Where to Drink in SEATTLE
Article & Photos by Virginia Miller
Though I’ve visited a number of times over the past 15 years, it’s 3 visits to Seattle within a 7 month period that had me up-to-date on restaurant and cocktail/bar newcomers as well as caught up on some classics I always meant to visit (hello, Canlis!)
Though many visits later, I don’t find myself having that “soul connection” I can feel so intensely with my favorite places around the world, I have dear friends who live here and have, over time, experienced more of the gems in many neighborhoods of the city. Last time, I covered Seattle food — now it’s favorite cocktails and bars.
Being required to serve food at all bars, most bars are restaurants and some great cocktails can be found at restaurants (like a couple I covered last issue, Barnacle and The Whale Wins). I’ve also had good cocktails, if not as noteworthy at my top choices outlined below, at Artusi, an Italian aperitivo bar and restaurant where an off-menu request resulted in a delightfully bitter-refreshing cocktail of Amaro Sibilla, Broker’s Gin, lemon, soda and Nardini’s Aqua di Cedro citrus liqueur with Italian bites.
Spur cocktails can be hit-and-miss with some, like an ambitious combination of tomato, honeydew, strawberry syrup, Rhum J.M., lemon and house dandelion tincture, sounding more interesting than it tasted. Still, there is a well-curated, smaller spirits collection at the intimate bar.
Odd (and high) fellow patrons rather ruined the vibe at Clever Bottle late night (which seems a general problem in Belltown), but the staff and cocktails are otherwise pleasing, particularly a house dark fruit peppercorn shrub ($9), bracing with rye whiskey, rosemary and peppercorn. Early hours might bring a better vibe?
A place that still felt like it was finding itself when I visited in April (it is now one year old) is the restaurant Triumph Bar, in the shadow of the Space Needle. Heavy on Italian wines, charcuterie and cheeses and gastropub fare, Triumph’s cocktails show promise, with subtle culinary and molecular touches, as with Big Ciao ($11), mixing gin, Green Chartreuse and lemon, garnished with poached apple and washed with olive oil. I’ve had some brilliant olive oil-washed cocktails, like Alligator Alley on Trick Dog’s menu when it first opened, that were better integrated where there was a welcome, creamy texture from the olive oil. This one was not quite there — but it was close. Other drinks that showed promise were Runoff ($12), a bracing mix of mezcal, Cynar, beer syrup, egg white and lemon, and a gratifying Rye Witch ($12) of rye whiskey, Strega and carbonated sherry (love that aspect!)
Radiator Whiskey is my top Pike Place Market bar choice — and they also serve strong food (playful offal dishes like cornflake-crusted chicken livers). Their strength is a robust whisk(e)y collection alongside good cocktails like a Renegade ($10), a blend of Buffalo Trace bourbon, Del Maguey Mezcal Vida, Yellow Chartreuse, Angostura and orange bitters. I loved a cocktail special, a tart, subtly bitter Aperol Rhubarb Smash ($10) of Buffalo Trace bourbon, mint, Aperol, lemon, rhubarb bitters.
A notable Ballard duo? Bastille charms, hidden in the back of popular Stoneburner. It’s a massive, romantic, brick-walled space, made even more romantic with live jazz sets (Django-esque, gypsy jazz on my recent visit) under sparkling chandeliers. The drinks aren’t amazing but they are well-crafted, like a Skiff Club ($10), combining gin, grapefruit cordial, rhubarb amaro, lemon, ginger and truffle salt — I wish the rhubarb and salt would have been apparent.
The Gerald is memorable for its mid-century, 1960’s look and blonde wood walls. Cocktails are ambitious and utilize small batch spirits, even if they don’t always quite work, as with a Draper Point ($10), imitating elements of Pennsylvania’s Root, a root beer/sarsaparilla liquor: bourbon, black tea, sweet vermouth, Root, apricot liqueur, Angostura bitters, orange peel and nutmeg. The drink neither tasted like Root or root beer, lacking had a distinct flavor profile. Still, I appreciate the vision behind it. A stronger cocktail was Don’t Stop the Bete ($11), using Sidetrack Distillery’s excellent Bete liquor (an earthy beet liquor I wrote about months back), mixing it with Krogstad Aquavit, simple syrup, lime, cucumber and dill for a still somewhat muddled but ultimately vegetal, bright drink.
