Welcome back to The Barkeepers, a monthly column dedicated to the men and women who work behind some of Seattle's hottest bars.
[Photos: S. Pratt]
There are rooms that are so beautiful, so unique, so full of treasures, that you want to be left alone to explore. E. Smith Mercantile in Pioneer Square elicits that feeling in its shoppers and drinkers, with small batch sundries and shiny objects found in every nook and cranny.
But the real draw for the drinking crowd is the back bar, where Jessie Poole has carved out seats for sipping some of the most creative cocktails you could hope to discover. A blend of old and new, with curious, medicinal words and flavors popping up on the spirits menu, it's impossible not to wonder aloud how it all came to be. So, Eater did it for you.
How would you define E. Smith, in just a few words?
It's a new old idea. It was inspired by a place called the Hub in Atlanta, where my great-grandfather lived, which was like a community center. The only place in town where you could get everything you needed, your jeans and your gloves, and ladies could buy fabric. You could get a soda and a whiskey. It was like a saloon/general store. You'd run into people and have your social time. We wanted to inspire the same thing. Because at the time, when we were conceptualizing the space, and when we opened, there wasn't anything like that.
Yeah, Pioneer Square has undergone quite the transformation in the recent months. How has that helped you? And how did you know what you wanted the space to look like, never having really worked in the industry, in a bar, before?
My parents had lived down there for about four years, and my mom said could she feel the tides turning. She's been wanting me to open something for the last four years or so. Around Christmas 2012 we started looking seriously, started calling around to different realtors. And the space we're in was the first one we looked out. The building number is 208, which is the area code for Idaho, and our Idaho-grown family was like "yep, this is it." We had done initial sketching the week before, how we wanted the layout and flow to be, and this long, lean space was exactly what we wanted.
At the time, I was thinking more about the retail side of it, and yeah, we'll put a bar in the back. It just came naturally. We wanted a long space that could be separated. We looked a lot at old drugstore counters. It just worked so well. We signed a lease and opened in April. Got the bar opened in September. The whole family did their part to open it.
Having the other businesses in the area, Altstadt across the street and everything that's popping up, it's amazing what a great little community it is down here. The people from the Alliance for Pioneer Square want to introduce us to new friends. The reception from the community has been amazing, just so lovely.
As for the bar element, I had quite the home bar and have always loved experimenting and entertaining guests. And the bar was actually the second part of the vision, with retail first. But it was the right space and I love the challenge and joy.
I started with some infusions at home. A vanilla and kafir lime leaf infusion that translated really well, with its floral flavors. So beautiful. The vanilla really balanced. We haven't moved it to the bar, but we'll do a vanilla and black tea for a lemonade.
So, your whole family is involved in E. Smith. What is everyone's specific trade?
My mom is an interior designer. She has that background and she got involved in health care, nutritional counseling, and wellness. She started an apothecary line called Essential Apothecary Alchemist. She makes perfumes and does all of our bitters and infusions for the bar. She's kind of one of those voracious people that wants to learn all of that. She's always had a natural inclination toward that. She has stories of when she was little and her dad would have an ulcer and she knew, intrinsically, which plant to go pick for him. She's sort of a witch doctor, I guess. Or potion maker. My dad did the build out, mostly on weekends when he was home from other building jobs. And my sister, Sara, runs the kitchen.
Is that her training?
No. But she was the only one of us that had the restaurant experience when we opened. We were getting ready to open the bar, and I told mom she had to pin her down. I told mom that I didn't have the brain space for that. She's worked at Tavolata and How to Cook a Wolf.
How many times have you had to explain what Horehound is?
Every time. But it's kind of fun. If you ask a grandpa, they've had the candy. It has cinnamon and clove and anise, it's from the '20s and '30s... it's a lot to take in and that's kind of why you're doing it. To inspire people.
What are your favorite kinds of drinks to make?
I love when I get to play. When people have an idea of a flavor or mouthfeel they'd like, but they don't really know how that fits into a cocktail.
How do drinks get on the menu? What's the aim — just to taste good, or to represent something?
The classics came from Craig Schoen (bar manager at The Walrus and the Carpenter,) who was kind enough to donate his brilliance. We do a lot with the Waldorf Astoria pre-prohibition book.
For our house drinks, we're trying to focus on our house bitters and infusions. It's about finding creative angles to make those flavors pop. It goes through a lot of people. I come from a family of eaters and drinkers. Usually mom or I have an idea for a cocktail, and we go into it and experiment and taste test different combinations until it's what was envisioned.
