Welcome back to The Barkeepers, a column dedicated to the men and women who work behind some of Seattle's hottest bars.
When South Lake Union restaurant re:public opened in 2010, critics rolled out a red carpet leading straight to the darkly lit hotspot. Although the endless praise has quieted a bit, it might be time to start making your way down, especially if you fancy a well-made cocktail. Bar Manager John Nugent took over the menu in July, and is infusing his own brand of carefully balanced cocktails and service into the mix.
Freshly back from helping to run Portland Cocktail Week, after years working at some of Boston's best bars, he's dead set on turning Seattle into a city full of solid spirits. In the meantime, though, he'd really appreciate it if people would quit barrel-aging poorly balanced cocktails.
You've been behind the stick for years, but not here. Where were you working in Boston?
The Citizen Public House was a big tenure for me, just under 3 years. We got written up quite a few times while I was there. We also went down to Tales of the Cocktail and won People's Choice for Best Bar in the Bare Knuckle Bar Fight, which was kind of just an unbelievable experience.
Brick & Mortar, which became, overnight, the darling of the Boston bartending world, especially Cambridge. They're a big reason why cocktails are important in Boston.
And then lastly, one of my favorite — they were all my favorite — places was Silvertone, which just celebrated its 17th birthday, I believe. They were kind of the bar that introduced Fernet and Chartreuse. They do a lot of things that set the tone in Boston and have influenced my menu at re:public. I worked there to learn about hospitality from guys who had been there 10, 15 years, and in the industry much longer.
With all you had going for you there, why'd you leave?
After Citizen won all its awards and I went through the Cocktail Apprentice Program, I kind of figured out what my ceiling was. When I was away, I felt like Seattle was starting to get its cocktail culture, and I wanted to be a part of it. It's been my dream to open a place in Seattle and influence young bartenders, to help Seattle make a name for itself as a destination for cocktails.
Which bars do you think are doing that already in Seattle?
I mean, Zig Zag, for years. Whatever bar Murray Stenson is behind is going to have that kind of aura around it. Canon obviously has the best spirits selection in the country and Jamie Boudreau puts good people behind the bar. I think Anu Apte and Rob Roy never get enough credit — I think they're amazing. Every time I go there, whether it's two people at the bar or it's a party, I just enjoy my time there.
Do you think re:public can get on the map as a cocktail destination?
I don't necessarily want it to. Putting yourself in that category is always a little tricky. I just want it to be a bar where people can come in, get a drink, a beer, a shot, and a solid meal — which somehow doesn't always match up. I feel like a lot of times in Seattle, you can go to a restaurant and have great food, but the cocktail program is kind of a forgotten part of that restaurant, or vice versa. I know anybody who comes into re:public can get a good meal, a solid drink, and have great hospitality-driven service from the bartenders I have behind the bar, every single time.
Do you think part of Seattle's growth is building out a Cocktail Week?
I think Seattle needs ideas to get started. I think a great way to go about it is to start with one large event to attract people and then maybe we can go into week-long events. Events of that length are so mind-boggling, even 3 or 4 days, they require so much work and so much effort and so many people. And sometimes people want to do it for their city, which is amazing, but sometimes they don't realize that you don't necessarily get paid for this.
Tons of work, no money... Why do it?
It's important. It's important for the bartending community overall, it's important to me because I enjoy doing these projects and events. It's a great way to network. It's a great way to get your city on the map. I think we can do something along those lines, but just need to start small, and get bigger and bigger. We need those people to be on board who can help make it become what it can be.
Do you mean Seattle bartenders?
People we've all talked about: Jim Romdall, Keith Waldbauer, myself, Chris Elford, Chris Goad — people that have some experience running events in different parts of the country working and running events. I'd love to see people like Jamie Boudreau and Anu Apte contribute, because we do need some names and clout behind the events to attract sponsorship. And we can do something different, fun, and hopefully philanthropic.
You mentioned the Cocktail Apprentice Program. What did that teach you about events?
