Liquid Assets: The Cocktail Craft

andrew_at_liberty

THE COCKTAIL CRAFT
by Paul Clarke
photo by Kelly O

“The cheapest and easiest way to become an influential man and be looked up to by the community at large, [is] to stand behind a bar, wear a cluster-diamond pin, and sell whisky,” Mark Twain wrote in Roughing It, the chronicle of his 1860’s Western experiences. “Youthful ambition hardly aspired so much to the honors of the law, or the army and navy, as to the dignity of proprietorship in a saloon.”Things have certainly changed. Once positioned near the social pinnacle in many American communities, bartenders saw their vocation criminalized during Prohibition. Today tending bar is typically considered a job, not a profession; but in a nation that’s embracing sweeping culinary changes, many bartenders are taking their jobs much more seriously. Now, with a recently formed professional guild, Washington bartenders are studying up on new spirits and forgotten skills, and bringing their customers along for the ride.

“Spirits are an interesting culinary direction—there’s a whole world out there to experiment with, and people are figuring that out,” says Andrew Friedman, owner of Liberty, a bar on Capitol Hill, and president of the Washington State Bartenders Guild (WSBG). The nonprofit WSBG organized last fall with the goal of elevating the quality of members’ skills and knowledge, and ultimately, the customer’s drinking experience.

Its creation follows the formation of similar organizations in Oregon and Washington, D.C., and an unrelated national guild that is active in cities including San Francisco. Friedman says customers are already showing a greater enthusiasm for what’s going on behind the bar at many Seattle restaurants.

“Before, the bar was the place in the restaurant where you went while you waited for your table to be ready,” he says. “Now, people are asking to stay at the bar because it’s like an open kitchen—you can watch the bartender make drinks.”

While Seattle lacks a high-profile, ultra-exclusive temple of mixology such as Milk & Honey in New York or Bourbon & Branch in San Francisco, renowned bartenders such as Murray Stenson at Zig Zag Café and Jamie Boudreau, formerly of Vessel and now heading the bar at Tini Bigs, have helped establish Seattle as a fixture on the cocktail map.

More recently, the debut of ambitious bars at restaurants such as Spur and Barrio, along with the success of craft bars such as Sun Liquor, Oliver’s Twist and Sambar, have positioned the city as a rising star in the mixological firmament.

The idea that cocktails are increasingly a vibrant component of Seattle’s culinary world isn’t surprising, especially given the region’s history with embracing once-unremarkable beverages.

“People used to think good coffee came from a can,” says Robert Hess, author of The Essential Bartender’s Companion (Mud Puddle Books, 2008) and an associate member of the guild. “Now, we realize there’s such a thing as gourmet coffee.”

Hess has long championed the creative nature of bartending, and says that cocktails will follow the trails blazed by coffee, beer and wine among a Northwest audience. “Over time wine has increased in stature with the small wineries opening up. People now realize there’s really good wine out there, and they put that on the same culinary table as everything else,” he says. “I think cocktails will be the next thing on that path.”

Admittedly, at many establishments the bar still lags behind the kitchen in terms of overall quality. Cocktail historians typically blame Prohibition for devastating the craft of bartending in America–giving its practitioners the choice of going out of business, working illicitly at a speakeasy or emigrating to work in Europe or the Caribbean.

In 1919, following years of organizing throughout the country, the temperance movement achieved enough political momentum to win passage of a constitutional amendment prohibiting the manufacture, sale or transport of alcoholic beverages. Enacted in 1920, Prohibition was intended to completely ban the consumption of beer, wine and spirits; instead, it turned millions of Americans into lawbreakers, and prompted an uncontrollable spiral of crime and violence among gangs seeking to control the trade.

By the time Prohibition was repealed in 1933, both the taste for carefully balanced, complex-flavored cocktails and the knowledge of how to prepare them had been decimated. Prohibition’s aftermath is still apparent in the confusing jumble of state and local liquor laws, the prevalence of candy-sweet concoctions meant to hide the taste of liquor, and the flashy showmanship that trumps craftsmanship behind many bars.

Friedman says that as bartenders share their knowledge and experience with each other, they’ll be better prepared to share this same information with consumers; ultimately, the hope is that more people will view cocktails as a multifaceted culinary experience than as merely an alcohol-delivery vehicle.

“The bartender’s guild is full of people who want to know how [spirits and liqueurs] are made and how they add new taste to a drink,” he says. “The guild is there to promote the idea that cocktails are another feature in what’s pleasant about going out for dinner, or just an additional feature to life.”

While the guild is oriented toward beverage-industry professionals, associate memberships are available for other drinking-age adults wishing to discover more about the world of spirits and cocktails. Events typically feature specific spirits and products—special emphasis is placed on those from Washington and other Northwest distilleries—and future events may range from bartending competitions to educational seminars to simple social events. Some guild events, such as an absinthe educational session the guild sponsored in January, are open to the public; others, like a vermouth seminar held in February, are limited to members.

“I think the average person walking into a bar or restaurant, if they see something and don’t know what it is, they want to find out,” says Tara McLaughlin, bar manager at Rob Roy in Belltown and a WSBG member. “If you have people behind the bar who can explain it to them, and give them a taste and introduce them to these things, it opens up a new world for them, as much as for us.”

For more information about the Washington State Bartenders Guild, visit www.wsbg.org.

Paul Clarke is a contributing editor to Imbibe, and has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, Mixologist and the Serious Eats blog. Follow his cocktail adventures at www.cocktailchronicles.com.

  • Share this >>
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on email

Join the Edible Seattle community

Get our monthly e-newsletter straight to your inbox!

We respect your privacy and will never share or sell your email.