My Top 12
LIBERTY BAR, Capitol Hill
I’ll just say it: Liberty Bar is the bar I’d rather be at any day than Canon (see below). The vibe is chill, there’s sushi and a rock star-esque hidden back room (like a green room), and the spirits collection is in the hundreds with one of the most extensive selections of Japanese whisky, American whiskey and mezcal you’ll find in Washington, thanks to owner Andrew Friedman.
Most importantly, one won’t find attitude in this laid back spot for excellent spirits and wonderfully affordable cocktails. On occasion, cocktails can wow, as with Keith Waldbauer’s Point Of No Return ($9). Gin, Chartreuse, absinthe and lime juice are poured over a mini-rosemary wreath in a glass and set on fire, releasing rosemary aromatics. The drink is herbaceous, almost alive with fresh, green life. Friedman’s Seattle Sour ($10) is a playful duo of bourbon, lemon juice, Stumptown Coffee Liqueur, and egg white, topped with beer foam and served with a shot of beer. It goes down all too easy.
Don’t let the casual vibe with (quite good) pizza by the slice under a pressed tin ceiling fool you. Rocco’s serves some seriously great cocktails, thanks to bar manager Leroy Thomas, who knows his regulars and gives everyone a hearty welcome. Visiting bars around the world, I find Thomas one of the great Seattle bartenders: he knows his spirits and cocktails, runs his bar without pretension, setting a fun tone for his customers.
Rocco’s spirits and beer selection are top notch and Thomas’ cocktails ($9-12) shine, often with classic, 3-4 ingredient simplicity and perfection, like a mix of Underberg, Buffalo Trace bourbon, Cardamaro and Zucca aperitif. I particularly like Thomas’ build-your-own cocktail ($12), exquisitely served on a silver tray with shrub, spirit and soda to mix to your preference. House shrubs are bracing (thank you, vinegar) and delicious. Combinations might include a strawberry shrub with blanco tequila or a cherry coffee shrub with Courvoisier Cognac.
ESSEX, Phinney Ridge
Tucked away on a quiet, suburban-like street next door to pizza favorite Delancey is its sister bar, Essex, a real respite of a cocktail haven with soothing setting, friendly bartenders, a ’90s hip hip soundtrack some late nights and a mix of creative cocktails (generally $10) that aren’t fussy and often shine on the bitter side.
Bar manager Niah Bystrom serves beauties like Pink Drink 0n tap mixing Lillet, Cocchi Rosso, Dolin Blanc vermouth, spiced brine and — a pleasing surprise — a splash of Gruner Veltliner wine. Beer cocktails are also well done, like Little Rascal, mixing Espolon blanco, Burg’s Extra-Special Orange (a house citrus liqueur – read about it here), Campari, lemon and Avery White Rascal beer.
In the “off menu test,” which I often try after sampling a range from the menu, Bystrom did not disappoint — and won points with the Cash song reference — in Boy Named Suze, a bracing blend of bourbon, Cocchi Rosa, barrel-aged gin and Suze. Another standout was Dennis the Menace, a mix of rye whiskey, Del Maguey Mezcal Vida, lime and soft touch of watermelon puree, balanced by an IPA beer reduction.
ZIG ZAG CAFE, Downtown
The great Zig Zag. Though legendary Seattle bartender Murray Stenson may no longer tend there (now at The Elysian Bar), the low key bar with a touch of jazz era elegance has no shortage of great bartenders and an impeccable spirits collection.
The cocktails are solid but that’s not so much the point here. At Zig Zag it’s the vibe, the classy, warm welcome and the spirits knowledge of the bartenders that draws me back.
BA BAR, Central District
Ba Bar‘s cool, modern Vietnamese vibe and artwork glows late into night (the bar is open until 2 or 4 am, depending on the night), a laid back yet hip backdrop to creative cocktails sometimes with Asian touches. Try the beautiful Cherry Rose & Apple Blossom ($10), a tart-refreshing combination of Tieton Cherry Apple Cider, Aperol, BroVo Spirits Rose Geranium Liqueur, lime and egg white.
SUN LIQUOR, Capitol Hill
Sun Liquor has two bars, the lounge and the bar and distillery. I’m all about their mid-century decor and design aesthetic. And having the distillery in-house is a huge win at the Pike Street location.
