ABOVE: Canlis Barman Jose Castillo shakes and strains.
Cocktail lists are ephemeral things. Especially in this town. Bartenders are so capable, so curious, that they can’t help but change things up on the regular, infusing and barrel aging and hunting down obscure liqueurs. Narrowing down the city’s best libations gets even trickier when you factor in classic drinks, pre-Prohibition favorites, tiki’s resurgence, mezcal’s emergence, and plain old personal taste. Across this ever-shifting barscape some drinks have become icons in their own right (or should be). Here, in no particular order, are the stories of those drinks and the bibulous talent behind them.
Agricole Swizzle: Rhum Agricole, Vermouth, Lime, Pineapple, Angostura Bitters
Admittedly, part of the appeal is watching the bartender wield a star-tipped wooden swizzle stick, plunging it into the tall glass and rolling (er, swizzling) it between two palms like a boy scout starting a campfire. It’s oddly hypnotic...even when the ritual is performed with a plain old cocktail stir spoon. However this show is secondary to flavors that happen after the churning of the compact column of crushed ice melds the drink’s contents and creates the all-important frost on the glass. The rum bar’s take on this classic Caribbean creation packs a bit more booze than its pristine daiquiris, so that swizzle action also provides some helpful dilution. The resulting drink is like a smart person’s beach read—tropical and pineappley, but not overly sweet thanks to a grounding of bitters and vermouth. Most of all, it shows off rhum agricole’s earthy edge.
Porch Swing: Gin, Aperol, RGB
Unite gin with summery Aperol and the two get along swimmingly. And what do you know, both benefit from a dose of lemon—a major player in Seattle’s homegrown ginger beer. Rachel Marshall’s original quest to make a nonsucky nonalcoholic beverage that tastes of actual ginger has spawned an unexpected secondary industry: joyful, kegged, carbonated cocktails on tap at her Pike Place Market flagship (as well as its nouveau dive siblings, Montana and Nacho Borracho on Capitol Hill). The Moscow mule and Dark and Stormy have their legions of fans, but that bracing ginger can be a scene stealer. Here the gin and Aperol have the herbal fortitude to stand up to its vigor. But let’s be clear, this isn’t one of the complex negroni variations that proliferate on cocktail menus. It’s a rosy-hued, fizzy jolt of summertime. Sadly there are no actual porch swings nearby, but the Market’s view of Puget Sound should do in a pinch.
Rye, Gin, Bonal, Amaro, Tiki Bitters
A stirred drink is a supreme balancing act that strips its maker of flair—no shakers, no juice, no fancy tricks to temper the spirits. And yet this drink is a fancy trick of sorts; somehow those assertive flavors mellow in each other’s company. Sample it blindfolded and you’d swear there’s rum in there. Barman Chris Elford created this drink while tending at Manhattan’s Amor y Amargo, a bar serving nothing but stirred drinks. He moved to Seattle last year and his creation moved with him. This drink should be served in stemware so your grip doesn’t warm it up, but Amor y Amargo was so tiny that every drink was served in sturdy, stemless rocks or Collins glasses. The Sharpie Mustache carries on that tradition at Rob Roy, even though the Belltown bar has plenty of coupes.
Bourbon, Rum, Apple Brandy, Eggs, Cream, Time
Getting drunk on Christmas is a time-honored tradition. One best upheld purposefully and with this cocktail, available at both Cap Hill locations of Sun Liquor, only on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. What began as a staff member’s casual mention of his grandfather’s old-school eggnog recipe has become a particular obsession for Sun Liquor operations guy and head distiller Erik Chapman. He cracks a dozen eggs at a time, separating yolk and whites and beating each cohort separately (the texture just isn’t the same otherwise). After adding heavy cream and a truckload, more or less, of alcohol, he ages it for 30, 40, even 50 days. The result is boozy, sure, but in a delicate sort of way: fluffy and Christmastimey as a Sunday afternoon rerun of Love Actually, but with fewer sentimental weeping jags. This year’s version packs the triple potency of bourbon, barrel-aged rum, and apple brandy, those last two products of Sun Liquor’s distillery. Per usual, both Sun Liquor locations serve eggnog Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, but this year a small amount of bottles will be for sale too.
*This eggnog is so great it inspired a party. On December 11, Sun Liquor is throwing its inaugural Nog Ball where you can eat, drink, be merry, and score an early release of bottled eggnog.
