story and photography by Virginia Miller
In the gray cool of the Seattle climate, the city’s cocktail bars are perpetual beacons of warmth, offering well-crafted drinks and convivial company. Seattle cocktail bars have been on the national, even international cocktail conscious. Canon won World’s Best Drink Selection at the 2013 Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards. Tavern Law and Rob Roy have placed on many regional and national “best” lists. Vessel has launched many a great bartender, still relevant (and relaxed) in its new location. Then there’s classic Zig Zag Café, Seattle’s unpretentious, shining cocktail haven for the better part of a decade.
These may be staples, but what notable bars are newer to the scene, under-the-radar, focused on craft spirits? The latter is a tough one. On the hunt for bars stocking small batch spirits, I was surprised at how difficult an extensive selection was to find, even in some of the most renowned “craft” bars. It all comes back to recent law changes.
Washington State made big strides in 2011 passing law I-1183, moving from a state-operated to a private liquor system, thus gaining access to more spirits than ever. But they are also “handicapped” by hefty liquor taxes, making the price point of spirits higher than in much of the country. This negatively affects small batch spirits as bar managers/owners often opt for cheaper well product to keep their drinks at a reasonable price. While the state has made an estimated 37 percent more from liquor taxes and fees this year compared to the last year liquor was under state control (source: http://www.opb.org/news/article/npr-liquor-privatization-in-washington-state-one-year-later), a whopping 20.5 percent spirits sales tax (more than double the tax for regular merchandise), plus a $3.77 liter tax, are no different than before I-1183 went into effect. Under the state liquor system, stores included the taxes in their list prices, but now retailers add that tax on top of list price. Current law requires a 17 percent tax on retailers and 10 percent on distributors – the distributor tax will drop to 5 percent in less than a year, while the retailer tax will remain.
The effects of a recent move from one system to another are noticeable, particularly in artisanal cocktail bars where one can find more obscure spirits than ever before in WA but far less than have long been common in other states. In fact, hunting for small batch spirits behind even the most revered craft bars can be tricky business. While one can find a range of Italian amaro in numerous bars, it’s more difficult to spot small-production, American spirits. The biggest collection I saw in Seattle was at Von’s 1000 Spirits, which has, literally, over 1000 spirits, many of them small brands from around the globe, like London’s Sacred or Blade Gin from California. Meanwhile, Pike Brewing Company, adjacent to Pike’s Market, offers an impressive collection of Washington State spirits at their bar. But neither of these are cocktail havens — they’re best for a neat pour.
While Seattleites will still find more of their cocktails made with big spirits brands than not, here are some of the best cocktail bars (besides the aforementioned five mentioned), places that take both their spirits and the craft of a drink seriously.
LIBERTY, Capitol Hill
Liberty is one of the best bars in Washington with a thoughtful craft selection and broad (600+ bottles) international selection of spirits, from mezcals to Japanese whiskies. Owner Andrew Friedman opened the bar in 2006, is a founder and president of the Washington State Bartender’s Guild, and a founding member of the Washington Distiller’s Guild. He’s intimately involved with the concerns of bar managers, bartenders and distillers alike. What makes Liberty great is the relaxed setting and a menu that doesn’t read fussy, while the execution and taste profile for many cocktails are complex and interesting. It’s the best of both worlds: a neighborhood bar with cocktails you can’t just replicate at home.
WHAT TO DRINK: Bartender Keith Waldbauer created this herbaceous, green beauty of gin, Chartreuse, absinthe and lime juice: Point of No Return. What sounds like a straightforward cocktail in actuality provides visual and aromatic drama. A mini-wreath of rosemary is placed in a glass, doused in a stream of ingredients, and set alight. The flame simmers and glows, releasing soothing aromas… and it’s absolutely delicious.
Witness (as in, “Can I get a…!”) just opened in August 2013, the newest kid on the craft bar block from Gregg Holcomb, formerly of popular Knee High Stocking Company. The “hallelujahs” begin as you walk into the spare, white-walled room where converted pews are turned into booths, rustic stained glass is illuminated, and a large, homey painting graces the bar. Consider it your Americana country church, a chapel to Southern food and drink, one where quotes from the likes of 18th-century American preacher, Jonathan Edwards, line the hallway to the bathroom.
WHAT TO DRINK: Holcomb’s Southern roots (his parents are from the South) shine in playful cocktails like Root Down, where the menthol of Fernet Branca illumines iced chicory coffee and condensed milk. I substituted the big name brand gin for local Captive Spirits’ Big Gin in their Soul Tonic, a gin and tonic enlivened by a tart, house lime cordial.
