OK, I get it. After my first visit to Seattle, WA, and Portland, OR, I get why I’ve never met anyone who has said of either city, “I just had to get out of that hellhole!” The people are friendly, the mood is casual, the roads are civil (no one jaywalks!), the cultural scene is vibrant, and the weather is … well, a bit warmer in winter than New England. Most important of all, the bars and restaurants are tops.
Me (left) at Tavern Law with Leonora and Paul Clarke, and Jamie Boudreau.
Honestly, about half the reason I took this trip was to go to the ZigZag Cafe and to meet the inestimable Murray Stenson, who has tended bar in and around Seattle for more than 30 years. The thing about Murray, the reason why his fans include the arbiters of the cocktail and bar renaissance in addition to legions of regular customers, is that he combines the chops and charm of an old pro with the mixological enthusiasm of today’s cocktail geek — all in a manner that comes across as completely genuine and welcoming to all.
Murray and his co-worker Sabrina Ross at the ZigZag.
And it’s not like Murray’s the only talent on the ZigZag team. The place as a whole — its dark-wood bar anchors a contemporary-looking restaurant — radiates an easygoing hospitality, and co-owners Kacy Fitch and Ben Dougherty and the rest of the bar staff turn out expertly made drinks with often rare ingredients. A couple of the cocktails Murray made for me involved Giffard products from France, which are generally unavailable in the States: Mangalore liqueur (made with cardamom and other spices) and macadamia-nut syrup. Then there was the pre-Prohibition bourbon. Oh, and something special that caught this Bostonian’s eye: on the ZigZag’s cocktail menu was the Bohannon, created by our homeboy Casey Keenan.
I visited several other Seattle bars, including:
Jay Kuehner in perpetual motion at Sambar.
Sambar – Thanks to Charles Munat for insisting on driving me and Paul Clarke out to Seattle’s Ballard-Fremont neighborhood to experience this smart, little cafe connected to Le Gourmand restaurant. Bartender Jay Kuehner is well respected for mixing some of the most creative and tasty cocktails in the city, and he is a sweet guy to boot.
Keith Waldbauer tries to set fire to Vessel.
Tavern Law – Part contemporary saloon, part speakeasy (the speakeasy is upstairs behind a semi-hidden door). Bartender Miles “Scrappy’s Bitters” Thomas mixed me a couple of refreshing drinks from the old school — the Kemble House (orange gin, dry vermouth, Fernet Branca) and the Rose Cocktail (dry vermouth, kirschwasser, bitters) — which I enjoyed in the company of Paul Clarke and his wife, Leonora, and Jamie “the man, the legend” Boudreau, who is between bartending gigs at the moment.
Vending-machine art at the Hideout. Abu-Grape "Follypops."
Plus … the artisanal cocktail bar Vessel, where Keith Walbauer’s mixture of bourbon, Pommeau de Normandie, Benedictine and Fee’s Whiskey Barrel-Aged Bitters was inspired by Misty Kalkofen‘s Fort Washington Flip; the hip, den-like Rob Roy, where I said hello to Anu Apte, who just started the Washington State chapter of LUPEC; the Hideout, which lives up to its name and where you can get a good cocktail and admire (and purchase) cool, local art; Spur Gastropub, whose creators are also responsible for Tavern Law; Bathtub Gin, a narrow and cozy speakeasy where Marley Tomic-Beard, formerly of Eastern Standard, now tends bar; and Brouwers Cafe, a beer bar with an impressive list of Belgian and northwest U.S. brews. Finally, I must mention that I stayed at the historic Sorrento Hotel, which itself has joined the Seattle cocktail scene with its Drinking Lessons led by some of the country’s top bartenders and drink historians.
After a pretty ride to Portland on Amtrak’s Cascade line and a brief gawk at beautiful, old Union Station, I made a beeline to Clyde Common in the Pearl District (one of those industrial-turned-artsy neighborhoods). It was happy hour, and bartending/mixology blogger, Repeal Day impresario and international playboy Jeffrey Morgenthaler was helming the bar. Twenty-somethings who were attractive in an approachable way filtered in for what appeared to be a continued sampling of Morgenthaler’s cocktail menu, with solid stuff like the Bourbon Renewal (Maker’s Mark, lemon juice, cassis, bitters) and the Norwegian Wood (Krogstad Aquavit, applejack, Cinzano Rosso, yellow Chartreuse, bitters). A “European-style tavern” — think northern European in design — Clyde Common is a jewel in Portland’s considerable culinary crown, with its pronounced focus on local ingredients and simple preparations.
