Tales of Seattle’s Cocktail Bars
Coffee by morning, beer by day, cocktails by night is how the drinking rolls in the Emerald City. Or so it seems with their impressive number of espresso baristas pulling top notch shots, mighty micro breweries such as Fremont and Schooner Exact providing refreshing and bold ales and lagers, and at night the cocktail shakers come out. Whether or not Seattle can quite compete with the caliber of this liquid trio in rival Portland is a debate for another place at another time.
There’s no doubt after a long day of work at Amazon or (another) Mariners loss or to celebrate a grand night out to compliment the city’s excellent array of restaurants, Seattle has plenty of cocktail options. The craft, artisan cocktail movement that now spans the globe from windowless cocktail dens in Tokyo to faux speakeasies in Milwaukee certainly has not skipped Seattle. Surprise, surprise the premier pair of places to imbibe in the city are a) a speakeasy and b) a luxurious, “Mad Men” 1950’s plush room with the name of the bar not shown outside. It seems to never get old how each outstanding bar in major cities either evokes “Mad Men” or strives to pretend you are Al Capone in a 1920’s speakeasy.
The essential cocktail experience can be found upstairs at the gastropub Tavern Law on Capitol Hill, in their speakeasy Needle and Thread. Dozens of bars across the country do the same schtick now: make a reservation for a drink, when you arrive call the bar on a special phone and they’ll let you in, walk up a secret passage, voilà you’re in the bar, there’s no menu, so let us know what you usually drink. Then you’ll struggle to say anything other than, “Give me your best drink,” or “I’ll drink anything that tastes good.” Fortunately the wonderful, gleeful server and bartender know what they’re doing. Bitter? Yes. Sweet? Sure. Rum? Eh, no. Then you will remember that you love ginger in drinks. It all adds up to the best cocktail made in Seattle that I encountered, the Ginger Rogers.
If this is a report on all terrific Seattle cocktail bars, don’t pass up getting a drink downstairs at Tavern Law like we did. The vibe is much hipper, the noise much louder. The drinks, though, are probably just as sublime.
A stone’s throw, or a canon shot, from Tavern Law resides the smoking hot Canon. Only about 7 months old now, Canon is the domain, or emporium if you will, of Jamie Boudreau, one of Seattle’s most notable bartenders. The sign outside only mentions that a “whiskey and bitters emporium” resides behind these doors. It’s not a speakeasy, more of a steakhouse truthfully with plush booths on one side and what must be a thousand bottles of liquor decorating the back of the bar, as crammed as a bookshelf of classics at Oxford’s library. The handsome L shaped bar is the place to be overlooking the artists at work. On our visit the booths felt slightly crammed, along with a server who seemed none too excited about describing drinks or conversing with us.
You could go the whiskey and bitters route easily here. Drinkers of any persuasion will be satisfied, even for my beer drinking friend who enjoyed the always excellent Dale’s Pale Ale from Oskar Blues in Colorado. But, this is a cocktail joint really. I was torn on the signature Canon Cocktail. The body was an exceptional blend of rye and the Italian amaro, ramazotti, that boasts slight currant notes. It was smooth yet had enough citrus and burn to keep you always wide awake. The drink is topped with an superfluous cointreau foam, an unnecessarily sweet and frothy nod to Alinea and El Bulli that distracts from the drink and does nothing to enhance the already terrific cocktail. I ended up drinking all the foam first to get it out of the way.
Perhaps next time shall be the Union Club cocktail with rye, maraschino, fresh orange juice, and campari or the excellent idea of three different miniature Manhattan variations called the “Vermouth Experiment.” Or, be like another of my friends and just drink some whiskey. This is a cocktail joint and a whiskey and bitters emporium after all.
Over in Belltown, Rob Roy exudes a sexy grandeur that is part Parisian 1920’s club, part English countryside hunting lodge with its blend of sleek black and gold furniture enhanced by stuffed animal heads along the walls. You can of course get a Rob Roy here or a spot on rendition of any classics. Take up the challenge and try a new concept such as the Blonde Boxer, featuring Speyside scotch, dry vermouth, kummel, creme de cacao, dandelion, and burdock bitters.
I appreciated the creativity and execution of La Flama Blanca, especially at a steal of $6 during happy hour. Mezcal was tamed a bit by a house ginger syrup and lemon spritz. The main narrative was from the pimento dram, a wallop of clove tasting infused Caribbean rum that doesn’t necessarily hit the spot when mixed with the mezcal. For the cocktails and drop dead beautiful, impossibly chic interior, this would be a line around the block type of bar in New York. It was nearly empty during my visit, which should never be the case.
In the heart of tourist territory is the Zig Zag Cafe, a must on any itinerary for cocktailians due to the encyclopedia of nationwide awards it has won. Bartenders come and go, yet the bar is one of the most strongly stocked this side of Ernest Hemingway’s house. You will certainly walk by the bar at least five times looking for it, next to a Mexican restaurant, behind a wall of ivy and a beautiful garden trellis, mid way down the steps from Pike Place Market to the waterfront’s aquarium.
Soft lighting, plush booths, and that towering wall of bottles greets you , along with the very talkative bartenders. The menu is immense, so pick one randomly, or go for the describe your favorites to the bartender route. I chose that route hoping to have a Needle & Thread like ginger success, this time with banana. The mix of banana, ginger, and rum was a valiant effort at my beloved Andy Wahloo Spécial from Paris, but tasted of nothing but one dimensional banana juice. There was no depth, no ginger spice, no rum burn. While the banana cocktail was all banana, the Seventh Heaven was nothing but gin, with just vague notes of Dubonnet and maraschino. These weren’t bad cocktails in the least, simply not balanced appropriately. There is too much potential at Zig Zag to say it has lost its touch. Then again, a fair cocktail is not a world class cocktail. Luckily, the experience is still a joy because of the bartenders and seductive, rose colored, absolutely non-touristy atmosphere.
To wrap up here with a nightcap, restaurants are certainly jumping into the craft cocktail game to, at Walrus and Carpenter with the Bourbon and Atlas: bourbon, apricot brandy, tea syrup, lemon, and peach bitters, or any cocktail at Quoin in Fremont, next door to the exceptionally exciting Revel. Mistral started the high end cocktails at high end restaurant trend and now perhaps it may be Staple and Fancy, the flagship of Ethan Stowell’s in Ballard, that might be carrying the flag at the front. Or, at least they certainly have the most affable and knowledgeable bartenders who will make you anything and give you plenty of samples to help decide. Poppy on the other hand boats the exciting cocktails to give a thrill ride that sometimes go to far, like the unbalanced spice bomb Papi Delicious.
I can’t get past the Ginger Rogers at Needle & Thread. Such a perfect cocktail, as captivating as a sunny day view of Mount Rainier. I’m sure with the talent of cocktail artists in this city my next Ginger Rogers is lurking out there.