Bars: Really, Really Good

For rabid cocktail geeks such as myself—our bookshelves filled with yellowed old copies of Thomas, Boothby, Bergeron and Baker (and less-tattered though no-less-loved editions of Wondrich, Regan and Haigh); our kitchen cabinets sagging beneath bottles of assorted Italian bitters and an array of obscure liqueurs; our maddeningly circuitous internet debates about what makes a martini a martini and how many bottles of vermouth can dance on the head of a pin—for those of us who would walk barefoot through a blizzard for a bottle of pre-Prohibition rye, Seattle’s Zig Zag Café is one of only a handful of establishments in the country, and probably the world, worthy of calling itself a true cocktail bar.

Think of it as you would a restaurant: there are places you go for your typical, day-in day-out meals—that’s like your local or your favorite weekend spot, and while they may aspire no higher than to pour a decent beer and a shot (or a plain old vodka tonic), the world would be a much sorrier place without them. Then there are the places where you may go less frequently, where the quality (and price) is typically higher, and you’re certain to leave satisfied, though usually unsurprised—these are your higher-end hotel and restaurant bars and ambitious cocktail bars, and I’m pleased to have a drink in most any of them at any time. Then, though, there are the paradigm-shifters: the places that carefully sit you down while they very pleasurably rearrange the circuitry in your brain regarding everything you thought you knew about food (or, in this case, drink) so you walk out the door with a slightly different worldview than you had when you walked in–places that combine a deep understanding of basics and a mastery of craft with genuine touches of artistry. These places, which are happily growing in number, prepare the meals and drinks you remember years later, giving you new baselines against which all future meals and drinks will be judged.

The latter is the category, in my estimation, where Zig Zag belongs. (And unlike restaurants such as The French Laundry, where having your perspective adjusted will set you back several C notes, Zig Zag has a $5 happy hour.) I’m not alone in having this viewpoint, of course: no less an authority than Robert “Drinkboy” Hess counts Zig Zag among his favorites; the bar was recently selected by Seattle magazine as the best cocktail bar in the city; and one of our normally stodgy local dailies recently profiled Zig Zag’s master bartender, Murray Stenson.

Owned by bartenders, and staffed most weeknights by Murray, Zig Zag draws heavily on the classic bar manuals, using time-tested recipes (and adapting new drinks) that are rooted in complexity and balance, rather than novelty and whimsy. Consider this one, that I sampled last week:

Orange Blossom
(I failed to ask Murray for the proper recipe–or for its origins–but based on its flavor and aroma, I’d guess this recipe would be a good starting point):

  • 2 oz gin
  • .5 oz Cointreau
  • dash orange bitters
  • 2-3 drops orange flower water
  • small dash Pernod

Serve straight-up with a long strip of orange peel.

The orange flower water gives the drink a distinctive perfume. It reminded me of pleasant summer afternoons, like attending a friend’s wedding in the bride’s parents’ garden, with the smell of flowers and the glow of gentle sunlight.

A search through the literature doesn’t turn up anything like this mix (the Orange Blossoms to be found in books such as The Stork Club Bar Book and Patrick Gavin Duffy’s Standard Bartender’s Guide are composed of simply gin and orange juice–nowhere near the flavor complexity of Zig Zag’s version), but the drink’s layers of flavor and heady, perfume-like aroma make me think of something from The Gentleman’s Companion (though I found nothing in there, either).

Even if this is a house creation of Ben, Kacy or Murray, the thought and understanding that went into its development evince a thorough familiarity with the cardinal rules of fine mixology. It’s a drink that I was still thinking about when I left the bar, and that I find myself mulling over several days later, weighing the different proportions in my head and trying to figure out how the taste remained so bright and dry while the fragrance proved so engaging.

Clearly–clearly–more research is needed.

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