Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Two at the Most: The Classic Cocktail Scene in Seattle

Note:  Today I’m introducing a new, semi-regularish column by my husband, Steve Ello, about craft/classic cocktails and any important news about booze!  If you don’t recognize the allusion in the title, this will help:

I like to have a martini,
Two at the very most.
After three I'm under the table,
after four I'm under my host.
~Dorothy Parker

I confess that I recited this poem to Steve over drinks on our first date….but enough about me; here’s Steve, on his recent trip to Seattle, Washington:

I can report that the craft cocktail movement in Seattle is alive, well, and indeed—thriving.  In fact, I was waiting to take the ferry from Seattle to Bainbridge Island and in the small bar at the ferry terminal I had a Manhattan made with a rye distilled on Bainbridge Island, WA; Dolin Sweet Vermouth; top quality bitters; and a burned orange twist! It was better than 90 percent of what you would find in Washington, DC restaurants.

I was able to visit four places while I was in Seattle and only scratched the surface.  Ambiance was excellent in all of them.  Good cocktails in each.  I was surprised that all of the places I went to served significant/unique food. Not full dinners but small plates/heavy, gourmet appetizers.  I would recommend them all to people going to Seattle with the exception of Canon, which I may have just hit on a night with two “dud” mixologists. Fine enough, but I enjoyed the other places much better. All of them seemed to be open seven days a week.

This was my first stop on a Sunday evening.  My drink notes are probably the worst for Zig Zag as it was the only place where I did not sit at the bar. A little hard to find unless one looks at the comments on Yelp which are clear…if you do not leave them at the hotel. It is in an alley between two streets just below the façade of a three-story office building below Pike Place Market and above Western Ave.  Address is on the façade of the building.  Stucco, plants outside the door.  Nice size curved bar inside (10-15 seats) then a number of velvet banquets and some small tables.

Casey was working when we went in. Very attentive, asked what we liked, anything we did not like.  He prepared a variation on a martini for my colleague who is more of a beer drinker that he enjoyed, and I had a variation on a Negroni and then a Manhattan.  Cocktails he served didn’t really have names; he just tweaked the proportions and the liquors, which was fine, but I always like a name even if it is a personal creation.  Since we didn’t sit at the bar I don’t recall if they had full printed menus but they had a chalkboard with cocktails written on it.  Music was low, unobtrusive jazz.  People sitting across from us raved about the food (Caesar salad/pasta dish).  They had no cocktails however.  Can I trust them?

Someone at another place I went to while I was in Seattle said that there was a bartender at Zig Zag who was supposed to be a “wizard” at the bar but he didn’t know his name. 

Prior to heading to Zig Zag we stopped at The Brooklyn on 2nd Ave., for oysters.  Great West Coast Oysters and had an excellent Dry Fly Martini there.  Not a craft cocktail spot but very good nonetheless. They know how to make a martini.

Visited Canon on Monday evening.  It was, unfortunately, a disappointment for me.  Easy to find, nice ambiance.  Cocktails were competently made but nothing spectacular, and no real interest in having a back and forth with customers.  Dark wood inside with long curved bar that sat about 20.  A few tables that sat four to six. When I sat down, I asked one of the two bartenders if Jamie Boudreau was working that night so I could mention a mutal acquaintance.  I was told he’d check in the back.  He never seemed to check and never got back to me one way or the other.  Later, I asked if Murray Stevenson was working and was told…”No, just us two!”  I was surprised he didn’t ask my name or if I knew Jamie. 

Onto the cocktails—I started with a Leopold and Cocci Americano (my suggestion to use the Cocci).  Was very good.  Balanced.  I have had Leopold Gin before and I liked this combination better that with Dolin. I followed that with what seems to be big in Seattle: you “pick your own base spirit,” and then they make something for you. I chose a Genever.  Again, the cocktail was good but when I asked what else he used, I was told it was a secret and he wouldn’t tell me. 


