Bringing craft cocktails to the Capital: Foundation Bar


by Kevin Barrett

photographs by Nick Pironio

Before Foundation opened its subterranean doors, there weren’t many options for ordering a North Carolina beer in downtown Raleigh. That was back when a fresh-faced Barack Obama was still in his first 100 days in office, and if you wanted to celebrate or commiserate with a friend over a whiskey, there weren’t many choices besides the standards Jack and Jim.

Remember the Great Recession? Things were rough in those days, and there was no underground bar where you could sip on a craft cocktail and empathize with a co-worker about that dreaded economy.  There was no place to drink without a television yelling at you about it, or worse, having subtitles creep along the bottom of the screen.  Then came March 4, 2009, when Foundation opened its single rusted door.

The concept had been in the works for a couple of years. It began when Will Alphin, a builder, and Vincent Whitehurst, an architect, were retained to renovate the old Hallmark building on Fayetteville Street downtown. They crept through the red clay crawl space beneath the building to figure out electrical and plumbing updates when they came upon the most obvious of ideas: “If we remove about 100 tons of red clay, we can put a bar here.” OK, that’s a lie. They actually thought, “I can’t wait to get out of this crawl space.”

When they got to street level, they started figuring out what it would take to excavate and build a neighborhood bar that at least the two of them would want to frequent.

Once construction had begun, they faced another challenge.  Builders and architects aren’t known for their cocktails, so they would have to find someone with that particular set of skills to run the place. The two had some kooky ideas about applying the principles of sustainability to the drinking culture, such as serving only North Carolina draft beer, and sourcing as many products from nearby without going any farther than the U.S. borders.

Some people they interviewed balked. No one seemed to get the idea of a fun place to drink and converse, while maintaining a minimal carbon footprint. Eventually they found Andrew Shepherd as the opening manager. I was first brought on as a bartender, and today I manage the place.

I started on day one, faithfully working most every weekend shift. I used to tell people that I wasn’t a cocktail nerd, that I was just the speed guy. I was a nerd, though. I read about cocktails for fun. I drank cocktails for fun. Well, everyone does that. I drank cocktails to learn, and I learned a lot. I tried to mimic intriguing cocktails that I came across even if I had to make or infuse ingredients to do so. The owners helped me appreciate local quality, and the limitations bred innovation. I love letting a spirit express itself, but I also love to infuse an intimidating moonshine with cocoa nibs and mix it with cherry-infused bourbon to make what I call a comfort cocktail. It just makes you smile.

When the doors finally opened, the concept of quality and sustainability at Foundation had developed into a seasonal craft cocktail menu, domestic spirits only, N.C. draft beer, house-made sodas, fresh squeezed juices, regionally sourced wines and absolutely no corporate branding.  The only imported item at the bar is a bottle of Champagne in honor of the man who owns the building. If you’re only going to have one exception, we figured, that’s a good one.

In the past five years, we’ve only had a handful of employees. Most of the alumni can be found serving up a crafted cocktail at one of downtown Raleigh’s other quality cocktail bars that have since sprung up, like C. Grace, Bida Manda, and Limelight.

Plenty of folks come to us for our 65-plus kinds of bourbon and rye, our moonshine and microbrews. Personally, I’m a fan of the cocktails. Some are classics, some are new, some are seasonal. Some are sweet, some are strong, but they are all interesting and delicious. We’re not afraid to put an egg in your drink, and you shouldn’t be afraid to drink it. We prided ourselves on being the first bar in town to crack a fresh one into your glass when we introduced the Charleston Sour on the very first menu. The drink has since been retired after being permanently seared into the memory of every bartender at Foundation due to its popularity. Don’t worry, it can still be made upon request. For the home bartender, here is the secret recipe.

Charleston Sour

2 ounces Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka

¾ ounce fresh squeezed lemon juice

½ ounce simple syrup

1 egg white

Mint garnish

Shake all ingredients vigorously without ice to emulsify the egg white. You can actually feel it break down in the shaker. Add ice and shake it again like you mean it. Use a double strainer if you have one, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass, because I know everyone has a double strainer and a chilled cocktail glass at home. Finally, smack a mint leaf in your hand to express the oils and use it as a garnish.