I got a great education through the Cocktail Apprentice Program at Tales of the Cocktail. It is essentially the most rigorous thing you'll ever do. 500-600 bartenders apply, maybe more, and then 60-70 candidates are taken to run every event of Tales, in teams. They put you through the ringer. You wake up at 7, have a meeting, run all the events through the day until around 7 or 8, go to everything in New Orleans, out till 2am. And then you do it all over again. It's tough; it's a lot of organization and keeping a good head on your shoulders. But you make a family. We all get silly tattoos, with pineapples and the year we joined CAP, and all that.
Tell me about a perfect cocktail you've had.
I just recently had a drink at Single Shot by Adam Fream. It's called the Damascus, made with Bank Note Scotch, Cocchi Americano, East India Sherry, and orange bitters. It's dry, it's got that smokiness from the Scotch, but leaves a chocolatey flavor in the back of your mouth. I'm just a fan of basic 3-4 ingredient drinks using the bottles that are on your bar. If you have to bang out super-high volume stuff with a ton of syrups, it makes me think you are trying to cover up or fuse flavors that you can't make yourself. Anyway, it was one of the best cocktails I've had in Seattle, and I told him that.
That was nice of you. What's your favorite cocktail on the re:public menu?
Besides my own, and the Very Old Cow, I really like the tiki cocktail we put on there: the Polynesian on Pier 51, partly because it talks about an era of Seattle, and I love being able to start a conversation just from someone ordering a drink. And also it's different; it's got Angostura rum in it, which I don't see in a lot of cocktails, even though it's delicious. It's got Punt e Mes, which is my favorite sweet vermouth out there; Batavia Arrack, which is great funky stuff; lime; orgeat; Rain City drip coffee liqueur, which is really good... I think it's the most underrated one we have, to be honest.
Tiki's such a big trend, obviously. Is it going to continue?
I mean, trends and fads, they come and go. I'm not a fortune teller, but I think great cocktails always have a future in our business. I've seen bad bars stay open for a long time and really great bars close long before their time. Painkiller, which was one of the best bars in the country, especially for tiki, closed. I'll never know how long tiki will exist, but I love niche bars, bars with a theme that isn't stark decor with candlelight. I think they'll always have a place.
What's next, non-fortune teller?
I think the next trend... Well, I think for Seattle, it's going to be large format cocktails, because we haven't seen a lot of that around here. You know, punches, something that brings people together. A punch bowl of yesteryear, with a ladle, where you see more of that way of celebrating or sharing that isn't just a round of shots.
What's the dumbest trend in cocktails?
I think anything without thought or knowledge behind it. Like, when people say "bottled cocktails," or "barrel-aged," and it's really not well done. You can go to Polite Provisions in San Diego and have a draft cocktail, and it's one of the best cocktails you'll have. But you can go to ten other bars with cocktails on tap, and it's just garbage, because they're not making these drinks thoughtfully. They just throw something in a tub and carbonate it and send it out.
Things are just being overdone, barrel-aged drinks and infusions... I mean, infusions, if they're done correctly, can be good. But it doesn't happen a lot, because people aren't thinking it through. Really think about your ingredients, the botanicals that are in the spirit you're using, how those are going to go together.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to take their bartending to the next level or elevate their bar?
Be honest with yourself about how your drinks tastes, and be honest with each other. There are too many people in this industry, especially that work together, who are too nice about what they drink and just tell each other it tastes good, and that's it.
At Citizen, we competed a lot in competitions and with each other. We decided to stop being nice and start talking about what was in the glass, what could be different... We were really hardcore with each other. We were already doing well in competitions, but after that, you knew that if you were competing against a Citizen bartender, you'd better watch out. I won three competitions, got second in a couple others... We were winning everything, and part of it was because we were giving feedback on how to change stuff, how to be better.
I think nobody has the answers to every great bar. There are some great mentors out there, but nobody has the answers to how to guarantee success. But I think every great owner, every great bar manager takes a really thoughtful process in making their cocktail menu, creating their space. You have to think about what you'd like, what your demographic is and what they'd like, and then go from there. I just don't see enough of that in bars that are opening.