by Mimi Montgomery
photographs by Keith Isaacs
“Haymaker” is a term for a wild punch in boxing – a final, loose, unexpected blow. A knockout. It’s also the inspiration for The Haymaker, a recently opened cocktail bar in downtown Raleigh that lives up to its off-the-cuff namesake.
Developed by the restaurant group Eschelon Experiences, which owns and runs six local establishments, The Haymaker is the group’s first stand-alone bar. Creative director Dustin Slemp calls it “a brainchild,” a combination of creative ideas that aren’t obviously cohesive, but somehow come together under the Haymaker roof.
Take ’90s hip-hop and boxing. Not typically thought of as a pair, here they form a theme. Bathroom walls feature light blue toile wallpaper designed by a member of the Beastie Boys; instead of French pastoral scenes, however, the paper is dotted with images of rapper The Notorious B.I.G. and Brooklyn subways. A collection of vintage boxing gloves hangs from the wall, and a giant stuffed moose head reigns over the bar (the guys have plans to hang a big clock on a chain around its neck soon, a la rapper Flavor Flav). At cocktail hour, dishes of Goldfish crackers are set out on the bar – originally a joke, they’ve become a favorite among Haymaker regulars.
“A lot of times, I feel like you censor yourself or try to find out what a market needs or what they want” and specifically cater to that, says Slemp. That’s not the case here. “This time we were like, we’re doing it,” he says. “Whatever kinds of ideas we had, we just did it, and hoped people like it.”
If the recent crowds showing up for Haymaker cocktails are any indication, Slemp doesn’t need to worry about likeability. Its location off City Plaza on Fayetteville Street makes it a hit with the after-work crew come 5 p.m., and when the weekend rolls around, it stays busy until the early-morning hours.
Slemp says he went on a crazy Pinterest, Instagram, and antiquing spree to find the space’s eclectic artifacts – even looking as far as London for a chandelier made of brass trumpets and the custom linen wallpaper that graces a far wall with a 32-foot long, multi-paneled floral mural. The vintage glassware lining the bar was found in antique malls in Selma, N.C., and the more-than-100-year-old grandfather clock was picked up in Mooresville. The result is a space that straddles the line between masculine and feminine, where velvet curtains and wallpaper combine with dark wood, steel, and leather.
This Mad-Hatter-whimsy is reflected in the bar’s cocktail menu as well. Managers and bartenders Alex Flynn and Josh Gagne run the bar and are in charge of developing its menu. Both have a strong passion for and knowledge of cocktails: Gagne previously worked at Zinda, while Flynn spent time at Foundation, C. Grace, and Greenlight Bar, which he helped to open.
Flynn says a lot of cocktails he created on the fly throughout his career now have a home on the Haymaker menu. Each drink has a dash of playfulness, with names like Wet Hot Mexican Summer and Sing Like a Bee (served in an antique tea cup).
Haymaker also has champagne on tap and offers giant punch bowls of cocktails that serve three to five people (both crowd favorites for obvious reasons, they say). Flynn makes his own ginger beer and soda in-house, and if you find he or Gagne behind the bar, you can tell either one of them exactly what kind of liquors and flavors you like, and they’ll craft a one-of-a-kind cocktail just for you.
But although Haymaker serves high-end cocktails, it’s not a speakeasy. That the Haymaker isn’t a tucked-away, underground cocktail bar is part of its charm. The crew specifically didn’t want it to feel clandestine, but rather open and airy, inviting guests in with its large wall of windows and beckoning signs.
This friendly attitude combined with Haymaker’s reasonably priced drinks ensures that no one there takes themselves too seriously. “You want to create a vibe where people feel like they can be themselves and just keep drinking and have a good time,” says Slemp.
This month’s Walter cocktail embodies just that: The Fabuloso is a mix of vodka, mezcal, lavender, and vanilla. It’s named after an off-brand cleaner that Flynn buys at Costco to wipe down the bar. “Every time I wipe the tables down, some woman stops mid-conversation and says, ‘That smells good,’” he says, amused. So he decided to create a drink inspired by it. “I think that kind of plays to who we are,” Slemp says: “Have fun with it.” The guys look at each other and laugh. “Yeah, we named a cocktail after a discount Costco cleaner.”
1 ½ ounces Luksusowa vodka
½ ounce Del Maguey Vida mezcal
¾ ounce lavender syrup
½ ounce lemon juice
½ ounce lime juice
2 dashes of Licor 43
Shake all ingredients and strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with a dehydrated lemon wheel.
555 Fayetteville St., Unit 115; thehaymakerraleigh.com