Birth of the Booze

Seattle bartenders create a bevy of designer cocktails.

In priestly silence, the woman in black assembles the ritual accoutrements: the bottles of multicolored fluids, the glittering ice, the clear, shining glass with its brushed aluminum lid. First, two simultaneous gushes of almost-colorless liquid: José Cuervo Tradicional tequila and Triple Sec; then a pour of house-made "'kazi mix" (diluted, sweetened fresh lime juice), topped with ribbons of dark ruby pomegranate juice. A very vigorous shake with ice, pour into a 10-ounce martini glass, adorn with a curl or two of fresh orange zest: voilà, a Red Rita. Rita is just one of a bevy of intoxicating caprices devised by W Hotel bartender Kate Tottenham for May's Great Seattle Shake, in which nearly two dozen bar-restaurants plan to tickle jaded cocktail palates by offering two novel cocktail items and one appetizer for a combined $15 a whack. (Presumably the idea is that, so softened, such pairs will move on to dinner, rather than working their way right through the whole lineup before being poured in cabs for the journey home.) As alcoholic beverages go, distilled spirits are comparative newbies; the technology for them really matured only in the latter 17th century. And cocktails proper are an even more recent invention, reaching wide popularity (according to Ten Mercer owner Brian Curry) only with the 1920s and Prohibition, and then only as a way of masking the vile taste and erratic off-flavors of bootleg liquor. But by the end of Prohibition, a canonical lineup of cocktails had developed—martini, old-fashioned, whiskey sour, etc.—with an ever-shifting Oort cloud of oddities, one shots, and bright new ideas swinging into fashion and right out again. It's remarkable how few alcoholic drinks have evolved from novelties to classics since the swing era: the Bloody Mary in the 1950s, the margarita. Despite the cancerous proliferation of -drops and –tinis, don't despair for the traditional: Tottenham says that even among presumably younger and trendier drinkers, Grandma's and Grandpa's favorite, the manhattan, is still one of the most popular mixed drinks in the repertory. So how does a bartender go about creating a new cocktail? Usually, according to Curry, by taking an existing concoction and twisting its tail. "Like, one of the drinks we've come up with for Seattle Shake is a Pirouette, which is basically a kamikaze with Chambord." Uh . . . OK. What's a kamikaze? "Oh, that's basically a vodka gimlet." I see. And a gimlet is . . . (you get the idea). Red Rita, obviously, spins off a traditional margarita: tequila, a citrus liqueur, and lime juice. But she didn't actually start out that way. The pomegranate juice came first, because Tottenham enjoys drinking it at home. But her first idea was to pair it with vodka and lime, kamikaze-style, while considering flavoring a margarita with a black currant liqueur. "But that turned out to be too heavy tasting, so we sort of combined the ideas." Not all of Tottenham's Seattle Shake inspirations are so straightforward, e.g., the rum-based coconut milk, pineapple juice, and Midori confection finished with white cranberry juice. The drink clearly derives from the Trader Vic Bergeron stable, but doesn't need a paper umbrella to proclaim its identity. Almost forgot to mention the food factor: Some of the 23 Great Shake participants created their alcoholic novelties with established appetizers in mind. Thus, Ten Mercer's Sputnik—cranberry vodka with a dash of fresh orange juice and nonvintage Philipponat brut champagne served in a flute—was devised to be food-friendly, particularly with the house crab cakes. Some venues went with a theme: John Howie's Sport features a baseball-nuts Peanuts and Crackerjack (vodka, Starbucks liqueur, Frangelico, and butterscotch schnapps) paired with smoky barbecue chicken bits. But most participating bartenders seem to have let their imaginations fly free, producing items like Bada Lounge's Diablo (aged tequila, cassis, lime, and ginger ale), Belltown Bistro's Guava Cooler (Skyy vodka, lemonade, and guava juice on the rocks), and Chapel's Saffron Infusion, with those spicy crocus stamens flavoring a blend of Prosecco, gin, and orange juice. You have just three weeks for your explorations, so on your marks and—in moderation, of course— bottoms up! The Great Seattle Shake runs Sun., May 1– Sun., May 22: For a complete list of participating establishments, hours of operation, and drink and appetizer offerings, go to

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