I spent a lovely afternoon with Head Distiller Erik Chapman walking through his distilling process and future plans for the expanding Sun Liquor businesses. While Sun is known around WA for their gin, I much prefer their rum, which has an unexpected rhum agricole funk and liveliness with a dry sherry finish from sherry casks. Their barrel-aged rum uses 100% cane juice, fermented for ten days before being distilled twice in their lovely copper pot still, then aged in American oak and French oak sherry casks for 2 years.
Another surprise is Chapman’s aromatic orange bitters. With an unmalted, non GMO organic wheat base, the bitters taste intensely of orange blossom, fresh and bright, with a touch of juniper, coriander, cardamom.
At the bar, drinks are simple but well done, like The Artemisia ($9), an ideal aperitif of Dolin Genepy des Alpes, Salers Aperitif, lemon peel, Sun’s aromatic orange bitters and a splash of Zardetto champagne.
RUMBA, Capitol Hill
When it comes to rum, blessedly colorful Rumba bar and dining room (though I found the food mediocre) is Seattle’s rum bar of choice, featuring over 250 rums available in themed flights ($13-21) from my beloved rhum agricole to “spice”.
Cocktails stick to classic, 3-4 ingredient perfection (never too sweet), using impeccable ingredients, as in the case of Scarr Power ($10), featuring the great Smith & Cross rum simply mixed with nutmeg syrup and lime. Daiquiri du Bresil ($10) is another pleaser with great Banks 5 rum, Gifford’s Creme de Banana liqueur and lime. As an agricole girl, I go straight for a classic Ti Punch ($9-11) mixing a choice of agricole rhum with cane syrup and lime. Each transports to a tropical island.
NEEDLE & THREAD, Capitol Hill
Upstairs from the ever popular Tavern Law, I find less attitude than downstairs, despite the exclusivity at the sexy den known as Needle & Thread. Bartenders custom craft cocktails that are sometimes from the downstairs menu. One visit, I was particularly impressed with cocktails from bartender Tim Nguyen, including a drink he won an Averna cocktail competition with, A Whole New World (yes, an Aladdin song reference): Averna, lemon, jasmine-infused Old Overholt Rye Whiskey and honey simple syrup.
Another standout drink of Nguyen’s from the Tavern Law menu was All Bets Are Off ($13), an herbaceous-bitter-sweet mix of rye whiskey, Genepy, Cocchi Americano, Cynar artichoke liqueur and peach bitters. Likewise, I enjoyed bartender Amanda Reed’s Honey Badger ($12), a bourbon-based drink subtly sweet with Giffard’s banana liqueur, spiced with Becherovka, balanced by dry vermouth and lemon.
Leon Baham’s Dusky Hummingbird ($15) also delighted, a bright-meets-smoke blend of mezcal, lychee liqueur and lime with an absinthe rinse. An off-menu bartender’s choice standout? A pink-dry-herbaceous blend of Genepy, Campari and lime made effervescent with Prosecco.
ROB ROY, Belltown
Though Rob Roy was one of the early bars on the cocktail renaissance map in Seattle, thanks to the talented Anu Apte, my recommendation comes with a caveat. Visiting on different nights during various times of year, the crowd — namely on a Friday night — can be downright creepy (think girls laughing about date rape that they audibly claim happens after encounters at this bar). Such a crowd almost turned me off forever to this bar and I only returned with industry friends from other cities who felt they had to go. On a mellow weeknight it was a different vibe entirely.
Rob Roy has consistently crafted some of Seattle’s best creative cocktails and the staff are quite friendly and knowledgeable, ready to chat when not mobbed by an absolutely awful Belltown party/pick-up crowd. Classic Rob Roy/Apte drinks like a Saffron Sandalwood Sour ($12), a soft but distinctive mix of gin, lemon, lime, saffron sharbat, Angostura bitters and egg whites, put this bar on the map.
WITNESS, Capitol Hill
I was there on Witness‘ opening night last year and back again this year. With its old country church decor — including quotes from historic preachers like Jonathan Edwards lining the back hall leading to the bathroom — immediately charmed me about this place. Serving the likes of Dixie Poutine ($8) laden with bacon gravy and pimento cheese, or savory-sweet cherry onion fritters ($6), I was hooked since opening night.
