For many pioneers, a better life meant leaving for parts unknown. Through rugged terrain, hostile weather conditions, and strangers, such a trek was not for the faint of heart. Fast-forward to 1999. Former hard-cider entrepreneur Kevin Settles embarked along the settler’s route, taken many moons before. Though it took changing some laws, 15 years ago Bardenay in Boise, Idaho became the nation’s first hybrid restaurant/distillery.
Bardenay is nestled in the middle of Boise’s Basque District across from the Grove, activity epicenter and the city’s downtown pulse. Bardenay may be the heartbeat. A defunct warehouse held the mystique Settles sought while considering its transformation into a bustling establishment. Though outdoor seating is simple, inside is similar to the dinner hall at Hogwarts. Rich, dark-wood tables, weathered brick walls, cathedral ceilings and lengthy bar feels homey. Two banquet rooms lay hidden yet adjacent to the beating nucleus, which pops into view. Past the bar, regal, behind thick glass walls gleams the copper-gold beacon. Wonka-esque, midst artisan cocktails and dynamic food, the rum and whiskey distillery is the establishment’s crown jewel. The still.
Settles’ former life in the liquor industry did not incite much desire to sell Bardenay’s alcoholic wares, given the many bureaucratic hoops to jump through. Instead, his agenda brought knowledge and desire to merge the manufacture of alcohol with a venue that held standards high for all things food, drink, and service-related. With Executive Bartender Andrew Leavitt and Head Distiller Scott Probert, Settles runs a streamlined, successful business managing to sell all they produce from distilleries in Eagle, Boise, and Coeur d’Alene Idaho. States Settles, “We have people who have been married next door, who had their first date here. We have those who wear business suits and those with dreads. We fill a pretty good niche.”
Leavitt, who has been bartending since 2004 and was the first bartender at the Eagle location, keeps his eye on what is happening, bringing nuggets back to Bardenay. He watches trends, what liquor is hot, and what people gravitate to drink. “It’s like having my finger on the pulse of what’s going on not necessarily in my market, but nationwide.” Events like a “drinking vinegar contest” paired with fruit juices and liquor, keep the vibe fresh and progressive. Though Boise may not be ready for things like hand-chipped ice or “craft ice” Leavitt feels it is only a matter of time before requests of that nature occur.
Probert, who came on as an assistant distiller, quickly elevated himself from Padawan to Jedi when the former head distiller relocated to Boston. He initially wanted to be a chef but found culinary school did not embrace his sense of process organization. Though the routine for making whiskey mash can be somewhat complicated with mashing, malting, and fermentation of ingredients, Probert’s great rapport with other local breweries make a production run smoother. The proof is in the proof. He is also responsible for training other distillers within the organization. The craft cocktails on Bardenay’s menu are impossible to recreate at home because each ingredient is proprietary to them, meaning they make each component in-house. Simple and flavored syrups, citrus, all hand squeezed and crafted lend to their savory and unique recipes.
The need to bring new flavors, new sensations into the venue, and to stay ahead of the market are ever present. Settles, who is considering opening a fourth location in Colorado, says locals are the “bread and butter” of Bardenay, some frequenting the restaurant two to three times a week. “If you’re going to drink, you’d better eat. We make it easy by offering really good food at a really good price.”
Though Boise is small in comparison to other distillery-rich markets in places like Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco, Bardenay is at the helm here. Those who seek a venue for business meetings, baby showers, or weddings will not be disappointed when walking through the doorway for inquiry. Those looking for cutting edge aperitifs and treats will fall in love.
Locals and out-of-towners can feel at home here. Wine, beer, and artisan cocktail snobs can leave feeling fulfilled in finding a Holy Grail of sorts. All that is missing from the Bardenay menu are sleeping bags and cots, for those who decide they never want to leave. Settles, Probert, and Leavitt are the jab, hook, and uppercut of Bardenay, which has grown to be a bar that Cheers would have envied.