Norwegian Negroni at Beaker and Flask
Another such jewel is Laurelhurst Market, a butcher shop that expanded into a hip steak house in the Laurelhurst neighborhood (a little ways across the Willamette River from the Pearl). There’s a fine bar program here, too, and I had a Swoon cocktail — applejack, lemon juice, egg white, burnt chamomile syrup — before digging into my steak frites.
A quick cab ride got me over to Beaker and Flask, which has no sign and appears to occupy a building that was once a show room for cars or home appliances. It sits on an elevated spot, and its large windows offer a great view of the city lights across the river. Bartender David Shenaut, who also pulls shifts at the Teardrop Lounge (see below), made me a tasty Norwegian Negroni with Krogstad Aquavit, Cynar and sweet vermouth. Then, what with Blair “Trader Tiki” Reynolds walking over and introducing himself to me, we decided to do something experimental with falernum, Irish whiskey, egg white, bitters and I honestly don’t remember what all else. It was interesting, though.
Daniel Shoemaker at the Teardrop. Dig the fat necktie knot.
The Teardrop Lounge is one of those must-visit bars for any cocktailian visiting Oregon. They make a lot of their own ingredients, including tonic water, liqueurs and bitters. The space, with its large, oval bar, is like a shrine to the artisanal cocktail, and the bartenders dress sharply. I was happy to see dry-humored Daniel Shoemaker, whom I had met at Tales of the Cocktail, again on his home turf.
It's a beer store. And a beer bar.
After all that cocktailing, man, was I thirsty for a beer. Luckily, Portland can satisfy those cravings and then some. On my last night I pub-hopped from the venerable, English-style Horse Brass Pub (terrific mix of British, European and Northwest brews) to Belmont Station (a no-frills beer bar that grew out of a kick-ass craft beer store) to Prost (new and a rarity in the States — a contemporary beer bar focusing on German beer and cuisine; great stuff) to, finally, Cassidy’s — a 30-year-old saloon-style bar that attracts industry types late-night after their shifts. Given Cassidy’s reputation, what choice did I have but to end my Northwest bar hop with a Rainier tall-boy and a shot of Fernet?
Thanks to all my friendly Northwest guides for a fabulous time!
Nightcap at Cassidy's: Fernet with a Rainier back.
Finally, last night, I met Seattle legend and internationally renowned bartender Murray Stenson. What a treat. As I’ve said here before, I’m one of many people nationwide who have encountered Murray’s hospitality from afar, by way of a surprise, complimentary drink delivered by a mutual bartending acquaintance. (I first heard about Murray from one of our city’s best bartenders, Scott Holliday, and was flattered to learn that Murray has been a drinkboston reader from early on.)
Acting as ambassador of the Murray Stenson Fan Club, New England Chapter, I presented him with a book on the history of Boston signed by several of our city’s bartenders — most of whom, like me, have only admired him from afar — plus a bottle of Chartreuse milk punch from the staff at Drink. Murray opened the punch right then and there and poured several shots for patrons at the bar. Then he mixed a few rounds of strong, elegant drinks — doling out some rare treats like the above — for me and my companions, West Coast drink writers Paul Clarke and Charles Munat. I’ll tell you more about Murray and my Seattle bar-hop in a later post.
» Save the date for drinkboston’s next event: Barstool Mountain Monday: Country Drinking Songs and Country Drinks, November 30 at the Independent in Union Square, Somerville. Think southern-style cocktails, shots of bourbon and Lone Star beer flowing to a soundtrack of classic country drinking songs spun by Brother “Taco Brim” Cleve. There’ll be well-known faves like “What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (Made a Loser Out of Me),” but also lesser-known gems like “Four on the Floor (and a Fifth Under the Seat),” and “She’s Acting Single (I’m Drinking Doubles).” More details to come soon.
» Also this month, swing by the bar at Clio between the 16th and 22nd, when bartender/mixologist Todd Maul celebrates the birthdays of David Embury and William “Cocktail” Boothby. Embury, born in 1886, is the author of the biblical Fine Art of Mixing Drinks. Boothby, born in 1862, was perhaps the best-known bartender just before Prohibition. He plied his trade most notably at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco and authored World’s Drinks And How To Mix Them and The American Bartender.
“We will be serving the Boothby Cocktail, the Casino and two creations from the Clio bartenders. For 10 bucks you get a drink and some rock shrimp,” says Todd, who provided the recipe for his homage to Embury and Boothby below.