Sake, Lemon, Simple, Aperol, Grapefruit
Sake is a proud drink with centuries of ceremonies and tradition—most of which does not involve being run through a slushy machine. For a town with a collective aversion to gimmickry and very few days above 80 degrees, Seattle does love its boozy frozen drinks. TanakaSan’s delightfully dry take on an often-saccharine trend began as a compromise between Tom Douglas operator-in-chief Eric Tanaka’s desire for tiny juice boxes of frozen sake and beverage director Adam Chumas’s dreams of a slushy machine. Running booze through a contraption commonly found at your local 7-Eleven tends to strip its nuance, so bartenders add a float of something fun once it’s in the glass. Ask for the Ruby Red: Aperol and pamplemousse, a pink grapefruit liqueur.
*Drinking where South Lake Union meets Belltown? Mosey a few blocks over to MistralKitchen and check out the new Jewel Box Bar, a cocktail lounge ensconced within the restaurant.
Anything you want. The best version of it.
It’s the bar that put the Last Word back on the map but in the post–Murray Stenson landscape it’s nigh impossible to define Seattle’s landmark cocktail lair by a single drink. That’s by design. Though the house list contains page after page of beautiful creations, Erik Hakkinen, Ricardo Hoffman, and crew are classicists at heart, able to analyze both the customer and the back bar to deliver the best possible version of your favorite cocktail. Take the familiar Manhattan—Zig Zag bartenders usually ask whether customers prefer bourbon or rye, then take it from there, knowing which vermouths play better with each spirit. The tending of this particular bar is both art and science.
Gin, Cappelletti, Rhubarb Amaro, rhubarb bitters, Soda
Technically this isn’t the drink’s real name. When it does appear on the menu, it’s known as a Civic Treasure (ask the bartender for the backstory on that one) but barman David Little conceived the drink for a fundraising event and gave it an affectionate moniker honoring Barnacle Bar boss Renee Erickson. Little generally proffers it when customers ask for a summertime take on the almighty negroni. It drinks splendidly in winter too, especially while holed up in this blue and white-tiled cubbyhole of Italian aperitivi next to Erickson’s the Walrus and the Carpenter. It’s made with a rhubarb amaro plus a dash of rhubarb bitters to help temper the sharpness. The liqueur’s bark and root flavors get a rare starring role, rather like an adult sarsaparilla. Unlike a classic negroni, it comes in a tall glass, mostly because Little would rather dedicate Barnacle’s precious shelf space to more amari than to extensive glassware.
Rhum Agricole, Raw Sugar Cane Juice, Lime
A drink that captures the flavor of sugar without being particularly sweet confounds the senses in the best possible way. At Bryn Lumsden’s bar, he hand cranks a special press from Thailand (by way of eBay) to juice raw stalks of sugar cane into a liquid that’s the rawest essence of ambrosia. The results commingle with rhum agricole, distilled from pure cane sugar. It’s rum with terroir, possessing a slight earthy funk totally foreign to the more ubiquitous rum styles distilled from molasses. This is Lumsden’s take on a rum and Coke, swapping these industrialized products for the straight-from-a-plant iterations (the menu description alternates between “a farmer’s rum and coke” and “fresh off the rum-and-coke tree”). The ratios are pretty similar to those of an actual rum and Coke.
Amaro, Cynar, Cocchi Americano, Maraschino, Angostura Bitters
When Jason Stratton opened Artusi, amaro and Italian aperitivo culture were nearly as unfamiliar in Seattle as the concept of a restaurant opening a bar right next door. Three years later this bitter herbal liqueur has crossed over from preprandial supporting player to main event, as evidenced by this beautifully bitter all-amaro drink. It began as barman Adam Fortuna’s personal challenge: create a cocktail (a good one) using fernet. An industry friend had proclaimed this in-your-face branch of amaro too aggressive to take part in a mixed drink and best consumed in shot form after a long shift. Fortuna proved him wrong using Santa Maria al Monte, which isn’t as minty as bartender-beloved Fernet Branca, and maraschino liqueur to soften amaro’s left hook. The taste is reminiscent of a Coke, minus the carbonation and sugar.
