The High (End) Life

Drinking in Seattle now means getting schooled, not drunk.

On a late December evening, three friends and I were sitting around the bar at Zig Zag, musing over drinks brown and potent, when my friend Anne asked bartender Murray Stenson about his well-stocked shelf of bitters. Stenson is a greyhound of a man who organizes glasses and consults books during every moment that business slows down, like a runner jogging in place at each stoplight. He sprinted to the other end of the bar and gathered five bottles from the shelves. A few drops from each were squirted into separate shot glasses. Then Stenson lined up the glasses and respective bottles in front of us, arranged from least intense (a Japanese orange bitters) to most aromatic (Angostura). It took us 10 minutes to sniff our way through the bitters, arguing over the aromas we picked up like birdwatchers debating the species flashing its wings in a far-off tree. Meanwhile, Stenson was showing off a small-batch rye from Iowa to the couple next to me, explaining that it was made by an MIT grad using Al Capone's old recipe. It was the most productive happy hour I've ever spent. Stenson is certainly a legend in Seattle, the bartender that all other bartenders in this city bow down to. But the booze-geek experience that patrons come to Zig Zag for is less and less an anomaly. The drinking scene in this once-microbrew-mad town is changing as the city fills up with premium cocktail and wine bars. Seattleites who spent their 20s quaffing porters are now discussing the bouquets of syrah and the merits of artisanally produced gin. Drinking is no longer a social pastime. It's edutainment. By now, we've become accustomed to being told we need to pay more attention to our food, and always for a premium. Chocolate now expresses the terroir of the places where cacao beans were grown. The Los Angeles Times just ran a story extolling the deliciousness of rare varieties of black pepper. Imported salt, for chrissakes, is a multimillion-dollar industry. Is the $10 drink as ridiculous a pretension as Hawaiian sea salt? Not when you do it right. Seattle is arriving relatively late to "the cocktail revolution" (as the glossy food mags like to call it), which has been in full swing for a decade now. The Deco Dotties and Tiki Toms who first resurrected cocktail lore and paraphernalia as part of their passion for vintage have been absorbed into a much larger, and more contemporary, fascination with the gastronomic possibilities of the mixed drink. Restaurants like Moto in Chicago and T'afia in Houston have been serving martinis chilled with frozen "olive melting essence" or using chemicals like calcium chloride and sodium alginate to turn mojitos into carbonated blobs. Six-year-old Milk & Honey in Manhattan serves $14 drinks with ice cubes hand-chipped to fit the size of the glass and won't seat drinkers unless they are referred by an existing patron. As usual, Seattle takes a more egalitarian approach. The new breed of local wine bars and cocktail havens are open to all—as long as they've got the plastic to whip out of their wallets at the end of the night. More and more Seattleites are showing that they're willing to pay higher prices for drinks, as long as they're also being educated and improved. The city's bartenders, too, are taking a more scholarly approach than the mad-scientist set, one that's better tailored to this city's intellectually curious, chichi-suspicious diners. "What customers should be getting out of any wine bar is to expand their wine knowledge," says Kevin Erickson, who opened Bricco della Regina Anna on Queen Anne last January, a sentiment echoed by almost all the new bar owners in town. Washington State's restrictive spirits laws long limited spirits/beer/wine licenses to restaurants that derived at least 30 percent or more of their income from food. Businesses had to serve food in order to sell spirits or forgo the hooch in favor of a beer-and-wine-only tavern license. A 1995 reform to the state's liquor laws removed the 30 percent food-sales minimum. A second change in 2000 relaxed the definition of "restaurant" even further; the state now permits bars with only a microwave and a few TV dinners on offer to stock a full bar. As a result, the number of Seattle establishments with full bars has jumped from 427 in 1995 to 816 last year, according to the Washington State Liquor Control Board. Zig Zag, which opened in 1998, was one of the first bars in town built solely to showcase spirits, though, like most of the other cocktail bars mentioned here, it also serves food. According to Ben Dougherty, who co-owns Zig Zag with Kacy Fitch, the two had been tending bar around town for a number of years, and found themselves coming to Pike Place Market landmark Il Bistro on their off nights to watch its bartender, Murray Stenson, work. Stenson's collection of rare scotches impressed them, as did his grasp of alcohol arcana. The pair convinced a few investors to open Zig Zag on the Pike Street Hillclimb behind the Market, and they designed their ultimate bar in order to entice Stenson, whom Dougherty calls "our leader and teacher." "We wanted to offer a really extensive, in-depth collection of spirits," Dougherty says. "But we also wanted to build the place with spice racks and set it up