Master of Spirits

Johnny Berry, bartender at Whiskey Kitchen
Johnny Berry, bartender at Whiskey Kitchen

“What’s a good whiskey?”

It’s a question Johnny Berry hears often at Whiskey Kitchen, usually in the middle of stirring Old Fashioneds for a table of four while intercepting a food order from a guest on his right and handing a check to the couple on his left.

With more than 400 whiskeys scaling the back bar of the 6,000 square-foot W. Martin Street space, questions like this are to be expected. But for Berry—a veteran bartender responsible for making sure each of the $1,000 worth of Old Fashioneds poured on any given Friday comes out tasting exactly like the last—“what’s a good whiskey?” just isn’t his favorite.

In an ideal world, Berry’s guests tell him exactly what they like upfront, so he can recommend a similar taste profile or introduce something entirely new.

That opens the door, Berry says, to a perfect guest experience where guests feel comfortable while trying new drinks. “People say, ‘I’ve never had that before,’ and I’ll think ‘Well, at some point you’ve never had ranch dressing.’ Someone has to hand you something and if I can open a guest’s eyes and expose them to a new taste, I’ve moved them forward to becoming more of a regular. And the next time you offer them something new, they’ll bite, because now, they trust you.”

For Berry and his staff, developing trust with customers is paramount. But unlike at some places, where bartender-customer engagement is drawn out over conversation, the window of time to connect at the high-volume Whiskey Kitchen is often condensed. That’s why Berry and his team spend hours researching and practicing what he calls “volume craft.”

“You can spend five minutes making an Old Fashioned or you can spend 45 seconds,” he says. “You don’t have to work at a speakeasy or cocktail parlor to maximize the quality of a drink. You can do craft at a large scale.”

Berry’s path was unconventional. In 2001, he snagged his first bartending gig at Bogart’s American Grille, which longtime locals remember as the grandfather of Glenwood South. The 28-seat circular martini bar had bartenders and a serving staff decked out like extras from a scene in “Casablanca” with black vests, shirt cuffs, fishnets and fedoras with red bandanas.

As Berry recalls, it was a typical night, dining room packed. He was serving on the floor when the manager shooed him behind the bar because someone had called out.

“I had no time to think about it and with a circular bar, there wasn’t anywhere I could go to hide my inexperience,” Berry says.

But it was this experience—and then six more years working from a cocktail list of dozens of martini combinations—that helped Berry master his craft.

Now, Berry’s bar lines run deep, including turns at Buku, Busy Bee, Raleigh Times, Hibernian and Tasty Beverage. But when Berry heard that the largest whiskey bar in town would open in 2016, he followed his knack for the volume-craft niche.

As Whiskey Kitchen’s “master of spirits,” Berry perfects cocktails according to mouthfeel, weight, finish, and, of course, efficiency. You’ll know him by his wide smile, focused gaze and calm, welcoming demeanor—and if you order a drink from him, you know it will be good.