May 5, 2022 - News

Durham's Alley Twenty Six is N.C.'s premier cocktail bar

Shannon Healy stands behind the bar at Durham's Alley Twenty Six.
Shannon Healy, owner of Durham's Alley Twenty Six. Photo: Alley Twenty Six.

Durham's Alley Twenty Six, known for an ever-changing cast of finely-tuned concoctions, just accomplished something no bar in North Carolina has ever done. It’s been named a finalist for the James Beard Foundation Awards' Outstanding Bar Program.

Why it matters: The James Beard awards are considered one of the top honors in the restaurant world. It's nicknamed the Oscars of the food industry and has typically been dominated by restaurants and bars in the country’s biggest cities.

  • Only one North Carolina chef, Raleigh's Ashley Christensen, has ever won its top award for chefs.

Shannon Healy, whose bald head and salt-and-pepper beard makes him look more like a chemistry professor than bar owner, has been serving drinks in the Triangle for more than 20 years.

  • Before starting Alley Twenty Six in downtown Durham in 2012, he had been in charge of the bar program at the legendary (and now closed) southern restaurant Crook's Corner in Chapel Hill.
  • Of note: There are ongoing efforts to revive Crook's, Healy said, though it's unclear if it will come together this year.

What he's saying: "[The nomination] means a lot. It means that we get to be the place that represents our state and other outstanding bar programs throughout North Carolina," Healy said.

  • "I am still in disbelief especially because when I opened this place in 2012, there was no one in downtown Durham."

Every week, Healy and his team of bartenders, servers and managers pitch ideas for a new cocktail-and-small plate pairing for Thursday night.

  • Every Wednesday, they pick a different premium bourbon to sell at break-even prices.
  • In mid-April, the kitchen created a roasted beet tostada to which Healy paired a mint spritz made with reposado tequila, mint syrup, lime, sparkling wine and soda water.

The bar's creativity has also been its savior during the peaks of the COVID-19 pandemic, when customers were either barred by executive order from entering or just chose not to come.

  • It used every square inch of the adjacent alley (yes, Durham's actual No. 26 alley) to create a large and vibrant outdoor space for customers.
  • It began bottling a variety of its own cocktail syrups and bar ingredients to sell to customers.
  • And it created virtual cocktail-making classes and kits for homebound imbibers.

Big Picture: Patrons are starting to return to Durham's downtown restaurant scene in larger numbers. But it's still a struggle, Healy admitted, noting he's had to make some of the toughest decisions of his career in the past two years (like closing Crook's).

  • "This is a stupid job if you're not really hopeful," Healy said. "Especially over the last few years, and if you look backwards at my months of data, it's a dumpster fire. But I am optimistic we are going to come out of it."

🦃Go-to drink: After a work day, it’s not a cocktail, according to Healy.

  • He would rather drink Wild Turkey 101 or any “dumb yellow beer” he can find sitting around.
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