so we could have all the ingredients to run a scratch bar, all from fresh products." In the last couple of years, Zig Zag has gotten plenty of competition (see the sidebar below for a partial rundown). As Ryan Magarian, a Portland-based consultant who helps restaurants and bars class up their mixed-drink offerings, says: "Seattle may have started behind the curve but is catching up faster than any city in America." Magarian himself revamped Canlis' full bar and set up the cocktail program at Suite 410 downtown (famous for its salumi-garnished Añejo Manhattan and its pisco sour, which froths the Chilean brandy old-school style, with real egg whites). Even at places where the focus is on the food, the "house cocktail" is becoming an important part of the marketing push. Magarian credits his former boss Kathy Casey with envisioning the bar as an extension of the kitchen many years ago, showcasing ingredients as fresh and innovative as the cooks put on the plate. The Edgewater Hotel's Six Seven imported a "celebrity bar chef" (yup, that and the phrase "startender" are showing up in press releases) from Manhattan to invent new house drinks such as the Highlander Honey & Heather, which features Glenfiddich 12-year single-malt scotch, Drambuie, and lemon. At Vessel, a top contender for Seattle's most severely fashionable space—black and white and midcentury modern all over—Jamie Boudreau mixes up what might be my favorite cocktail of the moment: the Widow's Kiss, a clear, golden mix of Calvados (French apple brandy), bitters, and the monastery-produced liqueurs Chartreuse and Bénédictine. A sweet-tart kiss greets you when you bring the drink to your lips, but as you sip, all of the components emerge, glimmer, evolve. Ten minutes after you finish your glass, you're still catching whiffs of the botanicals in the Chartreuse. Boudreau doesn't claim to have invented the drink. In fact, he credits it—on the menu, even—to George Kappeler, and lists the date of creation as "circa 1895." Robert Hess, a Micro-softie and cocktail hobbyist whose "Drinkboy" Web site is one of the major pundits of the cocktail revolution, has been tracking the resurgence of the classic cocktail for years. He says bartenders and drinkers are finally realizing the genius of American mixologists from the 1890s and early 1900s, whom Hess considers the bringers-on of the golden age of the cocktail (after which, he says, "Prohibition gave us a cocktail lobotomy"). Taking their cue from their early-20th-century forebears, the new-wave bartenders aren't just making drinks with fresh juices and high-end spirits. Their featured cocktails are often drier and multilayered, and don't shy away from a very adult appreciation for bitterness, especially when the reward is the fantastic aromas these bitter spirits exude. It takes the missionarylike spirit of bartenders like Boudreau, Dougherty, and Stenson to bring their customers along. Key to the experience, however: You have to score a place at the bar. I arrived at Sambar one night early enough to grab one of the four stools facing bartender Jay Kuehner and got to hear him fielding dozens of questions from the couple next to me. When my friend requested, "Make me something new!" Kuehner responded with a glass of something unnamed and delicious containing apple puree, fresh ginger, and Calvados, and even brought down his top-shelf rums to let us try nips of each. But a fellow Weekly writer who arrived late the next night could barely even smile at Kuehner through the crowds. Cocktails may be an easier sell to the average Seattle sophisticate than wine. We're all relative newbies when it comes to 19th-century mixed drinks and the perfect ratio of rye to vermouth in a classic Manhattan, so we can all enjoy them with a relatively naive pleasure. But notions of connoisseurship and class have long colored our view of wine—and kept out the uninitiated. Drinking wine seems to require thumbing through a phone-book-size wine list, battling your commitment phobia over which $50 bottle to choose, or standing at the counter of a winery while you eavesdrop on people who sound like they've got a bigger vocabulary than you, or more money, or both. There seems to be a lot of pressure to get it right. Which is why Jeffrey Dorgan, owner of nine-month-old Smash in Wallingford, offers so many "flights," or curated tastings. Like many of the city's new wine bars, Smash is as much a restaurant as it is a drinking establishment. Except, when you look around, you'll see the tables cluttered with glasses. On the flip side of Smash's by-the-glass list are lists of three-glass flights, all with names like "The Spanish Inquisition" and "Kay Syrah Syrah." Some of the flights showcase regions, others offer lessons in wine-world basics. On my last visit, my dining companion ordered "Oak/No Oak," organized around a big debate in the world of chardonnay, one that pits fans of the pro-oak Napa style against the no-oak French (why do these conflicts always involve the French?). The only way, of course, to find out which camp you fall into is to taste the difference. Dorgan, who says he comes to almost every table, brought over three glasses and a half-sheet of paper with three circles printed on it. In each circle, he had scrawled the name of one wine, and he set each glass on its proper