Five Questions for the Bartender: the Whale Wins's Jermaine Whitehead
"At home while cooking, I always drink vermouth so I can save room for the wine with the meal, then digestif, then Japanese whiskey..."
Though he's long worked in the service industry, Jermaine Whitehead's entry into bartending was a lucky break: During a visit to (the soon-to-be-shuttered) Floyd's Place in Lower Queen Anne 10 years ago, a bartender was hitting on Whitehead's friend when he mentioned that he needed a new barback. Whitehead had his resume on him at the time, and in an attempt to get the girl, the bartender hired him on the spot. The romance didn't work out, but Whitehead's career did: After his stint at Floyd's Place, he bartended at Linda's, Smith, Barrio, Moe Bar, Miller's Guild, and now the Whale Wins.
Here, five questions for Jermaine.
What did you do before becoming a bartender? I have always worked service in some shape. From Pasta and Co. for a few years, to catering with Ravishing Radish on Eastlake. I worked at Urban Outfitters for a couple of years, and at the Stranger assisting in the classified ads and advertising department. The perks at the Stranger were fantastic: free shows, movie passes, and the great music shared by the staff.
What's the most underrated spirit? At this point, there aren't that many spirits that haven't been recognized and consumed heavily by the very knowledgeable bartenders of Seattle. But with that said, what I have noticed gets ignored most are fortified wines such as vermouth. I know it's wine, but it is underrated. Vermouth is great in any cocktail, elevating flavors and creating balance. If you’re looking for something light as an aperitif, try vermouth over ice with an orange peel (talking to you, Lillet). Refreshing, yet not heavy on alcohol to ruin a meal or the next beverage. At home while cooking, I always drink vermouth so I can save room for the wine with the meal, then digestif, then Japanese whiskey...
What is everyone ordering at The Whale Wins these days? At Whale we get a lot of the standard classics: martinis, fashioneds, and the like. But what our guests really enjoy are specialty lists that rotate through the season. We have a rhubarb tarragon rum infusion were serve with falernum and walnut bitters, mixed with Anna Wallace's celery soda from Seattle Seltzer and Co. Sweet and savory with a nutty tart finish, perfect for the patio. Also, our wine selection is to die for!
What's the best drink you make? I'm a people pleaser, so whatever a customer is looking for, I create—whether it be a vodka tonic or something obscure that they found on the internet that they want a professional to make for them. But I do love to make pisco sours, daquiris, and margaritas. These drinks turn bad days into great days. My favorite recipe would be a Ransom Gin old fashioned that Ricardo at Zig Zag made me, with benedictine, St Germain, and grapefruit bitters.
What is the craziest thing you've ever seen happen in a bar? So many things. Fights, puking on the bar, break-ups and divorces, a Peruvian and a Chilean arguing over whose country makes the best pisco, even talked a guy off the roof once. But my favorite would be working [Capitol Hill] Block Party in the mezzanine at Moe Bar. A long 15-hour shift that included a lot of babysitting. Right in front of the bar was a red couch that people that were sitting trying to recover from the heat and exhaustion of drinking and dancing all day. A couple that was sitting there thought it would be a great idea to have sex right there, with everyone around them. The other bartender, without missing a beat with the eight things she was already doing, hands me the Fireball bottle and runs around the bar pushing people out of the way to get the couple out of there. Later, after the last set ended at 2am and the bar was closed, she left to count money and I stayed to watch the bar. They snuck back up in and continued in the bathroom. I thought, if you are willing to have sex after Block Party in the bathroom, it must be true love.