Durham officially incorporated on April 10, 1869. Two days and 150 years later, I celebrated by getting hammered on the INDY’s dime. 

Here’s the backstory: Durham Distillery, the city’s award-winning gin- and vodka-makers, had partnered with eleven downtown watering holes to create original cocktails that celebrated something unique about the city. The drinks will be available through November, but really, what’s the point in pacing yourself?

My mission: In one night, go from bar to bar—in alphabetical order, no less!—and sample all of these concoctions, then try to remember enough about my adventure to write it down. (Don’t try this at home, kids.) 

There’s something you should know about me. I’m the cheapest of cheap dates—whatever the opposite of a hollow leg is, I have it. I’m also an infrequent imbiber. The last drinks I consumed before this were a couple of watered-down mojitos at a wedding in December. 

To prepare, I spoke to friends with more practical boozing experience. Their advice: Keep something in my stomach, alternate sips of water with liquor, and, for God’s sake, don’t feel the need to finish your drinks. 

So with that in mind, I set out on a Friday night, ready to give my poor, unsuspecting liver a vodka- and gin-soaked spanking. Shall we begin? 


A Fresh Start

2 oz. Conniption American Dry Gin

1/3 oz. House-made Yuzu Cordial

1/3 oz. House Dry Vermouth Blend

Pour ingredients into a mixing glass. Add ice, stir, and strain into a cold coupe glass.

Owner Shannon Healey introduces us to bartender Cam, who serves me A Fresh Start. The beverage is bright and fresh, with the house-made yuzu cordial its most prominent element. Yuzu is an Asian citrus that’s almost impossible to obtain in the U.S. Shannon compares the cordial to the Italian liqueur limoncello, but it’s so much better: perfectly sweet, with just the right amount of pucker, and somehow finishes with a deep, fruity, almost tamarind note. I’d love to come back for a glass by itself, but Healey says that, because of the scarcity, it’s only used as an ingredient. I drink about a third of the cocktail. 

Sobriety Level: Like a judge.


The Runaway Rabbit

The Runaway Rabbit

1.5 oz. Conniption American Dry Gin

0.5 oz. Ancho Reyes

0.5 oz. Carrot Juice

0.25 oz. House-made Ginger Syrup

0.25 oz. Lemon Juice

Combine all ingredients. Shake and serve up in a coupe glass.

Part art nouveau, part industrial chic, Arcana looks a bit like your grandparents’ furnished basement, if your grandmother was Lillie Langtry and your grandfather was Oscar Wilde. The Runaway Rabbit pays homage to the late lamented Runaway clothing company. The ancho reyes give the cocktail a crack of heat perfectly balanced by the other components. I finish about half of my drink. 

Sobriety Level: Goodwill toward fellow humans. 


Annie Savoy

1 oz. Durham Distillery Cucumber Vodka

1 oz. Conniption American Dry Gin

0.75 oz. Dolin Dry Vermouth

0.25 oz. Cocchi Americano

Drizzle of Castelvetrano Brine

Stir ingredients together and strain into a coupe or martini glass. Drizzle extra virgin olive oil on top and sprinkle a pinch of pink salt. Garnish with a Castelvetrano olive and lemon swath.

The Annie Savoy’s extra virgin olive oil floating on top, studded with pink salt, gives it a unique mouthfeel. As a recovering bartender, I’m fascinated by the lemon swath; it looks like an unblemished cut of buttery yellow suede with absolutely no pith marring the surface’s perfection. I drink about a third of an Annie and leave a little noodle-kneed, needing food soon.

Sobriety Level: Wobbly. 


Bull City Sling

1.5 oz. Conniption Navy-Strength Gin

1.5 oz. Juice from Luxardo Cherries or Cherry Liqueur

0.5 oz. Brothers Vigalys Beebop Liqueur

1.5 oz. Pineapple Juice

0.5 oz. Lime Juice

0.25 oz. House Grenadine

2 dashes Angostura Orange Bitters

Smoke from Parker Family Farms Brightleaf Tobacco

Light a small piece of Brightleaf Tobacco and place highball glass over the tobacco to capture smoke. Add all remaining ingredients to shaker with ice. Shake slowly for 8 seconds to chill. Fill glass with ice and strain the cocktail over the ice. Garnish with pineapple wedge and cherry. 

COPA, a Cuban farm-to-table tapas restaurant, is a relaxing, quiet spot to grab a bite and decompress. We order a small repast of chunky avocado crostini and platanos rellenos, sweet fried plantains filled with spicy meat. This is where I have my favorite drink of the night: The Bull City Sling is sweet, fruity, and brightly colored, and even though it contains three different spirits, it tastes dangerously non-alcoholic.I drink about a third of my cocktail, and, while the food helps, I’m nonetheless the human personification of The Lego Movie song “Everything Is Awesome.”

Sobriety Level: According to an observer, “extremely cheerfully effusive.”


Hit Grass (Win Salad)

1.5 oz. Durham Distillery American Dry Gin

1 oz. Cucumber Juice

0.5 oz. Yellow Chartreuse

0.5 oz. Dolin Dry Vermouth

0.5 oz. Sauvignon Blanc

4–5 Mint Leaves

Pinch of Fresh Ground Black Pepper

Cucumber-Chartreuse Foam (to make: shake 0.5 oz. yellow chartreuse and 2 oz. cucumber juice with an egg white until the mixture is nice and frothy)

Combine all ingredients (except foam). Shake and strain into rocks glass. Fill with crushed ice. Top with foam and garnish with mint leaf.

