What do you like to drink after a shift? “Suze & Soda. Our bar, Kingfisher, is only three-months-old, so in addition to tasting great, the bitterness and relatively low ABV of Suze means I can still problem solve if need be.”
What is the all-time best dive bar jukebox song? ““Lido Shuffle” by Boz Scaggs. It’s my favorite song to sing along to! I think jukebox songs are best when they are communal, so either a feeling or a sing-along does it for me. Except no Journey, please.”
After all these years bartending and creating drinks, do you still enjoy going out to bars? “I love going out to bars. It revitalizes my passion and teaches me new things. I really enjoy looking at how other operators set up, design their space, and execute service. Bars are such a puzzle and it’s awesome to watch when it all clicks together.”
Name the first good drink you ever drank and where you had it. “Remember the Maine at Little Branch in Manhattan’s West Village. I was in no way a cocktail, or quality drinking, person when I graduated college and headed to New York. This cocktail blew my mind with its depth, subtle sweetness, and real panache. It had that magical quality that embodied every NYC feeling Sinatra, Jay-Z and Billy Joel sang about.”
What book on cocktails or spirits is your go-to resource? “I use the Flavor Bible a lot. I love to explore flavor combinations more than anything. The book is a true rabbit hole for flavor exploration. In terms of true cocktail books, I reference Dave Arnold’s book Liquid Intelligence and Matt Whiley’s The Modern Cocktail for technique most often. I have also been opening Shannon Mustipher’s Tiki a lot lately, I love the stripped back approach she takes—letting clean flavors shine.”
What’s your favorite cocktail and food pairing? “A Negroni with Cochinita pibil. It is a slow Yucatán BBQ dish of pork, achiote and Seville oranges. It has the most wonderful balance of deep savoriness and brightness. There is also often habanero salsa to top the dish. The Negroni matches so well with wonderful complimentary brightness, requisite depth and bitterness, and nice sweetness to mellow out the heat.”
What drink are you most proud of creating? “This is hard for me. I am always looking forward to the next season, technique, or flavor. I’d say I am most proud of my Strawberry Daiquiri. It really embodies my bar Kingfisher. We source the most amazing, tiny flavorful strawberries from George and Lily at Lil’ Farm, just north of Durham. We slow cook them into a syrup, then take the pulp and infuse it into rum along with the trimmed strawberry tops. We adjust the rums as the season progresses. It really shows amazing depth and seasonality. It is also an evolving drink, just as I hope Kingfisher evolves over time.”
Is there one person (dead or alive) you’d like to make a cocktail for? “I’d love to make a drink for chef Dan Barber. I aspire for Kingfisher to reflect a lot of the ethos of his restaurant Blue Hill. I want to bring the farm, and farmer, to the bar in a transparent, honest, and equitable way.”
What’s your favorite shot-and-a-beer combination? “If I’m having a Boilermaker, I’m going classic. Give me an ice-cold pilsner and Wild Turkey 101, please.”
What is the one tool that you always make sure to pack when you’re traveling for business? “Booker and Dax made this awesome, under-the-radar tool called the Cocktail Cube. It is a 2-inch reusable polyethylene cube that weighs the same as a 2-inch ice cube. It is great for shaking drinks when the quality of ice is questionable, such as a festival or off-site event. It is also super easy to clean and reuse quickly. The aeration is second to none. It comes everywhere with me.”
Sean Umstead is the co-owner of the new bar Kingfisher in Durham, North Carolina.
Interview has been condensed and edited.