Rehoboth’s mixologists: Keeping the locals sane - one sip at a time
If you haven’t yet munched your way down memory lane at the Rehoboth Beach Museum’s Beach Eats! exhibit, you’re running out of time. The progression of Rehoboth’s status in the culinary world is fascinating - and much of the beloved memorabilia on display is centered on the bars. In fact, the museum recently staged a re-enactment of a typical music-laced evening at Terry Plowman’s long-gone Front Page (now Iguana Grill). People are still talking about it.
From vacationing couples sharing froufrou cocktails in July to wizened locals downing scotch and bourbon on a snowy night on Baltimore Avenue, Rehoboth’s bars - and bartenders - enjoy a hallowed place in our history. I’ve had the pleasure of writing about a few of our longtime barkeeps - Bee Neild, David Engel, Geno Harris, Johnny Farquhar, the late Darren Beachy, Steph DaLee, Jesse Lausch and Kymmr Barker, just to name a few. I recently ran into Espuma’s Chad Ackland - bartender and bottomless pit of stories and anecdotes about Rehoboth’s cherished watering holes.
Chad was born in Toledo, Ohio. He attended college in San Diego and ended up as a bartender and waiter in the Wrightsville Beach/Wilmington, N.C. resorts. When he was 20, his girlfriend and he visited Berlin, Md., and wasted no time before checking out Rehoboth Beach. One thing led to another (as is so often the case), and he landed a job behind the bar at Mulligan’s Restaurant and Sports Pub where Jake’s Seafood now stands on Coastal Highway. At the tender age of 22, he was complimented when they made him manager, but he knew the end was near for Mulligan’s. So in 1997 he took a position as a part-time waiter at Cloud 9. Less than a year later, he advanced to barback (assistant bartender of sorts) and was shocked at the huge amount of business that came through the bar on a good night. The rest is history as bar manager Chad and the rest of the crew kept Cloud 9 hoppin’ for almost 15 years with fun times and creative cocktails.
“I moved from boilermakers and beers in North Carolina to mudslides and cosmopolitans in Rehoboth,” says Ackland. His mixology skills had grown along with his experience - enough to catch the attention of James Beard-nominated chef and restaurateur Jay Caputo. By 2012, things had changed. Longtime Cloud 9 proprietor John Berdini was looking to sell the building, and Espuma’s resident bartender Darren Beachy’s untimely demise several years earlier had brought David Engel from Nage to Espuma on very short notice. Engel was feeling the need to join Chef Hari Cameron at his fledgling a(MUSE.), so the time was ripe for Caputo to recruit Ackland as Espuma’s boss barkeep.
This transition was going to be difficult: Espuma’s staff and regulars were still mourning the loss of Beachy, and Chad was coming in on the heels of Engel - a name synonymous with Alison Blyth’s storied yet sadly shuttered La La Land. Berdini could have dug in his heels and made things difficult, but he didn’t. In fact, he and his partner Kelly Harp encouraged Ackland to take the plunge and move out of his comfort zone. He was emotionally moved by that display of friendship from Berdini and Harp. “I’ll never forget how much they did for me.”
“Tourists test your knowledge of cocktails,” says Chad. He recounts the hilarious "Cheers" episode where the regulars intimidate a new bartender by asking for a nonexistent Screaming Viking. Cliff Claven even orders his with extra cucumber (in those days, nobody would have dared put a cucumber into a cocktail). Chad now mixes up his own Screaming Raging Viking with cucumber, mint and all sorts of top-secret potions. He warns, “It’s dangerous, and it’s definitely real!”
Ackland softens as he credits his wife Alena for his drive and dedication. “I give her 120 percent credit for my inspiration,” he smiles. In fact, they are keeping their eyes peeled for the perfect spot where Chad can one day take another plunge with a restaurant and bar all his own. I asked him what will be his favorite drink to make at his fantasy bar, and he doesn’t even miss a beat: “I make the best Bud Light in town.”