That sort of summed up the bartenders working that night.  Finished with an Aviation made with a Seattle gin I had heard about called Gun Club Gin distilled by Sun Liquor.  Good cocktail, good gin, but nothing I couldn’t make at home.  I had the pork buns, which were recommended online, and they were fine. Nice presentation with a cannon on the plate.  Should have turned the cannon on the bartender…then he might have told me what was in the drink.

Granted, I might have had a completely different experience with a different mixologist, but my experience being what it was I would not recommend Canon as my first choice based on my experience with other places in Seattle and with everything else out there I didn’t get to.

Undaunted, I headed down the street three blocks to Tavern Law.  Owned by Brian McCracken and Dana Tough.  Best cocktails and bartenders of the trip. Long winding bar and tables.  A little lighter color vibe inside.  Music was a little loud and didn’t seem to fit with the classic cocktail theme of the 19th and 20th century but that would be my only criticism.  Bartenders asked me what I liked…we looked at the menu and off we went.  They had an extensive printed menu of classics (most extensive menu of the trip—sours, flips, punches, juleps, coolers, etc.) and their own creations. 

Started off with a Fourth Regiment, which had a unique layering of flavors with the celery bitters. First time for me with that cocktail. In that vein, we moved onto a Greenpoint and finished with a Seelbach Cocktail.  I believe George was mixing most of the cocktails with Layne’s assistance.  Later in the evening, they gave me a black card with just a phone number to get into the super-secret upstairs, which was not open on Mondays.  Go to the phone on the wall and call up and they buzz you in.  They also suggested I purchase Ted Haigh’s Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, which just arrived.  

In between cocktails, I had an excellent foie gras terrine. Fried chicken is supposed to be their specialty.  These folks make a great cocktail. They also suggested checking out Liberty on 15th Ave., East and a place called Rob Roy.

All in all a great experience, except for the music missing the mark.

Last night in Seattle, so the big debate was whether to return to Tavern Law and the super secret room or to venture off to new territory.  I headed west to Bath Tub Gin & Co., which was challenging to find.  It is actually between 1st and 2nd off Blanchard St., in Gin Alley.  Essentially walk around to the back of the building. Luckily, I cornered two guys going into the front of the building who directed me.

The ambiance here was probably nicest of all of the places…but it was the tiniest too.  Top level has a semi-circular bar that seats 6-8 with one table for two, and downstairs there were maybe three or four tables for two.  Dark wood.  Music was very low key. Another nice printed menu with a much smaller selection of cocktails but probably the largest selection gins and whiskeys. The menu was all their own creations, i.e. Jedi Mind Trick (Brandy, Absinthe, maple syrup, lemon juice, thyme), Just above Social (Gin, hickory salt & pepper falernum, Angostura Bitters, black olive).

Started with the Just Above Social (a line from a Hunter S. Thompson novel, the bartender explained) then moved to a martini with a gin I wasn’t that wild about (Cold River, I think) which he offered to swap out, but I didn’t take him up on.  Next did a “Dealer’s Choice” where I asked him to use the Yamazaki Scotch.  He pulled a drink together he called Carnal Knowledge (Scotch, Yellow Chartreuse, Bonal, and grapefruit bitters).  And, he not only told me what was in it he wrote down the recipe!  Finished up with a small Manhattan with Buffalo Trace which I had not had before.

The bartender (there was only one) was great and the ambiance was wonderful, but for some reason no drink was quite a home run here.  However, based on the ambiance, the bartender and how nice he was I would give them another try. 

Tavern Law…best cocktails and most skilled mixologists with a unique menu…I’d give Bath Tub Gin & Co. best in show and with most potential and is Zig Zag, a solid choice for both cocktails and comfort.  And while I would recommend them all, I was sadly disappointed by Canon which was suggested by one of DC’s own craft cocktail gurus and features Jamie Boudreau and Murray Stenson (formerly of Zig Zag Café), two legends in the Seattle cocktail scene (neither was there the night I stopped in).

~Steve Ello


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.