Welcome back to The Barkeepers, a monthly column dedicated to the men and women who work behind some of Seattle's hottest bars. Each post is thoughtfully shaken and stirred by Wendy Miller, founder of the Seattle LUPEC chapter and author of the Seattle Cocktail Culture app.
[Photo: S. Pratt]
Ben Perri is used to being in the spotlight, used to interviews, photo shoots and groupies. As lead vocalist for the post-hardcore/metalcore band From Autumn to Ashes, Ben traveled the world attempting to put his signature scream on the map. That might be surprising to customers who have witnessed Perri's calm, reflective personality and soft-spoken demeanor, all while delivering a beautifully balanced cocktail during a busy evening at one of America's most highly regarded bars. In 2009, Perri decided to leave the music biz, head out west and get into the bar scene, giving new meaning to rock-star bartender. You'll find him mixing libations at Zig Zag on Sunday and Monday nights and you'll see him managing the floor on other evenings.
How did you go from touring with a rock band to bartending?
I was a regular at a bar by my apartment in New York City. I was touring so much and when I was home I would burn through the money we made on the road very quickly, especially living in Manhattan. I'd be at this bar four, five times a week. I knew the owners, I knew every bartender who worked there, I was really good friends with them. One night I was sitting with the owner and he was like, "I just had to fire our cleaning guy" and I was like, "I'll take the job", 'cause in New York City, you either need to know someone, be extremely good looking, or fall into an extremely lucky position.
So I started cleaning the bar that I was a regular at. I'd show up at nine or 10 in the morning and sort all the beer bottles because we returned them for deposit to distributors. I had to go through all the night's beer [bottles], put them in cases, clean the bar and set up for the next night. The bar manager, Richard Allen, who was one of my best friends, needed a bar back. He said, "Hey, you want to help?" and I said, "Sure!" Then they fired a bar back and I started bar backing.
When was that?
Early 2000s. I never really got to bartend too much, just when they needed someone to fill in. I was still in the band and whenever we'd come home from tour I'd work at the bar. And then I really fell in love with the bar and restaurant life; the band was at a point where I wasn't happy anymore. I stopped doing that and started working full time at the restaurant.
What brought you out to Seattle?
The honest answer or the fake answer? (laughs)
A woman. But it lasted about a year and six years later I'm still here.
Where was your first bar job in Seattle?
I had a hell of a time finding a job when I first moved out here. I didn't really know anybody. I knew someone who worked at El Corazón, the live music venue; I knew the head of security, John Pettibone. He got me an interview with the bar manager and she was like, "Yeah, you can't handle working here." He called me the next day and said,"The Showbox is opening a new venue down in SODO. Why don't you take that for now?" So I lied on my resume, said I'd been bartending in New York for six years, instead of bar backing in New York, and got a job at the new Showbox. I was one of 60 people who they had for interviews and they hired 15 of us. I got my start there. I ran that bar after they got rid of the original bar manager for two years and then I went to the Waterfront Seafood Grill for a summer. I was working at The Knee High Stocking Company at the same time and then got hired at Zig Zag, so I was working all three jobs one summer, four years ago. It was pretty good.
[Photo: S. Pratt]
How did you make the change from slinging PBR's and vodka tonics at places like the Showbox SODO to creating craft cocktails at one of the country's most loved cocktail bars?
The cliché answer, which for me is not a cliché, is I sat at Zig Zag. I'd ask questions and [see] stuff I've never even heard of. I'd ask to taste it and of course they were very forthcoming with their tastes of liquor. I read books beyond belief. [David] Embury was number one. That was the first and foremost that I remember reading [The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks]. Paul Harrington's book [The Drinks Bible for the 21st Century], then reading Jones Guide [The Jones Complete Bar Guide]. Anthony Dias Blue has a book on spirits [The Complete Book of Spirits: A Guide to Their History, Production, and Enjoyment]. Michael Jackson's book on Whiskey [Whiskey: The Definitive World Guide]. I mean everything I could absorb on every spirit, I read as much as I could. And then I would go to Zig Zag and look at the menu and order three drinks — only three 'cause I was a lightweight still — and then I'd go to my bar, wherever I worked at the time, and try to recreate them. I didn't know the proportions but I could figure it out in my head. So I just learned that way, by osmosis essentially, asking as many questions as humanly possible without being too annoying.
What is the best night to go to Zig Zag if someone wants to sit up at the bar and ask questions of the bartenders?
Sunday through Wednesday and early on a Saturday. Saturday you get Ricardo [Hoffman], and then Sunday/Monday you get me, and Tuesday/Wednesday you get Erik [Hakkenin]. So you get everyone's perceptive on certain things, everyone's got their own point of view. If you go early Saturday, anytime Sunday/Monday, it can be kind of relaxing and even after happy hour [7 pm] on a Tuesday/Wednesday, then you can sit and pick Erik's brain or my brain or Ricardo's.
What spirits are you really into right now?
Sherry. I've been having fun with sherry. That is something I learned from Erik [Hakkinen], Erik's love of sherry. When I first started working here, we had a couple of cocktails with it on the menu, but now I'm using it as the main ingredient. There are so many different varieties of sherry; it can go from being extremely light and dry to being like chocolate syrup. PX sherry, which stands for Pedro Ximénez, is one of the great varietals of sherry; vanilla ice cream with PX sherry drizzled on top is the best thing in the whole wide world, just so you know. PX is the sweetest, syrupy of the bunch. There's a 1979 version that came out that was fantastic, and that was almost like a chocolate syrup it was unbelievable. They're each so complex in their own way; if you don't use something else to overpower them and [you] make sherry the star, it's really quite fantastic. If you go up to the level of the cream or the PX you can make dessert cocktails too, you can make like a coffee cocktail, instead of using the port you use the sherry. If people want something good and "desserty" that's the way to go.
