Very Important Questions

Why Can’t Every Bar in Seattle Put Out a Proper Gin and Tonic?

Plus: the one, two, threes of a good G&T.

By Jessica Voelker August 4, 2011

These should be fresh.


Speaking very generally—and with the understanding that exceptions are always the rule—there are three types of bars in Seattle, as far as cocktails are concerned:

1. Cocktail bars where you can get a good cocktail.

2. Restaurant bars and lounges where cocktails aren’t the focus, but where you can count on getting a decent drink, especially if three or fewer ingredients are involved. (Of course, some restaurants double as very good craft cocktail bars.)

3. Other bars.

Other bars make up the vast majority of bars in our town, and many offer, in addition to drinks, fun. But when it comes to mixed drinks at other bars, strange things sometimes happen. Drinks designed to taste like atomic fireballs happen. Curdled dairy products happen. And crimes of citrus are not uncommon—I recently opted for a gin and tonic at one Capitol Hill bar and was served three-quarters of a glass of Beefeater that had been contaminated with a single spray of tonic from a gunky soda gun, then garnished with the palest wedge of lime. This sad specimen featured a shaggy beard of wilting pith and a brown line of rot along the rind. The drink was undrinkable and, given the large quantity of gin involved, likely resulted in little profit for the bar.

It occurs to me that this is insane. Say what you will about the craft cocktail movement and its lamentable preciousness, there is no reason that every bar in Seattle shouldn’t turn out a drinkable gin and tonic. Drinks are what bars traffic in, after all. If the French fries aren’t perfect, fine. Bars here are compelled by law to serve food. But drinks are what they do. We don’t need every bartender to know how to shake up a Ramos Gin Fizz, but a G&T? Come on.

I asked Quentin Ertel, owner of The Saint and Havana on Capitol Hill—bars that serve simple, drinkable drinks—to shed light on the situation.

He offered up three explanations:

1. The every-profession-includes-people-that-suck-at-the-job explanation: “Some cabinet makers build wonderful cabinets, others build kindling.”

2. The too-many-bars explanation: "The recent proliferation of new bar openings in Seattle means there’s a diluted talent pool.”

3. The it’s-the-economy-stupid explanation: “In a recession, there’s been a rush to both own and work in bars and restaurants (this circles back to the first reason). As a result you’ve got very seasoned, incredibly knowledgeable professionals working alongside well-intentioned (though ill-trained) newcomers.”

Whatever the explanation, education is surely the solution. Here are Ertel’s tips on making a good G&T.

1. “Like good cooking, good drinking stars with the best ingredients. Aside from having a decent gin on hand, make sure your lime is fresh, your tonic has fizz to it, and that you’ve got a good supply of ice.”

2. “Pack the glass with ice—all the way to the top of the glass. This way, you won’t need to pour a triple shot for the customer to taste the gin. Instead, you can offer a nice pour of gin that cuts right through a splash of tonic, and the ample ice in the glass will keep the cocktail nice and cold.”

3. “Be sure to deliver the drink ASAP. As it starts to melt, more ice in the glass means more water. This water dilutes the taste of the cocktail. Also, it’s not polite to keep your guests waiting.”

So there you have that.

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