The Maine Coast’s Best Bar Isn’t a Bar At All

Swan’s Island has been legally dry since 1987. That doesn’t stop the proprietors and patrons of Daint’s Place from having more fun than should be legal anywhere.

By Brian Kevin
Photographed by Dave Waddell
From our June 2023 Island Issue

The best night out I’ve had in ages began in the mid-afternoon with a visit to Burnt Coat Harbor Light, which marks both the entrance to Swan’s Island’s well-sheltered anchorage and the spot where my host, Garrett Lemoine, had his first-ever whiskey (Crown Royal), at age 22. Lemoine, as far as I know, didn’t bring me and my companion, photographer Dave Waddell, out to the square-towered 1872 lighthouse in order to share this anecdote — it was more of an aside as we drank in the ocean view from rugged Hockamock Head. But it seems appropriate to lead with it, given what was to come.

A Swan’s Island native, Lemoine is a tall and prodigiously bearded 39-year-old lobsterman who, when he isn’t fishing on his brother-in-law’s boat, cultivates a collection of several hundred bottles of whiskey, most of them bourbon, most either top-shelf or rare or otherwise admired by craft-whiskey zealots. But he and his wife, Jennifer Sytsma, a 42–year-old veterinary-pharma rep and certified bourbon steward, do not simply curate a collection of dusty bottles — rather, they pour from their stash with joyful abandon a few nights a week in the snug and lively pseudo-tavern they call Daint’s Place.

I first encountered Daint’s Place on Instagram, where my curiosity was piqued by the handle, @daintsplacespeakeasy, on an island that I understood to be dry. Also by the photos and videos of revelers — millennials, Xers, and boomers — grinning and toasting and smoking cigars in what looked to be the soft, dim light of a wood-paneled pub. So I called Lemoine and Sytsma, who started by telling me what Daint’s Place is not: namely, a proper bar, in the sense of being a commercial enterprise. It isn’t open to the public. No money exchanges hands, not even in a tip jar. It isn’t a club with dues or memberships or a thing that one can otherwise join. 

The Daint’s Place crew has a civic-minded streak, raising funds to help pay medical bills, fund the school art program, and more. Some nights, the pub shed is just a family space — Daint’s recently hosted an anime film-fest birthday party for Sytsma and Lemoine’s teenage daughter.

What it is, they told me, is an absurdly fun backyard shindig shack where they and their friends — and occasionally friends once removed — gather on Saturdays and most Wednesdays for bull sessions, family meals, card games, karaoke, costume parties, and more, always involving whiskeys and cigars. If I cared to hop a ferry from Bass Harbor some weekend, they said, I was invited to see for myself.

Waddell and I pulled up to Daint’s Place after Lemoine gave us a whistle-stop tour of the island (year-round population 350ish, up to 1,000 or so in summer). The not-a-bar sits at the end of the couple’s driveway, where it’s indistinguishable from an in-law suite or a nicely kept woodshop except for a handmade scrap-wood sign over the doorway. When we stepped in, though, our jaws dropped: a long, immaculate wooden bar, under a row of pendant lights, topped with place settings for dinner; shelf after shelf of neatly organized liquor bottles, backlit with LED strips; walls and beams covered in cheery saloon bric-a-brac both nautical (lobster buoys, model boats, a mahogany ship’s wheel) and cheeky (a mermaid skeleton, a life-size cutout of Danny DeVito). The place was neat as a pin and could easily fit 40, and I’ve been in century-old public houses with less character.

“Everything in here has a story,” said Sytsma, installed behind the bar. She and Lemoine introduced us to their shepherd-husky mix Dante, who lends the space his nickname, and to Buck, their pint-size Boston Frenchie. As Lemoine ducked in and out, prepping a lavish multicourse dinner, Sytsma walked us through Daint’s humble beginnings. The space had been a trap shed, dark and full of fishing gear and auto parts. But it was someplace to hang out, and they put up a dartboard and built a makeshift bar. Most weekends, friends would come by, and everyone would contribute a bottle or two. Sytsma was still getting into whiskey then. She met Lemoine in 2017, when she was living in Rockland and a dating app with no grasp of Maine geography determined they were neighbors (as the crow flies) and matched them up. When she started hanging out on Swan’s with Lemoine’s whiskey-aficionado friends, she says, “I listened to them drinking it, and it was just this whole experience. I wanted to be part of the experience.”

New bottles have a way of replenishing the old. Some of the Daint’s crew recently took a whiskey trip to Louisville and brought 120 bottles home. Visiting friends bring whiskeys from around the world — Lemoine showed off one bottle from Azerbaijan. 

