims when he sees the man behind the bar. "We worked together at Nana's."
Lindsay was a longtime bartender at the fancy Main Street restaurant Revolution. He took a job a year ago as a server and backup bartender at Nana's, the Durham standby a few miles outside of the city center. The new setting provided another opportunity to learn. He's now next in line to become the newest bartender at Nana's, but he seems to enjoy the time he has to pick up new knowledge.
"I got this opportunity to come to Nana's as a server," he says. "It's such a great program."
At Toro, I ask Lindsay about his favorite drink on the menu, and he immediately points to the Aperol Margarita. "I love tequila, man," he says, laughing. I'm not a big margarita drinker, but I'm putting my faith in Lindsay today. I'm not disappointed. Made with Sauza tequila, Cointreau, Aperol, lime, and sea salt, it's a refreshing drink on the rocks, even on this rainy day.
Lindsay, a Winston-Salem native, has seen Durham's evolution both from a distance and from behind a bar, for better and for worse.
"I've been here to watch this great transformation take place," he says. But? "When I first got here, I was recovering from a bike accident and stayed with my brother, and I thought, man, there's so much diversity here! And I loved that. I love meeting different people. It's almost like it's homogenizing now."
As if looking for evidence of those changes, we exit Pizzeria Toro and head a few blocks away to the new restaurant Lindsay calls "the sexiest place in Durham right now," NanaSteak.
Located beside the Durham Performing Arts Center, it opened in February as chef Scott Howell's fourth Durham bar or restaurant, following the success of Nana's, Nanatacos, and Bar Virgile.
Not long after we arrive, people begin streaming in after a matinee performance of The Lion King, offering evidence of the prime location's biggest asset. Real tobacco leaves are inlaid into the surface of the tables and bartops. Curtains have been made from tobacco sacks. The Doors drift over the stereo.
Bartender and co-owner Brad Weddington makes us a jalapeño margarita and an Old Fashioned. He explains that the Old Fashioned is made with Luxardo cherries imported from Italy. "They're basically the most wonderful thing you could ever eat," says Weddington. They're not cheap, with a four-hundred gram bottle priced above twenty dollars, but they make this drink.
Lindsay begins talking about the Durham cocktail renaissance. He cites the relaxation of liquor laws as a big reason why Durham's cocktail scene has exploded.
"I have access to so many different types of liquor that you couldn't get a few years ago," he adds. "Years ago, I couldn't get great vermouth on the rocks."
Lindsay says that cocktail trends are forever changing. He laments the current popularity of frozen drinks.
"My first job had a lot of ice cream drinks," he says. "People would think it looked good, and then would get angry when they couldn't taste the liquor in it."
He credits Dean James, who helped open Alley Twenty Six in 2012 and spent time at Peccadillo in Carrboro, with helping to power the cocktail scene in Durham. So, after finishing our drinks at NanaSteak, we head to Alley Twenty Six on Chapel Hill Street. Launched four years ago by Shannon Healy, formerly of Crook's Corner, Alley Twenty Six prides itself on locally sourced ingredients, including liquors and tonics, syrups and bitters made in-house. In keeping with that theme, I ask the bartender for a drink featuring Durham Distillery's Conniption gin. One option is the "Navy Strength" gimlet, made with the distillery's strongest gin, lime, and simple syrup. Lindsay, naturally, orders an El Diablo margarita, made with reposado tequila, housemade ginger syrup, lime, soda, and crème de cassis.
The gimlet is excellent, even smooth in spite of its 57 percent alcohol content. I'm a little hungry, so I order a bowl of spiced Brazil nuts and some deviled eggs from Alley Twenty Six's newly expanded food menu. Here, Lindsay enters historian mode again.
Deviled eggs, he explains, were a staple of his childhood dinners at his grandmother's house, adding that since he started working in the restaurant industry, he's learned a lot about where we get our food. He worked at Jim Noble's first restaurant in High Point, J. Basul Noble, a farm-to-table restaurant that closed years before the term was popularized. Noble now owns multiple restaurants in Charlotte. Lindsay also extols his love of traditional Southern style cooking.
"Food is so personal for me," he says. "It wasn't until I started working in high-end restaurants that I realized my grandmother was using mirepoix in almost everything she cooked. These guys go to professional schools to learn how to use mirepoix, and my grandmother, who has a fifth-grade education, is cooking with this shit... It's remarkable watching what people carry with them. It's what makes soul food soul food—you fucking care about it."
Before we split, I ask Lindsay, who's itching to get back behind the bar full-time, why he likes this line of work so much.
"I love drinking," he says simply.
But it's not so easy, really.
"I love the food program and what I've learned at Nana's, but I love bartending there," he continues. "I'm a social person, and at the bar you can discuss politics or whatever, and just meet new people. People don't really like it when you talk to them about politics while they're eating."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Historic Blend"