spot so we could keep track of what we were tasting. Then he ran through what we were about to taste: The Domaine Talmard Mâcon-Chardonnay from Burgundy didn't have oak. The Westrey from Oregon did. The oaked Lava Cap Reserve from El Dorado county in California, he said, was the biggest and butteriest. While we snacked on hummus and salad, we tasted from left to right: My preference was for the clean, citrus-tinged Domaine Talmard. Molly was all for the richer, warmer tones of the Lava Cap. We did not come to blows. "We had four flights on the list when we opened. Now 75 percent of our wine business is our flights," says Dorgan, who was previously the wine director at Cascadia. Matt Walker, beverage director of two-month-old O8 restaurant and Twisted Cork wine bar in Kirkland, believes in flights, too (he currently offers nine). He says that to convert the general populace into wine drinkers, he has to focus on the subtler signals customers get from him. "My focus is to make people feel more comfortable," Walker says. "If someone wants to geek out, I can definitely go there. But if they say, 'I don't normally drink wine and I want something sweet,' I'll bring them several tastes. 'Is this something you feel like drinking?' I'll ask. I help them choose a journey they'd like." Still, the wine-bar experience isn't just set up for novice drinkers. Take Bricco della Regina Anna, a one-year-old wine bar at the top of Queen Anne. On any given night, you can pick from a daily list of 30 to 40 glasses, each listed without tasting notes or the usual easy-to- understand categories like "luscious reds" or "crisp whites." Wine director Jesse Hufstader's selection, which ranges from Roero Arneis (an Italian white) and Xinomavro "Akakies" (a Greek rosé) to Yakima Cellars' "Downtown Red," appeals more to drinkers who have some exposure to wine but are looking beyond what they can find at Safeway. "The goal is to get customers to try things they normally wouldn't try," says Kevin Erickson, Bricco's owner. A list like Bricco's is exactly what drinkers like me, who have a solid basic education in wine but no claims to rarefied connoisseurship, love most about the wine-bar phenomenon. Discovering a boutique producer from Walla Walla—or just learning what the hell a Xinomavro tastes like—is a huge part of the fun. If I hate my glass, I'm only out $9. Six new wine bars have opened in the area in the past year—in places as diverse as Burien, Capitol Hill, and Kirkland—and there are three more on the way (see sidebar, p. 26). The wine-bar proliferation, which is by no means restricted to Seattle but has arrived here a few years after it did in cities like Portland and Atlanta, is probably due to a convergence of intersecting trends. For one, the wine industry is doing more to reach out to customers, with less status-oriented marketing and more drinkable options for ultrabargain bottles like Trader Joe's Two-Buck Chuck. The 2004 film Sideways also got moviegoers talking about wine, and even resulted in huge sales jumps and dips for the grape varietals its characters praised and slammed. In Washington, locals are finally paying attention to the fact that we've become the second-largest wine-producing state in the nation, and that the nation's wine critics are giving the Pacific Northwest as much press as they do Spain or Italy. David Michalski, a doctoral student at the University of California, Davis, who is doing his dissertation on changing patterns of wine consumption, sees the growing American interest in scouting out boutique wines like Idaho rieslings and Austrian grüner veltliners as reflecting a much larger trend in how people form their identity through their consumption habits, much as they use their iPod play-list to show their friends the contours of their soul. "Wine bars aren't just selling wine, they're selling the language surrounding wine," says Michalski. "If you think of wine drinking in terms of artwork, there's a culture that surrounds the gallery, in which people can debate their taste together by participating in the language of taste. In that way, the discussion of wine becomes a debate about other values." Wine drinking centers around conversation and requires a space where you can have one. At Bricco, couples nibble on plates of bruschetta and swirl their wine glasses. Though there are no TVs or techno, the place is packed enough to generate a good amount of white noise. Talking is the primary form of entertainment. Most of the wine-bar owners I spoke to talked up their atmosphere: lower key, a mature drinking experience that's nevertheless no blue-hair bar. Drunkenness is rare. "People don't get wasted here," says Jens Strecker, owner of Portalis, a four-year-old wine shop and tasting room in Ballard. "In four years, we've had only two cases where we needed to kick somebody out." Personally, while I still enjoy MGD, I confess that I'm too allied with the gourmet sector to not love what these new places are selling. Perhaps I just love the fact that I claim my bar tab as a "continuing education" tax exemption. Perhaps I'm just settling into my 30s and spend fewer hours in bars. Perhaps I just prefer to drink things that taste good. These days, I guess I just want getting drunk to mean something.

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