How do you know when to suggest a customer let you make up something for them vs. ordering off the menu?
You have to be a good judge of a person and how adventurous they are. If they go right for the menu I'm going to let them order something so I can see what they like. People are always like, "What do you recommend?" What I recommend might not be something you like, so tell me what you like or look through our menu and find something you like and I'll make that. As long as I know what you like I can go from there, I can build. So I don't steer people away from the menu if they want to order off it, that's more than awesome, but the second round I'll say, "Hey, you want to have some fun?"
[Photo: S. Pratt]
What's new at Zig Zag?
We've expanded the kitchen (it's twice the size) put the soundproofing, the acoustic panels up top, [and] the patio was just revamped — beautiful ironwood benches out there, new tables, new planter boxes, new plants. There'll eventually be heaters out there so we can keep it open longer. We're going to be putting banquets in the restaurant, but otherwise it's the same thing it's always been: great cocktails and hospitality.
What is your favorite thing about working at Zig Zag?
The attention to detail. I'm a detail-oriented guy, especially when I'm working. The attention to detail that everyone has is always to a T. You pick something up, you put it back where it came from. You make a drink, you finish and you wash your tins, you wash your glasses, and you put it back where it's suppose to be, the attention to detail is so cool. I've learned it from everyone there. I learned it from Kacy [Fitch], I learned it from Ben [Dougherty], from Erik [Hakkinen], from Murray [Stenson].
How many bottles of spirits are there in the bar?
If this means anything, 22 pages of inventory [and] I would say there are 35 to 40 [bottles] per page.
What's the weirdest bottle in the inventory?
Probably the Vietnamese whiskey with the cobra [in the bottle]. We use to have two of them but I was climbing up high one night to take a candle down and I knocked it onto the ground. It exploded. Scorpion and cobra on the floor! I was too scared to pick it up myself so Jakob [Swiderski] took care of it for me. I was terrified! I apologize to whomever brought that to us as a gift. I wasn't there that day, but I apologize, I broke it.
Which bars have you been to that you've been really impressed with?
Clyde Common. I just love going in there and watching them interact with everybody. The food is tremendous, the bartenders — all of them are fantastic. Jeffery [Morgenthaler] does all the cliché stuff that bars all over the world are doing now, but he just does it without a care. I mean, I walk in there, it's screaming busy, the bar is full, tickets beyond belief, and they have the bottled cocktails, cracking them open for everyone that's walked in. Everyone has a drink in their hand while they actually order. That's what bartending is, that's what it's all about, people are in your house. I always feel like I'm home when I go there. If I go to Portland I usually go twice. Oh, and I can't forget. Sami Gaston, the brunch bartender there, is a godsend.
If you could have a drink at any bar in the world, where would you go?
That is a two-part answer. The bar that I miss tremendously and would kill to go have a drink at is Lucy's in Manhattan. Lucy's is on Avenue A between St. Marks and 9th street. It's an old Polish bar and the owner Lucy is about 79 years old. Last time I was there, they still had Christmas decorations up from four years ago and movie posters from 1998. She took care of me when I first moved to Manhattan, I really didn't have a place to live and I'd spend a lot of time in her bar and help her if she needed help with anything. She had a cot in the back, which I slept on quite frequently. She'd say, "Don't worry, I'll lock the door and I'll come back in the morning and let you out" and I'd be like, "Cool". She'd lock it and put the gates up and she'd be there at 9 o'clock the next morning with coffee. So I miss her. And her Jack and Cokes were about four ounces Jack Daniels and two ounces Coke. And she always had a frozen bottle of Luksusowa in the freezer for me to nip on.
Otherwise, The Savoy. I've been to London like 9 or 10 times but never when I was into restaurants or cocktailing. Now I'm pissed because I was there so many freaking times, I mean probably right next door to it. The tall tales that I hear come out of there, because I'm a history buff and especially in my profession, it's historical.
What was your drink of choice before you knew better?
Let's put it this way: my tour manager when I was with the band had to ban me from carrying around my bottle of Jack Daniels.
Did you mix anything with it?
Nope. Just liked to carry it around. I was a big fan of Mötley Crüe and I read their book The Dirt [Confessions of the World's Most Notorious Rock Band] and that's what Nikki Sixx did, carry around a bottle of Jack, so I did too. I was young, I was impressionable. We always started a shift at the Black and White Bar with an Irish Car Bomb, it was the start of Friday night. Cheers, boom, let's go!
Is there anything that you just hate to make?
Nothing. There's one thing I will never make for anyone and that's a Cement Mixer. It's Roses Lime Juice and Baily's 'cause the Roses curdles the cream in the Baily's and makes it cement. It's meant to give to an enemy and that's just wrong.
Single or attached?
Can you share one of your cocktail creations that uses sherry for us to try?
2 oz Fino Sherry
1/2 oz gin of your choice
1/2 oz dry vermouth of your choice
2 dashes peychauds bitters
1 pinch sea salt.
Add all ingredients in mixing glass, add ice, stir for ten seconds then strain into a double old fashioned glass over fresh ice. Lemon twist garnish.