One of the more delightful cocktail experiences in Seattle is on a quiet Ballard block next door to beloved pizza restaurant, Delancey. Delancey owners, Brandon Petit and Molly Wizenberg, opened Essex in the summer of 2012, a cozy outpost for cool tunes, well-made cocktails and house ingredients in a room warmed by Victorian-esque wallpaper and glowing lamps.
WHAT TO DRINK: Essex works subtle wonders with wine and beer in cocktails, like Pink Drink, a blend of Lillet, Cocchi Rosso, Dolin Blanc, spiced brine and Gruner Veltliner wine on tap, or a lively Dennis the Menace balancing two of my favorite things – rye whiskey and mezcal – with lime, watermelon puree and an IPA Reduction. Bar Manager Niah Bystrom responds to the request for a drink made with small batch spirits by whipping up the oh-so-clever Boy Named Suze, combining bourbon, Cocchi Rosa, a craft barrel-aged gin and Suze, a French aperitif liqueur.
SUN LIQUOR, Capitol Hill
Both distillery and bar, Sun Liquor epitomizes the marriage of craft spirits and cocktails in one space. While the original Sun Liquor remains a favorite retro, neighborhood lounge, the second location is likewise inviting, with vintage blonde woods and deep blue, hand painted wall. This second bar houses the distillery with full view of their lovely Forsyths still where Distiller Erik Chapman produces vodka and gin made from non-GMO organic wheat, lovely cane rums and vibrant orange bitters.
WHAT TO DRINK: Try anything made with their spirits, like Libby’s Mai Tai, using Sun’s light and dark rums. For a gorgeous aperitif, order The Artemisia, made of Dolin Genepy (alpine herbal liqueur), bitter Salers Aperitif, lemon peel, and Sun’s orange bitters topped with Zardetto champagne.
NEEDLE & THREAD
While downstairs at Tavern Law can suffer from a bit of pretension, their long cocktail menu is one of Seattle’s stronger menus. Once one gets into, yes, yet another speakeasy requiring reservations for the upstairs bar within a bar, Needle and Thread, one finds a peaceful, sexy, menu-less haven for letting the bartenders craft something special.
WHAT TO ORDER: Dealer’s Choice works at Needle and Thread when in the hands of talented up-and-coming bartenders like Tim Nguyen. He might concoct one of his balanced creations like All Bets Are Off, a boozy dream of rye whiskey, Genepi, Cocchi Americano, Cynar amaro, and peach bitters, or A Whole New World, where he infuses rye whiskey with jasmine tea, balancing its astringent qualities with Averna, lemon, and honey simple syrup.
MORE NOTABLE COCKTAIL/SPIRITS BARS
Rocco’s Late night doesn’t get much more fun than a slice of pizza and elegant, bracing cocktails at Rocco’s. Bar Manager Leroy Thomas keeps pace with the casual, festive vibe yet elevates it with far-from-your-average-pizza-joint drinks, including shrub cocktails served on a mini-silver tray with a spirit base of choice and soda to mix to your preference.
Rumba, Capitol Hill, Rumba is the king of Washington’s rum bars with just over 250 rums, including. Flights ($13-21) are themed from agricole to spiced rums, while cocktails often appear simple — like all versions of a classic Daiquiri — but stay relevant being expertly executed by skilled Bar Manager Connor O’Brien. Try Scarr Power, combining Smith & Cross rum with nutmeg syrup and lime, or a Daiquiri du Bresil, a banana daiquiri of Banks 5 rum, Giffard’s Creme de Banana and lime.
Canlis Seattle’s upscale legend boasts stunning water and hillside views in a mid-century, architectural gem built and run by the Canlis family since 1950. Service is the best around (e.g. valets bring your car to the door before you even exit the restaurant). Set to live piano and sunset over Lake Union, the bar is a fantastic respite, even if not necessarily a craft outpost. More an elegant Scotch and spirits haven (and drinks hovering in the $18 range), one might sip a Mistico Arancione mixing Pyrat XO rum, Carpano Antica sweet vermouth and Solerno. The history, hospitality and setting make even a drink in the bar a memorable event.
Fine dining-esque dishes in a casual space set the tone as this raved-about restaurant with a love for cocktails. Behind the small bar, Ken Gray might mix local Sidetrack Distillery’s Bete (a beet-based, clear spirit) and Oola Gin with dry vermouth, orange bitters and lime.
When at Pike Place Market, whiskey lovers would do well to head upstairs to Radiator Whiskey, which also serves quality food in a relaxed dining room. Sit at the bar under a giant barrel and order a dram from the long whiskey list or a rich cocktail like the Renegade, mixing bourbon with smoky Del Maguey Mezcal Vida, Yellow Chartreuse, Angostura and orange bitters.