The best secret of West Duluth

Alma Jorgenson

Kai, owner of Jade Fountain in beautiful downtown West Duluth. At top right is the Oaxaca Negroni he fashioned. Photos by Alma Jorgenson.

I’ve always heard a lot about the Jade Fountain. First, it was from local service workers who were adamant that it was their favorite place to drink. Then I started to hear about the Jade Fountain from long-time locals who remember it as a family Chinese restaurant.

Almost all West Duluth residents have something to say about the Jade Fountain, so I decided it was my turn to come up with something to say.

The elusiveness of the Jade Fountain really added to my excitement when I pulled up and saw the outdoor neon lights were on. I walked in and was utterly shocked.

It felt like stepping out of West Duluth and into a high-end exclusive cocktail house in a major metropolitan area. There were red lights on every wall, the ceiling was black as can be, and there were red leather ‘70’s style barstools. The atmosphere had already set the stage for a very fun evening of fine cocktails.

I was greeted by the quiet owner and cocktail crafter, Kai.

Kai is an impressive individual. He has been working in the service industry his entire life. He is a Northerner at heart, starting his career at Pickwick. He lived in Portland for 13 years, while still working in the bartending industry.

Knowing that he spent time in Portland helped to explain some of the straight-up weirdness that he brought to the Jade Fountain. Kai moved back to Duluth five years ago. He opened up the Jade Fountain in the middle of the pandemic and hoped to create a spot that could give West Duluth residents a chance to feel like they are on vacation.

The Jade Fountain also gave him the space to take his years of experience and create something that was his.

I asked Kai to make me a drink and he decided to make me one of his creations – an Oaxaca Negroni.

A traditional Negroni is gin, vermouth and Campari with a generous orange peel. The Jade Fountain version is a 50:50 mix of mezcal and tequila, Cynar, Bordiga Apertivo and a house-made habanero tincture. It was built in an old fashion glass with a cube of ice, then stirred. A beautiful and oily orange peel was then laid gently in the glass.

The first smell and flavor that I came from this drink was the sweetness of the orange peel. Then I was hit with the smoke from the mezcal and the sweet agave flavor from the tequila. The mix of both the mezcal and the tequila brought out both of the best qualities of these agave brothers.

Then there was a dry bitter flavor that solidifies it as a Negroni.

The sweet and the bitter were blended together perfectly as a Negroni should. It was a dry drink that left my back molars with bitter feeling. That bitter feeling and flavor was long lasting. There was also a long-lasting sweet flavor from the orange peel and the tequila; this flavor sat at the front of my mouth.

The habanero tincture added a very flavorful element to the Negroni. I expected it to add spice and that habanero punch, but it didn’t. It added a unique flavor element without the spice. The pepper flavor and the smoke from the mezcal really helped bring out the Mexican element of the Oaxaca Negroni. It wasn’t spicy, it just added an additional flavor profile to this complexly flavored drink.

The temperature of the drink was perfect. The ice cube was cold enough that it didn’t melt, which kept the Negroni from becoming watered down. It also kept it at a temperature that was warm enough for the sweet flavors to come out as strongly as the bitter.

This was a wonderfully strong drink that can be appreciated by advanced and novice drinkers alike.

Much to my surprise both Negronis and mezcal are prevalent on cocktail menus around this region. Kai either created that or tapped into the hip drinking trends of the Twin Ports.

The mixing of the different cultures in the drink gives a perfect nod to what Kai is doing at the Jade Fountain. Every drink there takes you to somewhere different in the world; the Oaxaca Negroni takes you right to the Jade Fountain. It is a testament to the mixing pot that is the Jade Fountain.

The Jade Fountain brilliantly mixes cultures and art to create an atmosphere that welcomes all. This is a bar for locals. Art fills every wall (including the bathroom ceiling). This gives this cocktail lounge a very unique feel. It is eclectic.

The Jade Fountain has been a staple location in West Duluth. With Kai taking the reins it will continue to serve that role. If you’re cool and live in West Duluth you drink at the Jade Fountain. I just became cool.