More than six years ago, my esteemed predecessor Jess Voelker began a series of Q&As with local bartenders. These conversations served two equally noble purposes—helping readers navigate our newly minted cocktail culture and introducing the men and women who keep it dynamic.
We’re still getting to know bartenders around town, but so much has changed since Jess initiated these conversations. I thought it might be fun to re-question some of her interview subjects from the early days. Starting with the subject of her first-ever Five Questions for the Bartender post, a man by the name of Jamie Boudreau.
Back in 2009, Jess noted that Boudreau first introduced Seattle to foam in cocktails. Awww. Sadly he has since languished in obscurity.
No, wait—that’s not right. Boudreau is now the proprietor of Canon, the 12th Avenue cocktail bar that’s lined with whiskeys, even in the restrooms, and last year ranked an impressive no. 6 on the industry list of the world’s 50 best bars. Canon, as it happens, just celebrated its fourth year in business.
Here, five (more) questions for Jamie Boudreau.
How has Seattle’s cocktail culture changed in the past six years?
Before there were a couple places doing craft cocktails the proper way. Now so many places are doing a damn good job, especially all these new restaurants. Back then you could not get a good cocktail in 99 percent of restaurants. When I first moved here, no one trusted the bartender. There was no bartender’s choice or just make me something. They wanted something they knew was safe. Now people more often than not, they don’t even want to look at the frigging menu.
And Canon has changed since it first opened.
In every conceivable way. When we first opened, I wanted it to be this tiny little neighborhood restaurant that did all the little things right. I didn’t want to overly focus on cocktails. My main concern was trying to get people to cross Madison [from Capitol Hill]. I had so many plans on how to coax people to us. Within two weeks I think we doubled our staff. I started accepting, fine—people will come here for cocktails more than anything else. Then my ego, as it always does, got in the way a little bit. I said if we’re going to do this, let’s do this.
In July Canon won the Spirited Award for World’s Best Spirits Selection. People don’t understand how insanely difficult it is to manage, especially given how small we are. We’re 32 seats; we have more alcohol than bars four times our size. We have 3,500 different labels. The average inventory for a bar is around $20,000. Ours is worth $1 million. This is insanity to do what we’re doing.
So...why do it?
It was a little bit of happenstance and, once again, my ego getting in the way. I always wanted you to feel like you’re ensconced, wrapped in bottles. Whiskey bottles especially are beautiful with light shining through them. And the labels? I kept just finding things and finding things. Then someone who does a lot of world travel in the bar business was like, what’s your number right now? I was at 2,500. He said, “you’re really close to having one of the biggest collections in the world." When I realized it, it seemed silly to not at least try.
I know people like to give you grief about hating on vodka back in the day, but is there anything that you straight-up would never do at Canon?
I would never do energy drinks. No Red Bull, no Monster. That’s a disaster in a bottle. We actually have our own energy drink, the Corpse Reviver No. CO2, it’s carbonated with caffeine in it. Just a little bit of caffeine just to give you a little boost. It’s us having fun. Also, we’re never having fries. For that I’d need a hood, and for that I’d need a vent, and for that I’d need $125,000.
A while back you mentioned opening a second place. Is that still the plan?
Not with $15 Now. I still have ideas for different concepts, but I need to see how much of a price increase the city will accept before I can even consider another venue. Right now the economics of this industry don't make sense, as smaller venues such as mine just don't have enough seats to justify what will eventually be a $18-an-hour minimum wage. We've always paid our kitchen quite a bit more than minimum wage; that's the only way you can keep good staff. Before I sign another lease, I need to be absolutely sure the business plan can support paying front-of-house $18 an hour and back-of-house $25-$30 an hour.