2 oz Rittenhouse 100 rye whiskey
1 oz Aperol
1 oz Dolin sweet vermouth
Dash Angostura bitters
» Interested in going to bartending school? A website called Groupon, which posts daily deals in various cities, including Boston, is today advertising a $445 course at the DrinkMaster Bartending School for only $150. I know nothing of this school’s reputation, but, hey, it sounds like a deal worth exploring for those so inclined.
» Storied Seattle bartender Murry Stenson of the ZigZag Cafe recently celebrated his 60th birthday with a group of fellow bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts, including Jeffrey Morgenthaler, who was soliciting toasts for the fête from Murray fans nationwide. Even though I’ve never met the man, he has bought me drinks on two occasions through other bartenders. So I got together with two ladies from LUPEC Boston—Misty Kalkofen of Drink, who has also been remotely treated to drinks by Murray, and Kirsten Amman, who recently actually met him in person—to pen an homage (after downing a few cocktails, of course). To our delight, it was transcribed into “one of Murray’s first-edition copies of Embury,” says Morgenthaler. Yes. One of them.
Here it is: “Legend has it there is a bartender in the Northwest named Murray Stenson. His myth echoes from the Pacific through the hills of the Midwest, past the Isle of Manhattan, up the coast of the Atlantic. His legend comes bearing twenties to the heirs of the Pilgrim Rum. Puritans near and far long for the opportunity to glimpse Seattle’s beacon of hospitality. For now, we raise our tankards to the gracious man who touches the heart of Boston. Happy birthday, Murray, from a city of folks who love you though we’ve never met you. We look forward to having you at our bars.”
» Check out this clever montage of Boston bar and cocktail folk (including me) shaking their tails off to a soundtrack by dSonic.
Scott Holliday, former bartender at Chez Henri and an honorary member of our Best Boston bartender list, wrote me recently about a trip to the Zig Zag Cafe in Seattle (Scott moved to Sacramento last year but will soon relocate to Montreal). His account made me want to hop on a flight to the West Coast immediately:
“Had the very good fortune of hitting the Zig Zag Cafe while in Seattle and sitting at Murray Stenson’s bar for a spell. (Actually, Kacy Fitch and Ben Dougherty are the co-owners. As bar owners willing to have Murray take the spotlight, they are as rare and gracious as their star employee — and both damn fine bartenders themselves.) He’s a great bartender, amazingly gracious and inspiring. That bar, for me, was more exciting than Pegu, Flatiron or Milk & Honey. They put out some amazing drinks (with amazingly rare ingredients) without making it an exclusive or precious experience. All drinks $8.25 and most menu items $12 or so.
“Murray gave us tastes of liqueurs from a French company, Giffard — both the ginger and an Indian-spice blend called Mangalore. Both were beautifully pure and balanced. Murray and Kacy said anything they’ve tried from Giffard was excellent, though sadly it’s not available in the U.S. Also, just to satisfy my incredulity at what ingredients sat before me (see photo), they poured us tastes of Suntory Hermes Violets (you know, the nearly unobtainable descendent of dead-and-gone Creme Yvette) and, from the Firenze distiller L’Officina Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, Elisir di Edimburgo (a bitters) and Alkermes (an ancient medicinal bitter and supposedly the predecessor to Campari). And then for comparison an Alkermic made for Murray in San Francisco. All the while I watched Murray and Kacy carefully mix drink after drink, and with few exceptions consistently reaching for one of the Zig Zag’s impressive collection of bitters and herbals including Zwack Unicum, Torani Amer, both Amer Picons, Cynar, Fernet Branca, Branca Menta, VEP and yellow Chartreuse, and multiple Absinthe substitutes …
“Then we started on cocktails. I know, I’m a name dropping bore, but I’ve been so starved for the talk and craft of good drink I can’t help myself.
“It was on my second visit that I had the chance to chat with Ben Dougherty, and he introduced me to the Creole (variation). If I had the ingredients at home, or if they existed anywhere in Sacramento (gingerale isn’t even stocked in the bars here — if you order whiskey and ginger you get whiskey and 7up with a splash of Coke), I’d probably be half fluent in Creole by now or at the very least constantly slurring, ‘Laissez les bon temps roulez.’ It was also he who handed me Ted Saucier’s ‘Bottom’s Up’ to show me the recipe, essentially making me about $50 poorer by pointing out yet another void in my library. Hello eBay!”