Cocktails are likewise a good time, whether dreamy dessert Root Down ($9), mixing Fernet Branca, iced chicory coffee and condensed milk, or simple drinks using local spirits, like Soul Tonic ($8) featuring Seattle’s Big or Sun Liquor (see above) gin with tonic and house aromatic lime cordial. The Jonathan Edwards ($12) tributes the preacher with a listed ingredient as “Wrath!” (referring to his legendary “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon). The drink combines Angostura bitters, Cognac, Cointreau, lemon, sugar and egg whites. An off menu pleaser from my last visit one mellow afternoon was a Divine Intervention (aka bartenders choice – $8-12), a twist on a Toronto cocktail: bourbon, lemon, Cherry Heering, spritz of Pacifique absinthe.
BARRIO, Capitol Hill
Multiple visits and Barrio has done me right on the tequila and mezcal front each time I drop in and sit at its huge, wrap-around bar. Though in Washington one typically does not find the vast range of agave spirits California bars have long had access to (due to liquor law differences and, of course, California’s long-dominant Mexican population and proximity to Mexico), Barrio is one of the strongest agave spirits selections I’ve found in Seattle — with plenty of whiskey besides.
Friendly staff bring out bowls of guacamole and pour housed aged spirits like a woody and warm Aha Toro Anejo aged in Woodinville rye barrels for 6 months. I like the hint of heat behind Death in the Rio Grande ($10), which comes from a ghost chile-infused reposado tequila, lime, grapefruit, Campari and agave nectar. Though it’s not a rum bar, I love their Emerald City Daiquiri ($11), showcasing neighboring Sun Liquor’s (above) silver rum, Genepy, sugar and lime.
With two floors oozing intimate quirk and romance, Hazelwood is my kind of hangout. There are merely four stools at the tiny bar, while upstairs couches are the other seating options under crystal chandelier and mounted animal skulls and horns.
Bartenders tend to be friendly, able to craft something interesting from the small but thoughtful spirits collection.
Dives & Quirky Spots
In the Fremont district of Seattle, Back Door at Roxy’s has drawn me back a couple of times, not so much for the solid (if at times slightly too boozy-sweet) drinks, but for the unique atmosphere. The exterior belies a flashy interior that borders on gaudy kitsch and retro elegance simultaneously. It exemplifies a sort of Rat Pack Vegas swagger though entirely laid back.
On the dive bar front, Hattie’s Hat is a heartwarming kind of dive — certainly not for high quality drinks (think kitschy, like a smoked salmon Mary using smoked salmon vodka), but for its atmosphere, musty with vintage paintings and hearty platters of fried chicken and egg scrambles. The tunes (which can often be ’80s pop and rock classics) are just right and the booths spacious, ideal with a group of friends.
Not So Much
I won’t win any friends giving anything other than glowing praise for Canon, considered by Seattle-ites and many “in the industry” a temple to spirits and cocktails, winning numerous awards and on “best bar” lists everywhere.
The most notable aspect is its famed 1000+ spirits collection, which is excellent… but honesty compels me. It’s not the spirits collection, listed on an iPad (as is common for wine lists at fine dining restaurants in many cities). The spirits selection (and the fantastic whiskies in the bathroom!) is a delight for any spirits aficionado. Nor is it the cocktails, which, though overpriced, can be memorable, like Milk ‘n Cookies ($16), which when I first tried it in February before it was on the menu was a mix of Bols Genever, dark chocolate, Averna, black tea and egg cream with a mint rinse. Returning to Canon in April, I noticed it was on the menu combining Cognac, Ardbeg, chocolate, milk and Angostura bitters with a Fernet Branca rinse.
The detractor each visit is the service. Unlike some of the great cocktail and spirits temples around the globe, the attitude here feels more about the “look at me, I work here” variety with a bit of disdain towards the customer rather than a warm, unpretentious air that makes bars with impeccable knowledge and collections truly great.
Oddly enough, each time I’ve been in (and I have not wanted to return but every industry visitor to Seattle feels they must check it out), it has been with key drink industry figures — master distillers, bar managers, spirits writers and the like, from around the world — and yet service has still been cautiously friendly at best, generally aloof and “too cool” for its patrons, no matter how knowledgeable they are, as a rule.
There are many places to find well-crafted drinks and solid spirits selections in this city alone — and globally there are countless bars with profound spirits collections and truly warm service. Frankly, though you will doubtless hear the opposite from everyone else, there are many better bars in Seattle and I would recommend saving your time (and money) and going elsewhere.