I was in Seattle for a few days, and since the city has the reputation as a “craft cocktail” city, I made sure to check out Happy Hour. Happy Hour is a popular—perhaps universal—feature of Seattle bars, and that in itself is something of a wonder to me, as being from Massachusetts (Land O’ the Puritans), my local experience of the Happy Hour practice is that it has been against the law for many years.
What is “Craft Cocktails”?
But before I report of what I learned during my recent vacation, a word about “craft cocktails”.
In the dawn of cocktails, there was liquor, sugar, and bitters, and it is easy enough to speculate that the sugar was to make somewhat rough liquor taste smoother. As to the bitters, well, that was to make the liquor drink good for you: bitters have their roots in medicine, which is a pun, I suppose, given that certain roots can be part of the herbal mix-up within a bitters concoction. Or what once was thought of as medicine, as in herbal tinctures, for example, and other mixtures our contemporary medical industry defenders would have you think of as “snake oil.” I’m sure that there is a long history of actual benefits from certain tinctures and potions, although I don’t even play a doctor on television, so that is all I’m going to say on the matter.
Except that another aspect of cocktails is the use of liqueurs that were originally concocted with the idea of curative properties, and sometimes by monks (e.g., Chartreuse), and with some going back many hundreds of years, and in some cases made for God (e.g., Benedictine; check out what D.O.M. means).
Well, as it turns out, bitters can be very effective flavor broadeners that work well with liquor, as do many liqueur, as do various juices, as does ice, and thus, cocktails. By the mid-to-late 19th Century, fortified wines such as vermouth were making their way to America, followed by concoctions like Campari and amari and Dubonnet, and so forth, and cocktails began to become quite varied, not to mention enormously popular. By the Twenties, the art of cocktails was vibrant. Then the Eighteenth Amendment struck, which, as Prohibition, was bad for cocktails, except perhaps as a means to doctor inferior liquor, and then the Twenty-first Amendment rolled into play and booze was back.
What didn’t so easily return, however, was the knowledge and practice of the earlier and rather wonderful Cocktail Era, at least not until some 20 years ago, when interest in cocktails and the history of cocktails and the making of good cocktails emerged. In these last couple of decades, there have been many efforts to explore and revive old cocktail recipes and techniques. Concerted effort to be attentive to this body of knowledge, down to making these cocktails well, is central to “craft cocktails.” And, yes, “craft cocktail” isn’t about slavish recreation of old recipes, but rather the careful consideration of what makes for contemporary taste, along with use of revived and new ingredients, along with re-combinations of recipes, along with incorporation of local ingredients (think farm-to-table), along with new recipes and techniques, along with oddities and outliers such as “molecular mixology.”
So, basically, “craft cocktail” means knowing about cocktails and making them well.
What I learned on My Vacation
I had two agenda items for my Seattle visit: to see some old friends, and to make them come along to a bunch of bars’ Happy Hours (HH). Seattle is one of the strong centers for craft cocktails, and I am all for studying.
Zig Zag Café
The first Happy Hour visit was to Zig Zag Café, a place well-known for its cocktails in part because of the work done by Robert Hess, one of the cocktail revival gurus, who lives nearby and has written about the place, incorporating at least one of their recipes in his Drinkboy.com list. The good news is that the cocktails made for me and two friends were all very good, and it was nice to have the HH discount, and the two appetizers we’d ordered were great.
There is not really any bad news, but I observed several things that surprised me, but upon reflection only because I had come in with the expectation of Hess’s influence on technique. The biggest surprise was to see the bartender free pour, and readers know I follow the argument for measuring ingredients, except for very simple cocktails and highballs.
I saw that the bartender took great care in pouring, and this care would take the form of bent-over close inspection of the pour. The pours were slow and attentive, which basically negates the argument for free-pouring, which claims faster production. Further slowdown came from the pipette check, with the bartender confirming tastes—and therefore, ratios—by dipping a cocktail straw into the mix and tasting it, which not only rips through straw stock, but adds yet more time, offsetting, yet further, the purported advantages of the free-pour technique.
Zig Zag Café is a small place, but they make fine drinks, have excellent stock, a very good kitchen, and the place is cool-looking. I was also impressed with Zig Zag’s stock holdings, with a healthy couple of pages of American Whiskeys in their drink lists.
The Backdoor at Roxy’s, a Fremont Speakeasy
Roxy’s Deli is a longtime staple of the Freemont neighborhood, which, in these days of Seattle’s economic boom, is the top contender for hippest neighborhood.
The drinks were disappointing, but the scene was speakeasy groovy. Also, my interior shot is disappointing, but there you go. The Backdoor is a separate entity from Mother Roxy’s Diner, but it is literally in the back part of the same building as the deli, and whether or not the two establishments use the same kitchen I can’t say. What I can say is that The Backdoor is a wonderfully wild looking place that wears the name of speakeasy loosely, but certainly in high style.
What I can say is that the cocktails I and my two friends ordered were not high style, by which I mean that they were surprisingly lousy. The place was crowded, but not slammed. We weren’t sitting at the bar, so I couldn’t observe technique directly, but I’m pretty sure that I would have observed over-long stirring, since the drinks were very bruised. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the worst of it, as I found it somewhat difficult to differentiate the ordered Sazarec and the Vieux Carré. Now, understand that these two cocktails share flavor profiles—American whiskey and anisette (from Peychaud bitters and absinthe, respectively)—and it didn’t help that the server miss-tracked the drinks and put these before the wrong guests, but both drinks are menu drinks and the bartenders should therefore know how to make them. The surroundings were great to drink in through the eyes; the drinks, by mouth, not so much.
