The last time we spoke to Gregg Holcomb was in 2012, when he was bartending at Knee High Stocking Company. Since then he's opened up Witness, the southern-styled bar located in the thick of Broadway on Capitol Hill.
When we say southern, we mean southern. Between the deep, rustic ambiance with earthy tones all around and the low lights, you might think you just walked into an old Clint Eastwood movie. Witness has church pews for its booths, the wall opposite the bar is fixed with faux windows with lanterns behind them that add to the sense of sitting on your porch, enjoying a bourbon, listening to coyotes in the distance. If you're lucky to walk in at the right time (Saturday at 10pm) you might catch Holcomb delivering one of his famous (infamous?) sermons.
"In general, Seattle hospitality can be a little bit on the chillier side," he says. "The south is known for more engaging and warm and genuine hospitality, saying please and thank you. So that was my goal, to have a place with better hospitality."
Here are five questions for Gregg Holcomb
How have cocktails changed since 2012?
Saturation. Here's the bartending progression. If you're a novice you say, 'I would like a Manhattan,' and in that there’s only three different things: bourbon, vermouth, and bitters. The next rung up is 'I'd like a Manhattan but I’d like it with Buffalo Trace,' which is a type of bourbon. The next level up is, 'I’d like to make it with Buffalo Trace but can I have it with Carpano Antica,' which is a type of sweet vermouth with more base and vanilla notes. The next step up would asking for the house bitters or a specialty bitters they got from Portugal or whatever. Now, the last thing you can control in that is your dilution. So people have ice programs. If you want a Manhattan on the rocks, at some bars you’d literally watch someone hand chip an ice ball for you, or they came out with a Kold-Draft machine that makes really hard, cold, dense ice cubes. When you shake them they make a very distinctive ice sound. The cubes are so hard that they’re not breaking down, so you’re controlling how much dilution; the theory is that the ice cube will impart coldness without a lot of dilution because it’s a firmer object. I find that there is a point of diminishing returns. I can spend 30 minutes making you a cocktail and maybe it will be 100 percent good, or I can make you a cocktail that’s 98 percent good in 3 minutes and you would enjoy it because it came out sometime today. That’s the important part of bartending.
Why do you think things are a bit chilly in Seattle?
It’s not necessarily a chill, it might be this weird respect or a distance that people keep. When I visit New Orleans, at Mardi Gras there’s more parties, people are on their porches more, and there's more interaction with the community; I think there’s a natural breakdown of barriers in some places. I don’t know what exactly it is but I think it’s based in this respect for others' privacy and wanting to establish an individual identity among themselves.
What are people drinking at Witness?
We have a really large bourbon selection, since this is a southern-themed bar. We’re also the number-two seller in Seattle of mezcal, which is kind of strange. Sometimes the staff leads the way on that, so we sell a lot of mezcal. My favorite drink to make is a Ramos gin fizz. It's an egg white cocktail. It’s a classic. It has seven ingredients. The trick is to do a dry shake, put the egg white in and shake it, add in the ice, but at the very end you whip in soda water and it creates this foam. It’s like a history and a chemistry lesson. It’s in a hurricane glass and it’s super frothy. It was invented in New Orleans as a morning wake-up drink.
What Seattle artist would you base a drink after?
One of my favorite songs is Outshined by Soundgarden. It’s a Soundgarden classic so I think I would do an infused moonshine. We have a moonshine and I think I would do a lapsang souchong, a smokey Chinese tea, but then I would throw in a weird twist: I would infuse the moonshine and then I would include something like blackberry, or a citrus or a blackberry flow so outshined means it has this underbelly of smoke with a brightness over the top. It feels like a very Soundgarden thing to do.
Do you have a good story since you've been bartending?
A standard question I have [for customers] is, if the zombie apocalypse is coming, what’s your weapon of choice and why? When I was at Chez Gaudy, somebody came in and asked me that question. A typical bartender would have said, “I don’t know dude,” and go back to texting. But I engaged the customer, and when another customer came in, we triangulated and started coming up with scenarios about which weapon we’d use. The server came on shift and we ran a scenario through her and she asked every table that night [the scenario]: You have a week to prepare and what was your weapon of choice? For months people would come back and say, 'Hey Gregg, I’ve been thinking about the zombie question. Instead of a broadsword, something two-handed I think I’d change it to a katana between 36 and 38 inches because I measured from my hand to the floor, so in case they grab me from the grave.' You never know where a customer is going to engage you. Somebody comes in and they’ve just broken up with their girlfriend, just got a promotion, or they’re contemplating life or they just saw —you never know where they’re at so we try to be open as much as possible and engage.