So, your mom makes the bitters. How does she come up with them?
We talk about them or she has an idea or I do. She's made the smoke and barbecue and lavender. She's currently working on a five spice-vanilla-cherry bitters. Often times we come up with food flavors and then try and figure out how to bring that savory element into the cocktails. It's not too often that she does a new one, but when we feel inspired, we do.
How did you get to the point where you have such a balance of base spirits represented on the menu in such varied ways?
We want everyone to be able to have that entry point, to see something they're into. We really wanted our flavors to be the pronounced. For example, for our fir tipped vodka we played around with it a lot. The whole point of it is to taste like what you're putting in it.
The glassware you're using is so beautiful, do you ever have that heartbreak moment when you hear one...
Break? Oh yeah, we break quite a few. There are a few that I love so much, I feel a little tinge when I hear that sounds. The coupes we can usually replace, but when I have those tiny, taste glasses, yeah, it hurts. That shit's tragic. But that's the ephemeral quality of life. Love it and leave it, there's always more around the corner.
How many seats at the bar?
15, it's really cozy.
So, how do you make money?
(Laughs) Well, we're lucky because we have two businesses that support each other. When one's slow, the other kind of picks up. And it's a family business, so we all have fingers in the pot. We've been so lucky that people have been getting the vision. We haven't done any advertising, so people have just been coming and helping us. People hear that there's a story, and they are always excited that it's rooted in something.
It's named after my grandfather, Elmer Smith, who was a gold miner in Southern Idaho. We have that family element, and as Americans, we all have those roots somewhere, at the heart of it. It keeps you going and inspires you.
How did you become such a creative jack of all trades?
I spent all my time in youth theater on Mercer Island, even though I grew up in Bellevue, and it was amazing the concentration of creative people they have on that Island. I would skip lunch at my own school to be there more. I moved to Seattle when I was 18 or 19, and went to Cornish for fine art. And then I was like 'oh, I should probably have a marketable skill,' so I went to Seattle Central for apparel design, and I was at Eddie Bauer for a couple years before we opened E. Smith.
When you buy for the store, are you thinking bar? How do they intertwine?
They're actually separate in my brain and we get to sometimes use it in the bar. But I tend to create my own version of stuff in the bar, and make it specifically to use in the cocktails, with the fresh ingredients. But we've done event nights too, with the products we sell being repped instore. Morris Kitchen showed off their goods (ginger syrup and stuff out of Brooklyn), and we've partnered with Seattle Distilling Co. We made some fun cocktails, but we'd love to do more events.
Where do you go out when you're not behind the bar?
Revel we go back to a lot, because the short rib dumplings are stupid good. Oddfellows is a great place, and it's an easy to place to eat alone. I know it sounds weird, but it's hard to find that, where you don't feel like a weirdo, and I've noticed a lot of other people doing that. La Carta de Oaxaca is always a great place. The fam loves Lark for special occasions. The Walrus and the Carpenter of course. Sun Liquor has surprisingly good food. Their burger is basic, none of the fancy bells and whistles cheeses and such, just really good product. Artusi is wonderful.
What inspires your food menu? Is it to go with the drinks?
Not exactly. It's what's fresh, what's in season. We find that the bar snacky things do the best for us. Mom really likes fried gizzards, so we're going to try that, and some more snacks, rather than creating new entrees.
What's next for drinks at E. Smith?
I'm not shy about consulting the Waldorf Astoria book. Next, I think the Symphony of Moist Joy, a drink I found in there. We're getting a shave ice machine. Creme de rose, creme de menthe, champagne. I know people hate that word, but the drink is lovely.
That's what I love about this, the versatility. It's the reason I went into apparel and it's what makes mixing drinks such a joy. I can do new and different things whenever I want.
Is this your long-term vision, the way it stands now?
This is just the beginning. This week, we decided we need to look at how it looks at full capacity. We just rented the storage space below us, and we're already talking about what we could do with that. We're thinking classes, a commercial kitchen space for brunch and lunch… we want to teach everything from flower arranging to music lessons, art classes, cooking, bitters, bartending…I have this vision of teaching in flights of cocktails. Seasonal, spirit, or ingredient as the common thread. We'll sell kits and then people will walk out knowing how to make three drinks with Mezcal, or fir, or shrub... Something they might have been a little afraid of.
There's no shortage of ideas. Whatever we get the itch for. We want it to be a platform for artists and creative innovation. Not sure when it opens, but we're probably not too far away from having it livable. The kitchen will probably come later, but the people come first. The classes.