A few weeks back, I visited Seattle for a few days. I was by myself, and on the lookout for friendly places with good drinks. I struck gold at Zig-Zag Cafe. With a name like that, you don't expect to find a world-class bar, particularly not on the odd side street off of Pike Place Market where it's located. But Murray Stenson, the veteran barman behind the counter, was recently named "The Best Bartender in America" by a panel of fellow bartenders at the Tales of the Cocktail festival in New Orleans last July. Deservedly so.
Sure, he's been serving cocktails and inspiring fellow bartenders for decades, but his style is hardly old fashioned—indeed, the whole classic-cocktail-reinterpretation thing that's all the rage in speakeasy-esque bars in major cities around the world these days has been his modus operandi all along. At Zig-Zag, you can of course expect perfectly shaken or stirred classics, but you'll also get an ever-changing, bitters and tinctures-heavy list of house cocktails. Satan's Soulpatch is a standard Bourbon-based Perfect Manhattan, with three types of orange (slice, Grand Marnier, bitters) taking the place of the maraschino, while a Trident goes the full-herbal route combining caraway-scented Aquavit with bitter Cynar, dry sherry, and peach bitters.
They're combination that look odd on paper, but come together in a completely delicious, drinkable way in the shaker.
Noticing that I was staring at the trays filled with row after row of tiny bottles in every shape and color, Stenson asked if I was a bitters fan. To tell the truth, I'm more of a casual observer than a true fan. I love bitters' greatest hits, but I can't say I celebrate its entire catalogue.
Of course, I didn't say any of this. Instead I decided to come back with an "of course—who isn't?" in a tone that implied a comprehension verging on boredom with the depth of my knowledge in the subject.
"Great," he said as he whipped out tray after tray after tray, littering the bar with bottles like a medieval alchemist's desk.
Shoot, he's onto me, I thought. Might as well just give up: "Wow—what's in all of these?" I asked.
"How should I know? I don't really use these. I just pulled them out to impress you." Well played. If the dust on some of the bottles was any indication, he was indeed telling me the truth. Stenson prefers reputable small-batch bitters producers like Bittermens and The Bitter Truth.
Stenson is the kind of bartender who thrives on riffing off of classics. I'm a huge fan of the Sazerac, the grandaddy of cocktails made with rye, Peychaud's bitters, and a sugar cube served neat in a rocks glass with an absinthe rinse and a fat twist of lemon. Precisely because of its simplicity, it's a tough drink to pull off correctly, and demands perfect technique. No fancy flavored liqueurs to hide behind here. Murray Stenson's may have been one of the best I've ever tasted, but even better was the drink he followed it up with. A variation on a theme, as he described it.
He started by cutting the Elijah Craig small-batch bourbon base with a splash of cognac and a bare hint of Carpano Antica Formula vermouth. Meanwhile, in the glass, he dissolved a sugar cube in a few drops of orange bitters, along with—get this—orange Curaçao. I honestly don't think I've seen, much less drank Curaçao of any color since college, and to be honest, I was a bit skeptical that the sickly sweet liqueur had much to offer.
I needn't have worried. He gave a chilled glass a quick rinse with Pacifique American-made absinthe and strained it in. Delicious. Strong and spirit-forward, but with a complex, sweet and spicy nose from the vermouth and cognac, it wasn't overly sweet at all, the Curaçao instead falling to the bottom of the palate where it gave the whole thing a mildly bitter, aromatic orange background.
It's rare to find a place that can make you feel completely comfortable, even when you're basically alone in an unfamiliar city, but Stenson managed to do just that. He's a hospitality professional in the truest sense of the word.