Five Questions for the Bartender: Grog's Chris Cheesman
How apropos: The assistant general manager and bar manager at the Ballard Annex Oyster House's back bar is nuts for Aquavit.
While he may have gotten a degree in geology from Western Washington, Chris Cheesman has more passion for the activity that helped put him through school: bartending. The Bellingham native got his start as a banquet bartender and bounced around before landing at the Ballard Annex Oyster House and its spinoff cocktail haunt Grog in March 2013. The man dubbed “Queso” (you can probably guess the origin of that one) can usually be found chugging some cran, as the kids definitely don't call it, or playing FIFA on his Xbox. Oh, and training to become the general manager of place.
Here, five questions for Chris Cheesman.
What do people typically order at Grog?
So grog is—back in the day on the boats, they would mix a lot of spirits with warm water. It tended to either be rum or something else. Down in Fiji, grog is actually a kava root that they crush up and mix with warm water. It kind of has the same properties as alcohol does, however I’ve heard the hangover is a million times worse. But yeah, we’re doing some fun community cocktails back here. You can come in with a group of people and order a grog for four, and we’ll actually drop a full growler of a cocktail in front of you and you kind of do the self serve thing.
What’s the best drink you make?
Oh boy. You know, I’m a big juice guy, so I like to make a lot of punches. It’s weird. In the middle of the night I’ll get up and crave cranberry juice, and I always go to Costco and buy the big pack of cran. So that was kind of something I’ve always enjoyed. A lot of my cocktails are inspired based off of juice and stuff that I make at home for myself that I’m craving.
What’s the most underrated spirit?
I was hoping you would ask something like that. Aquavit. It’s actually Aqua vitae; it stands for “the water of life,” and I think it dates back to about the 15th century. They thought it had some medicinal properties, but I guess you could say that about any sort of liquor. It mainly consists of caraway or dill; they’re the big flavors in there. But it’s a spirit distilled from grain or potato. We actually have a really nice cocktail here that I created called the Salty Ballard; it’s kind of my play on a Salty Dog, which is a gin-based cocktail with grapefruit juice and a salt rim. The way we do it: We actually still do the salt rim, but we’re using a nice, fresh grapefruit juice, an aquavit that the old Ballard Liquor Company provides for us—it’s their Älskar Aquavit—and then we use a sage simple syrup in that one as well. It’s all really well-balanced, and we serve it in a martini coupe. We’ve been getting a lot of those out there. I think the name really helps people—it sparks an interest in them because what is a Salty Ballard?
What’s your favorite bar, besides Grog?
My home. Casa de Queso, I guess you could say. Over the years I’ve built a really good bar at home, and I just enjoy going and having my drink at home and relaxing, maybe playing some FIFA Soccer on the Xbox. That’s pretty much my evening. But occasionally I enjoy going to Tacos Guaymos on Greenlake. The bartenders and staff there are really amazing. They have some awesome margaritas and a great tequila selection. I don’t really venture out too much. I need to do that, though.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever seen happen in a bar?
Oh boy. Well there’s been a bunch. Ballard’s a very active area, and there’s a lot of people-watching down here. There was this, I think he was a bum, he came in one time, and he looked like he was singing and dancing when he came in. He looked up at me behind the bar, and he grabbed his crotch and does like a Michael Jackson move, and then he says, “Hey, if you see any bitches, make sure you send them my way.” And then he turns around and walks out. I loved it. I will never forget that.