Then COVID happened, and with time on their hands, they got serious about building out their pub shed. Lemoine, who does carpentry in addition to fishing, had wood for the project milled on Swan’s. Friends pitched in labor and supplies, one wiring the electricity, others donating a woodstove, a dishwasher, a beer fridge, and more. The windows came from a tear-down project elsewhere on the island. “It’s sounds like a cliché,” Sytsma says, “but the whole place really was built by all of us.”

Dinner invitees started trickling in, including Lemoine’s brother Shane, a Daint’s regular since the trap shed, and Gary Farley, a Lemoine family friend who’s known the boys since they were kids (he was Lemoine and Sytsma’s wedding officiant, in 2019). Lemoine started bringing out dishes, each paired with a pour: local oysters with a bright and spicy rye, deep-fried deviled duck eggs with a blueberry-and-bourbon cocktail, an incredible filet mignon in a tallow confit with a fathoms-deep 10-year single barrel. 

Sometime before the filet, another friend walked in, a tall fellow with glasses, and started removing six whiskey bottles from a canvas bag. One of them, with purple foil around the neck, sent the room into gasps and cheers. It’s a “unicorn bottle,” Lemoine declared, a renowned 13-year-old single-barrel bourbon from a well-regarded family estate. It can retail, he said, for some $2,400 — although the tall fellow, who introduced himself as Michael Starnbach, laughed and swore he didn’t pay that much for it. The purple-foil bottle was set aside for later; other bottles were poured. 

Sytsma’s job takes her off Swan’s. Lemoine, meanwhile, says “it’s like pulling teeth to get me off the island. When I leave, I have fun, but it’s hard to leave.”

As we moved on to dessert (goat’s-milk cheesecake with local honey and an oaky 10-year), the place filled steadily. People brought bottles and beers; some brought cookies or popcorn. Each time someone new walked in, the room exploded in boisterous greeting — like Norm stepping into Cheers, except everyone’s Norm. Sytsma explained that her husband is a great gatherer of people. Like a golden-retriever puppy, she laughed, he tries to befriend everyone he meets, and soon they’re coming over. “He got it from his dad,” Sytsma said. “If you knew no one and you moved in down the street, Wayne was the guy who’d come and say hi.” Wayne Lemoine died in 2021, a day after his first visit to the newly completed Daint’s Place. A portrait of him anchors a display above the door, full of other tokens of late friends and family.

Glasses were refilled, cigars were lit. On my end of the bar, the Daint’s faithful extolled their watering hole. Swan’s needed a space like this, Farley said — not necessarily because it’s dry (several folks around the bar agreed this was a good thing) but because there are so few places to gather. The island general store used to be a hangout, Farley said, but it burned in 2005, and the new one’s too small to loiter in. When the island laundromat closed a while back, it basically left the post office for social life. Then, along came Daint’s.

“Nobody in here cares what your politics are, and nobody cares what your bank balance is,” said Jeff Clapp, a former financial advisor who moved to Swan’s a few years back and bonded with Lemoine over a love of cigars. Lemoine, for his part, raised a glass to Starnbach, who’s a Harvard microbiology professor and another fairly recent Swan’s arrival. “Four years ago,” the lobsterman said, “it would have been virtually impossible for me to meet someone like Mike. There was just no space where it was going to happen.”

Scenes from a night at Daint’s Place.

Lemoine and Sytsma’s next-door neighbor, Jourdan Zaczek, brought over two shot glasses and a bottle of a famously nasty wormwood liquor called Jeppson’s Malört — an “initiation” shot for the visiting writer and photographer. Zaczek, who’s from Kentucky, said he moved to Swan’s on a whim at the start of the pandemic, after seeing a job posting for a dockworker. “I was just looking around, trying to find my place,” he told me. Then he scanned the room and put his arm around his girlfriend, Jessica DeFrenn, who started last year as the Swan’s Island School art teacher. “I found it on my first try,” Zaczek said.

I asked about the challenges facing island communities, and my bar mates gamely chatted about the lack of housing, the overregulation of the lobster fishery, their complaints about the ferry, and more. They’re used to answering questions — Daint’s Place has more than 9,000 TikTok followers, and Sytsma will sometimes facilitate live Q&As about island life. But mostly, she said, the TikTok audience “just likes to watch us have fun — they like to hear us sing.”

“We come in here, we share what’s going on, all the latest and the greatest,” Farley said. “But this is not a place to come and piss and moan. It’s a place for camaraderie.”

Sometime after 9 p.m., with 30-something people settled in, speakers started pumping in fiddles and pipes, and the whole room erupted into sea shanties and Irish pub songs — everyone knew the lyrics by heart. By 9:30, the purple foil was removed from the 13-year. Later on came traditional karaoke, with lyrics on a screen behind the bar: ’70s classic rock, ’90s country. A few microphones got passed around, but no one paid them much mind. Everyone in the place was singing.

April 2024, Down East Magazine

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