Behind the bar

Five Questions for the Bartender: James MacWilliams

The Head Bartender at Canlis gets mystical about mixology.

April 13, 2009

James MacWilliams, Head Barman at Canlis, is nothing if not ambitious. He has completely reinvented the bar menu at the restaurant’s lounge, and just recently rolled out his spring list of mixed drinks—which features a color-changing margarita as well as homemade ingredients/inventions like rosemary mist and strawberry-infused vodka en sous vide.

“I sometimes spend months planning and thinking about a drink before any attempt to produce it,” says MacWilliams. "I am currently enamored with what I call the ‘dynamic cocktail:’ a drink that changes in taste, aroma, texture, or even color as a function of time. I draw on my love history, science, literature, philosophy, and art and blend them with liquor and technique in the tradition of an alchemist. And I think this gets to the root of something deep within my view of cocktails. I believe there is a place for magic and wonder left in the world, and so sometimes, properly crafted cocktails should be more than the sum of their parts. They can become sublime and poetic, fostering discourse and contemplation.”

And you thought you were just ordering a drink. Here, five questions with James MacWilliams.

What is the most underrated spirit?
I’d say Italian bitters in general are underrated, but more specifically Campari. I see Campari being consumed less and less. Campari is one of the few Italian bitters that is a true aperitivo. To me there are simply few things better than sitting on the patio in the spring sun with a Campari and soda. Dissecting and exploring Campari in cocktails, I find it adds depth, color and complexity. Even more, I have found that the crystallized residual sugars of Campari are a slightly bitter, tingling and playful component to rim a glass or sprinkle over foam, sparking the sensual potency of the cocktail.

What’s your favorite Seattle bar (other than Canlis)?
Well, I am hardly the first to say it, but Zig Zag Café is everything I consider a great bar to be. Murray is rivaled only by the roman god Bacchus in varieties of intoxicants, I never leave without tasting some new spirit, indulging in a forgotten mixture, or finding myself engaged in conversation with new friends or old. And all of this comes with comfort and ease.

What drink do you order at that bar?
It changes every time. I have never been disappointed. On my last visit I enjoyed a Vieux Carré cocktail.

What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen someone do in a bar?
A man dressed like a carrot for Halloween. Sound harmless? Think normally unexposed skin painted and on display in late October.

Name three reasons you live in Seattle.

Without a doubt most important is family. Otherwise, I am just a three hours drive from desert, glacier, and ocean. Snow in the winter and the best summers anywhere keep me happy throughout the year. And the Northwest is the place where the food of native people meets both Europe and Asia.

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