The Barrel Thief
Another Freemont spot, The Barrel Thief is terrific. Even overwhelming, but mainly through their menu that contains nine pages of American whiskey offerings. A great-looking place, mid-sized, busy for HH, but we got a table without wait, which is what can happen when you show up on a Thursday, at the tail end of HH, and presumably some people are still at work, at Amazon, or Google, or Microsoft, or the near-countless smaller tech companies and start-ups that have made Seattle one heck of an expensive rental place. Still, I’ll bet that The Barrel Thief pays its rent without breaking a sweat.
I certainly hope so. The bar knows its stuff. I ordered the house Manhattan, but I was so delighted with it that I can’t recall what cocktail my friend ordered, although he reported an A+, too. My drink was a house cocktail, Thief’s Manhattan, which used solid ingredients, including “Fremont Mischief Rye Whiskey,” which may or may not be a small barrel variant from one of the big distillers, as they are sometimes wont to do. At any rate, the rye was fine, as was the Carpano Antica Vermouth the bar used, as was the traditional Manhattan’s Angostura Bitters. The Barrel Thief’s twist is the addition of cacao bitters, which adds a gentle earthy bass note to the cocktail. I don’t know for sure which brand of cacao bitters was used, but I didn’t taste any spice or chili notes, so that leaves only a couple of choices. I’m definitely on the hunt, and an aromatic bitters/cacao bitters version of Manhattan will be among the choices for my Manhattan variant menu when I get around to it.
The Barrel Thief is notable, too, for its liquor stock, with the aforementioned nine pages of American Whiskeys in various categories including Bourbon Local, Bourbon Rare and Fancy, Bourbon Classic Kentucky, Bourbon Nationwide, Rye, American Single Malts, and American Other Whiskey. Nine pages, single column, with brief tasting notes. There are also seven pages for Scotch, one page for Irish, one for Japan, and one of “World” whiskey. The Barrel Thief has the strongest stock list for whiskey I’ve encountered, although there are others out there, I’m sure, including one in Kansas City, go figure. (In the Berkshires, the best whiskey collection may well be Moe’s Tavern, in Lee, Massachusetts, primarily an American Craft Beer bar, go figure.)
Vito’s is a different animal than the bars mentioned earlier, in a very different neighborhood, First Hill, on the eastern edge of downtown Seattle. Here’s their boilerplate description: “Vito’s is an iconic restaurant and lounge… opened in 1953 by Vito and Jimmie Santoro, it has a history rich in cocktail culture, live music, politics, and East Coast family-style Italian food. In 2010, Jeff Scott and Greg Lundgren purchased this Seattle institution and began a major restoration of the space. The goal was to return Vito’s to its original mid-century glamour and style, respecting its colorful past and setting the course for a 21st-century resurrection.”
The reference to a “colorful past” may be code for the mob hit that allegedly took place there many years ago, and which resulted—if the stories of my hosts are right—in the place shutting down for quite a while. But it is back, even with a grand piano returned to the lounge, and the bar was solid, and I got to enjoy a well-made Manhattan, and I saw not a one gat or gangster.
I recommend the joint, if you happen to find yourself in that neighborhood, which is largely big pre-war office and apartment buildings, and next to “Pill Hill,” which is what the medical area to the north is called, and south of the Vito neighborhood is the International District with its concentration of Japanese, Chinese, and Vietnamese, or what, in pre-political correctness days, would have been called Chinatown.
All I can say about Vito’s is that I liked the place, the music was good, the drinks better, and if I had been hungry I’m sure that I would have enjoyed something with marinara sauce. And thank god that I wore my fedora and trench coat to the place, see?
As it turned out, I saved the best for last, although The Barrel Thief was a pretty close second to Rob Roy. Rob Roy is in Belltown, a neighborhood closer in to downtown, but very much an up and coming hipster locale of its own.
“Definitive cocktails for discerning tastes” is the tagline for this place, and the tagline is accurate, with the two cocktails I enjoyed there—a De La Louisiane and a Champs-Élysées, along with checking out my pal’s Vieux Carré —perfect in every way. You could say there is an accent on perfection.
Rob Roy as a bar is a strange creature, in that it is by license a restaurant, but it offers only two food items, which is a concession to the bizarre regulations the place faces, according to the bartender. Rob Roy is also likely an endangered place for getting the sorts of excellent cocktails I enjoyed, in that its longtime bar manager had given his two-week notice the day before, preparing to head out to parts unknown. I got to see the mixing techniques up close as this experienced bartender was training his replacement, and the new guy was the one who actually made the drinks. Best of luck to the new fellow, especially when the other guy leaves, and good luck to the world in the hope that the brilliance of the drinks at Rob Roy continues. The imminent staff changes at Rob Roy show how ephemeral a great bar can be—one staff change and a bar can go from sublime to, well, not sublime.
The unknown future of Rob Roy serves as another reason why bar books are important at bars attempting to provide good cocktails. A bar book is a collection of recipes for cocktails the bar serves, along with the notes on techniques and ingredients. Without capturing this information—and using it—a bar’s cocktails can vary in quality and consistency from one bartender to another, and when there is a change in staff behind the bar two weeks of training can leave a lot of essential institutional knowledge heading out with the exiting staff.
Here’s hoping for the best for Rob Roy, the best bar I had the pleasure of checking out in Seattle. The place is in a good locale, best as I can tell, and it is cozy, small, and well-designed—a nice place to hang. Rob Roy’s whiskey stock is impressive, although less so in comparison to The Barrel Thief, but then, whose is?