Next, we head to 21c Museum Hotel and Counting House, home to the well-curated second-floor art gallery and the snazzy transparent bathroom stalls. The amusingly named Hit Grass (Win Salad) finishes with a bright, sharp peppery snap and sports an Instagram-worthy cucumber-scented foam that reminds me of summer days in my Uncle Cholly’s garden. I leave after four or five sips.

Sobriety Level: Same. 

Note: At this point, we realize that our next stop, Littler, was about to close. We also realize we’d have to shuffle our order to make it to Pizzeria Toro and Mothers and Sons before they close, too. 


Calabrian Chili Collins 

2 oz. Conniption Navy-Strength Gin

0.75 oz. Fresh Lemon Juice

0.75 oz. Calabrian Chili Syrup

Combine all ingredients with ice and shake. Pour in a Collins glass and top with soda. Garnish with a dried Calabrian chili and lemon wheel.

My notes read, “Definitely lightly drunk,” but I was certainly a good deal more inebriated than that. The drink here is the extremely carbonated Calabrian Chili Collins. It’s spicy, but the lemon mostly tempers the heat. I pick it as the best cocktail to enjoy at a rooftop pizza party on a July night.

Sobriety Level: Definitely more than lightly drunk. 


Between Two Ferns 

1.5 oz. Conniption American Dry Gin

1.5 oz. Carpano Antica

0.25 oz. Luxardo Fernet

0.25 oz. Fernet Branca

Combine ingredients. Stir briefly over cracked ice, then pour over a 3 oz. ice cube in a rocks glass. Garnish with orange peel.

At this point, the night begins to go south, or at least, my memory does. The M&S décor reminds me of Delmonico’s circa 1899, with foot-high mirrors at eye level running the length of the walls, a punched tin ceiling, and waitstaff wearing floor-length aprons. The drink comes with an ice cube the size of a child’s wooden block, bears a ginny resemblance to an old-fashioned, has deep caramel notes, and is very strong. 

Sobriety Level: Alternating between the Here and Now and the Gay Nineties. 


Honeysuckle Vesper

1.5 oz. Conniption American Dry Gin

1.5 oz. Kettle One Vodka

1 oz. Cap Corse Vermouth 

Combine with ice and shake (do not stir!). Serve in a coupe or martini glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Stop eight on the Tour de Debauchery is our last, mainly because it’s now almost midnight and The Durham will close soon. But this homey diner also makes for an ideal nightcap. The drink’s name comes from Vesper Lynd, a Bond girl in Casino Royale, and tastes like the kind of kick-ass martini 007 might order. To help minimize the effects of a drink with the very real potential to poleax me, I have Jack Tar’s perfect poutine and topped it off with a stellar slice of French silk pie. By now, my drunkenness has manifested into a need to apologize profusely for my sloppiness and slurring. 

The manager, Kenny—or Justin? Sorry—makes me feel a little better when he tells me I’m the politest drunk he’s ever met. 

Sobriety Level: I can’t feel my face. Goodnight. 

Here are the drinks I missed: 

KINGFISHER (Opening in May)

Bee Durham

0.75 oz. Chamomile Creamed Honey (to make: steep 4 grams of Jeddah’s Chamomile Tea in 16 oz. boiled water for 4 minutes, then combine with 16 oz. creamed honey and stir until incorporated)

1.5 oz. Beeswax Washed Conniption Navy Strength Gin (to make: melt 1 oz. beeswax into a mason jar over a water bath, then remove and roll jar until wax coats the entirety and has hardened; add a 750 ml bottle of Conniption Navy Strength gin to the jar and let rest for 72 hours)

0.75 oz. Fresh Lemon Juice

Combine all ingredients. Garnish with lemon wedge.


Parrish Street Fizz

2 oz. Durham Distillery Cucumber Vodka

1 oz. Fresh Lemon Juice 

0.75 oz. Kiwi Syrup

0.5 oz. Del Professor Dry Vermouth

0.25 oz. Simple Syrup

Combine ingredients and pour over ice in a Collins glass. Top with soda and garnish with a dehydrated kiwi slice.


The Wild Indigo Yonder

1.5 oz. Conniption American Dry Gin

0.25 oz. White Verjus

0.25 oz. Freshly Squeezed Lemon Juice

0.5 oz. Lavender & Butterfly Pea Flower infused Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur (to make: combine 1.5 oz. Luxardo Liqueur, 1 oz. water, 1 tsp. dried lavender, and 3 dried butterfly pea flowers in pot and simmer for 2 minutes; fine strain and cool before using)

Combine the infused liqueur and the rest of the ingredients. Shake and serve. Garnish with lemon peel.

3 replies on “Eleven Durham Bars Made Specialty Cocktails to Celebrate Durham’s 150th Birthday. I Tried to Drink Them All in One Night.”

  1. Since you aren’t much of a drinker, have you been investigating mocktails? I love the idea of something tasty that doesn’t make it hard for me to get home. I would love for this movement to seriously catch on. I know Alley 26 is creating interesting NA drinks. Not sure where else.

  2. fucn irresonsible….acolhol is poison, cannabis is medicine….guess which one is illegal?

    And you are being extremely irresponsible promoting binge drinking here. A-hole.

  3. Your piece is hilarious, informative and a journey I could never make. Rock On and when we meet, your next drink is on me.

Comments are closed.