Cognac, single-malt scotch, Chocolate, Milk
This explains everything about Canon owner Jamie Boudreau: As a kid, he wasn’t allowed to have much sugar. So he’d sneak off to 7-Eleven on his way to school to start his day with a chocolate milk and a candy bar. Now his menu bears a most unusual creation based on those clandestine sugar highs. It’s served in a ceramic milk carton and arrives at the table in a 1980s-era lunch box (the He-Man one is the most popular). Nestled next to the drink: a comic book, a pair of housemade fernet oreos in a plastic bag, and a pair of safety scissors, “just so drunk people can get to the cookies.” Occasionally the bar staff includes a note from mom, just for kicks. The whole thing might come off as a gimmick…until you sip (through a bendy straw) the expert and decidedly adult partnering of cognac, a bit of peaty Ardbeg single-malt scotch, chocolate, and—yep—milk. “It’s a way to remind everyone that we aren’t always so serious,” says Boudreau. And you’d believe him, except that he runs the cocktail through a soda siphon charged with nitrogen (a carbon charge would add sourness) to produce that perfectly foamy, aerated, vigorously-shaken-milk texture.
Gin, Vermouth, Lime, Simple, Absinthe, Angostura Bitters
Former bartender Justin Gerardy revived a forgotten 1930s libation from the depths of an Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book. Simply listing the ingredients does not do justice to this surprisingly ethereal combination. It poses just the right subtle licorice note, plus a handy reminder that the right ratio of gin to vermouth is capable of wonderful things. You’ll now find Gerardy running Standard Brewing, but his discovery floats on and off the menu at First Hill’s poetically dim den of art and offbeat glamour and remains a house favorite.
Bourbon, Bénédictine, Vermouth, Hickory-Smoked Cherry
A Southern-styled bar needs a Southern-styled signature cocktail, but a mint julep felt way too on the nose. Owner Gregg Holcomb devised his own take on the classic Preakness cocktail—basically a Manhattan made with bourbon and vigorously herbal Bénédictine. The subtle religious nod of a liqueur developed by monks felt especially appropriate on a cocktail list full of semidevotional names like Son of a Preacher Man and ¡Ay Dios Mio! It’s more affable than a typical Manhattan, but packs enough force that you should still really take your time. The cherry garnish begins life as a typical neon red Maraschino number but gets smoked over hickory wood for about an hour, then reconstituted with brandy, clove, allspice, coriander, and nutmeg. For the love of all that is holy, don’t leave this tiny crimson masterpiece behind.
House Rye, Cognac, Muscovado, Peychaud’s Bitters, Absinthe, Prosecco
Brandon Pettit’s bar serves the classic New Orleans cocktail with a Seattle makeover acquired by way of Germany. You know...as you do. Rinsing the glass with absinthe gives a Sazerac a hint of that flavor that doesn’t overpower; a barkeep in Germany once told Pettit’s friend, Seattle spirits geek Andrew Bohrer (who happened to make Pettit’s favorite Sazerac in town), that adding prosecco helps spread the absinthe more evenly in the glass. Essex’s version uses a house-blended rye, but here’s where things really get fun: It comes with an additional mini coupe of that same absinthe-prosecco combo used for the rinse, adding a bit of levity—and another half-beverage’s worth of good times—to a rather dogmatic cocktail. The first customer who sampled it was local food writer Ashley Rodriguez; her approval sealed the deal and earned her naming rights on the menu.
Mezcal, Triple Sec, Honey, Lime, Sal de Gusano
It looks like your typical rocks margarita, so that first smoky sip takes the throat by surprise. But once the senses have adjusted, this thing goes down easy. Oh man, and quickly. The drink was born of a souvenir from beverage director Casey Robison’s first trip to Oaxaca in 2012. He returned with a few kilos of sal de gusano—salt made from ground-up agave worms and dried chilies—and set about translating his beloved smoky spirit into one of the margaritas his bar sells by the bushel. He swapped honey for the usual agave sweetener and hit up Erik Hakkinen (the Zig Zag barman moonlights as a spirits importer) for some fancier-than-usual triple sec to better accentuate the citrus notes. The result: a margarita worthy of a smoking jacket. And the perfect middle ground for Barrio’s split drinking personality. It appeals to the Pike/Pine populace that gathers to down tacos and margs as well as to spirits nerds here to appreciate the prodigious mezcal collection Robison has since accumulated.
Spirit, Shrub, Soda
When Leroy Thomas started planning the bar program at this raucous Belltown pizza parlor, he knew he wanted it to have a “thing.” It turns out his thing is the colonial-era shrub, a drinking vinegar made with fruits or herbs (or honey or beets or, hell, even beer or champagne). Order the build-your-own shrub cocktail and an assemblage of glasses arrives on a glass tray looking rather like a liquid breakfast in bed: A spirit (could be cognac, tequila, gin, whiskey…), a wee beaker of soda, and a stoppered bottle of whatever shrub rings Thomas’s bell each season, from strawberry to orange mint to cherry coffee. Pour them into the accompanying glass of ice and calibrate your own cocktail, from boozy to puckery—or precisely, perfectly, in between. He knows this setup contains way more shrub than you’ll need. “We did it so you’ll buy another shot.”
*Rocco’s will soon have a Capitol Hill sibling. It’s called Herb and Bitter Public House, and it opens this winter at 516 Broadway East. As the name implies, the place will be all about amari and aperitifs.
Bourbon, Lemon, Orange, Pineapple, Grenadine, Angostura Bitters
A pink-leaning cocktail served in a martini glass evokes uneasy Carrie Bradshaw–esque flashbacks. But the cocktail itself dates back even further than stale Sex and the Cityreferences. It’s also the product of a stunning coincidence. When barman James MacWilliams dug through library archives of old menus seeking a tropical drink that predated the tiki era, he found this creation, served circa 1930 at a restaurant called House Without a Key at the Halekulani Hotel in Honolulu. Brian Canlis, the restaurant’s third-generation proprietor, informed him that his grandfather, founder Peter Canlis, used to stay at this same hotel—it’s just a few blocks from the old Canlis Charcoal Broiler on Waikiki. Fact or legend? All MacWilliams knew was the trio of juices cohere well, and it’s pretty approachable for a bourbon drink. You better believe he makes his own grenadine. The Halekulani is properly tropical, but thank that bourbon for the depth of flavor. It’s the only drink at Canlis to ever (occasionally) outsell the Grey Goose martini.
Bourbon, Huckleberry-Sage Shrub, Lime, Peach Liqueur
This bar’s charm is equal parts Robert Rowland the convivial longtime bartender at the original Phinney location, and the drinks he creates. This one began as an intensely pink shrub created by Oliver’s Twist chef-owner Dan Braun. Rowland’s obsession was instant and he figured it would make its way into a gin cocktail. But clear spirits didn’t have the stuffing to stand up to the vinegar. Bourbon proved far more compatible, bringing out the fruit notes (as does the creme de peche). Cocktails here take their names from Dickensian characters; sadly there’s no saucy backstory on this drink being named for the elderly pauper who attends to Oliver Twist’s birth after “an unwonted allowance of beer.” But Rowland’s a straight shooter: “We’re just about out of damn characters.”
You Call It.
Even on a Monday night, 15th Avenue’s den of spirits and sushi is convivially crowded. The bartender is busy. But not too busy to pivot from building cocktails to create a custom four-taste spirit flight. It’s Liberty’s favorite way to introduce curious drinkers to the charms of single-malt scotch, Seattle-made gins, or any other facet of its deep bottle bench. A request for a tutorial on mezcal on a $20 budget yields a quartet of sips and an impassioned discussion of the terroir proclivities of espadín (the agave used to make this smoky spirit), mezcal’s kinship to peaty scotch, and how drinking high-proof alcohol with water loosens its tightly wound flavor molecules. This last part the bartender helpfully illustrates with an interpretive dance, his energetic jazz hands playing the role of molecules. Liberty’s menu is full of classic cocktails, originals, and standouts from famous bars around the country, but the best way to avail oneself of the absurd selection is to let the staff guide the way.
Whiskey, Honey, Lemon, Pimento Dram
Hazlewood’s the kind of bar that feels dark and moody, even in the middle of July. So it’s fitting that the hot toddy is in-freaking-credible. If you’re lucky it’s served to you by co-owner Keith Bartoloni, who will tell you in a heavy Boston accent that it’s “like drinking Christmas,” thanks to the pimento dram, a West Indian liqueur Bartoloni makes with dark rum, brown sugar, and allspice berries, then ages for a month. Too often toddies are sad, bland, tepid things. This is a hot slug of good cheer and, if you feel a head cold coming on, more restorative than Sudafed (the good kind, with pseudoephedrine). Those glasses get mighty hot, so the toddy comes buffered with a knitted drink sleeve that might sport googly eyes, ribbon, or the name of a classic B movie. They’re knitted by a friend of the bar.
*Two of Hazlewood’s owners are teaming up with the guy behind Ocho right down the street to open a bar called Hotel Albatross in the former Azteca building, a few doors down from both of these fine bars.
Tequila, Cynar, Hot Pepper Tincture, Lemon, Maple, Raspberry
A bunch of gleeful geeks running a cocktail bar sounds like an eminently more tolerable Big Bang Theory spin-off, but it’s also the state of things at this former den of cheese-ball sugartinis, now stocked with amari and local gins and, if you look closely, Star Wars action figures. A love for The Princess Bride is apparently a prerequisite for employment—the expansive cocktail list contains multiple references, most prominently this drink frequently offered to tequila neophytes. It’s weird (some might say inconceivable), but it works: a spicy commingling of tequila, artichoke liqueur, three types of peppers, plus sweet notes usually more at home filling a doughnut than rounding out a cocktail.
Rum, Lime, Cane syrup
One night at Stoneburner’s handsome bar, I started to order a tequila sour from Erik Carlson only to have the complete stranger sitting next to me chime in: “If you’re in the mood for a rum drink, he’s God.” Bartenders generally reserve their most ardent love for all things brown and bitter, but Carlson finds the same level of intrigue in rum and freshly squeezed citrus (especially handy if your drinks need to be acidic and food friendly). His menu has a daiquiri stylized with ancho-chili liqueur, but Carlson presented me with a straight-up classic version—fresh lime juice, cane sugar syrup, and the Stoneburner house rum he helped develop with a distillery down in Portland. It’s aged six months, minimum, in whiskey barrels, giving this otherwise-purist daiquiri an uncommon richness and even a little funk. When my new companion proclaimed that daiquiris are girlie, Carlson quickly pointed out it was Hemingway’s go-to. He’s just as quick to admit: “Hemingway was a diabetic; he liked his bone dry. He would have sent this back.”
Sloe Gin, Cranberry, Falernum, Lime, Soda
Ask cocktail devotees and other bartenders about Seattle’s up-and-coming talent and the conversation inevitably turns to Seth Sempere, the bar manager at Spur. One of his most memorable creations began with a massive delivery from Spur co-owner Brian McCracken’s family’s cranberry bog. Sempere makes a house cranberry syrup that’s aces with sloe gin, a plummy and distinctly British liqueur made by infusing gin with sloe berries, which grow like crazy on hedgerows in the UK (they’re pretty nasty when not in the company of booze). Falernum mostly shows up in tiki drinks, but here its ginger-clove-almond combo comes across like wintry baking spices. When naming his cocktails, Sempere’s not above references from Star Trek and even The Adventures of Pete and Pete, but this is a nod to the bird known to Greek mythology as a halcyon.
Vodka, Lime, Ginger Beer
The recipe is not exactly complicated. Yet the Vietnamese bar now improbably known for this 75-year-old, purely American vodka cocktail cranks out so many that the staff has developed a ratio of scientific precision. Even a quarter-ounce too much lime juice can make this trinity too sour. Too little and it becomes cloyingly sweet. Ice is packed tight in a proper copper mug (be cool, guys—stop stealing the mugs) so contents remain frosty. Melting ice equals a sad, watery mule. After sampling a few varieties, Ba Bar landed on Gosling’s ginger beer. The gingery bite is pronounced, but it’s on the sweeter side. These little distinctions separate this mule from the millions of other ones out there. The flavors are clean and it’s tough to tell where the ginger’s tartness ends and the citrus begins.
Scotch, Cynar, Lillet Blanc, Orgeat, Barrel-Aged Bitters
The principal from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was understandably bitter and yet entertaining as hell, so it’s only fitting that his namesake cocktail adds both sharpness and light to a slightly peaty scotch. It’s a favorite, rightfully so, at this companionable Greenwood bar that pays tribute to seemingly contrary elements: spirit-forward drinks and grade-school nostalgia. There’s a hopscotch outline on the floor, a quadratic equation posted on the cooler…typical bar decor stuff. Owners Perryn and Desiree Wright were never teachers, but they are eager to provide tutelage in the charms of bittersweet cocktails that don’t require a ton of precious housemade, house-muddled elements.
Cocktail, Oak, Time
Sara Rosales, the doyenne of Pike Place Market’s second-story whiskey bar, doubles as a fleet manager of sorts for the 15 barrels that are, at any given time, scattered around the room aging cocktails. Spirit-forward familiars (Boulevardiers, Rob Roys, Old Pals, Vieux Carres, negronis, three types of Manhattan) and a few of her house creations spend at least two months mellowing out in variously sized barrels. There are always two on tap: a classic and something more experimental for the spirits nerds. Technically anyone with a vessel, some alcohol, and a modicum of patience can barrel age a cocktail, but doing it well is another matter. Rosales knows exactly how long a drink should dwell in oak and what shouldn’t be there in the first place. New barrels impart a woody flavor faster, while anything with vermouth gets oxidized if it’s in there for too long. Radiator’s cocktails emerge from barrels older, wiser, and layered with just enough woody, vanilla essence.