Welcome back to The Barkeepers, a monthly column dedicated to the men and women who work behind some of Seattle's hottest bars.
[Photos: Renata Steiner]
If you drink in this town, you've likely heard of Rob Roy proprietress and barkeeper Anu Apte. Heck, if you drink anywhere in America you may have sat at the bar for one of her cocktails. Always working, Anu travels the world, the country, and the city spreading her mad skills through consulting and guesting gigs.
Now five years into owning the elegant, slender Belltown cocktail bar, Anu has become one of the most in-demand swizzlers and shakers to stand at the stick. Eater sat down with Anu to talk about drinking well at sporting events, the appropriate time to add some drops of Biblical oils to a boozy cocktail, and where she'll head next.
Rob Roy always seems to straddle the line of classics done well while constantly innovating with new products. How do you do that?
We used to change the menu seasonally, the whole thing, for the last four years. It was a really big ordeal; it took hours and hours to train the bartenders and the preps and to revamp it so much at once. So, now we're swapping out just a couple items at a time. It's more versatile, when new products become available we can showcase them on the menu.
Can you give us an example?
Like Ancho Reyes. It's an ancho chili liqueur. Well, it's 80 proof, but they call it a licor/liqueur. It's really flavorful and amazing; spicy but not overwhelming. It fills that need people have right now for the spicy chili cocktails, but without just burning your mouth like so many do.
What's the cocktail you're putting on the menu?
It's called the Monolith, and it's on the newest menu. It has the Ancho Reyes, pineapple, lemon, a dash of Angostura, and myrrh oil on top, and it's garnished with pineapple and mint. (What's that do?) It's an aromatic resin, usually found in a rock-like form, but available as oil (oleoresin). I just love the way it adds really earthy, balsam-like flavor that balances the citrus burn on the nose from the pineapple and lemon.
What products do you especially enjoy working with?
I like working with everything. I have kind of been at the whim of everyone for so long, with the brands that ask me to make drinks, or with consulting gigs. I will always use a product if it's made well, rather than make my own. (Like mole bitters?) Yeah, like there are three kinds of mole bitters on the market that are made really well, so there's no reason for me to try and do that.
I know people always ask "make me a drink," but how bout I ask you again. If I said I like Mezcal, rye, and gin, what would you do?
Well, I'd ask if you want something spirit forward or with juice. I try to use the weather and mood and time as indication. It's a little rainy and gray out, early enough…I'd say spirit forward. Maybe a Mezcal Old Fashioned. One of my bartenders, Greg Jago, created something inspired by it, called the Oaxacan Rebel, with Vida mezcal, maple syrup, mole bitters, Angostura bitters, and grapefruit oils, served over a big ice rock.
That sounds delicious. How did you end up with such a great staff? How does everyone contribute to RR?
Like, how did I get so lucky? (laughs) I don't know. I think our personalities just mesh and everyone has the same love of learning and improving every day. We're a family. We love hanging out together and being together. Bartenders can come to me with a drink they're working on, and we'll do tastings, refine it to standards, you know, all the R&D. Then, when it's ready, it goes on the menu. All of our bartenders have at least one drink on the current menu.
That's great, the variety built in. You're a genuinely beloved boss. What do you think makes you so successful as an owner and bartender?
To successfully run the bar? Passion, just extreme passion, and work ethic. I know that I would have liked to work for an owner who comes from a bartending background. I genuinely care about the staff and everyone has the same goals in mind. I will always give the benefit of the doubt, make an effort to find out what's going on if there's anything wrong; we talk about it and have honest conversation.
As far as bartending, I like to think I'm just really observant. I'm an Aquarius, which could have something to do with it. When my sister and I were kids in Utah, our parents would take us to parties with adults, and we weren't allowed to talk. Or, I'm not sure if that's true, but we didn't talk, anyway. I would just sit and listen and watch human behavior. I also have a degree in Behavioral Science, so between that and the way I was raised, I think I'm good at anticipating situations before they arise.
You happen to be dating another awesome bartender, Chris Elford (of Canon and Artusi). Did you guys just always know each other from the industry? Do you guys talk about spirits all the time?
It's great. I always said I wouldn't date another barkeeper; The lifestyle, it's crazy, excessive. But I like to think that we're a little older now, we can control ourselves. We have the same philosophy in life, and cocktail making standards are the same. He's actually only been in the cocktail world for a few years, four or so. He started in the beer world, and is a Certified Cicerone (like a sommelier for beer). We have long conversations about spirits, beer, and wine. He's learning, and I'm learning, too.
We met two years ago this September, at Camp Runamok in Kentucky. It's this crazy whiskey camp for bartenders, with three distillery tours a day, and they had invited me to come as a counselor. (So he was a student? Yep haha). I was trying to get away from the craziness one day, just to be alone, so I walked down to go fishing, and I was trying to pull out a fishing pole and they were all tangled.
I was, like, talking to the fishing poles, talking to myself. And I hear this voice from the hammock, which I hadn't even noticed, and it was Chris. He was like "Uh, what are you doing?" And we started talking, and more people came down, and we all hung out. That's where and when I started falling in love with him. We talked long distance for a year. Then, last year, we were both counselors, we drove from Kentucky to Seattle, it was us moving Chris out here from Virginia, where he lived. On our way back, we did guest bartending shifts all the way home. I'm going back as Head Counselor this year.
I'm sure you've been asked plenty of times to open another Rob Roy in another city, or to open more bars in Seattle. So, what's the haps? Anything on the horizon?
Having one bar is enough, more than enough work. If I were to open a bar in Seattle, it would be a different concept. I have a back pocket full of concepts, but I'm not planning anything right now. I'm really busy with consulting and guest bartending gigs, beyond owning and operating Rob Roy and bartending here still.
What bar cultures have you thought about opening another bar in, if it wasn't Seattle?
I always find myself in New York and San Francisco, or Portland. I don't know if I'd want to open there, just because they're kind of my escapes, but maybe.
One of the coolest, most Seattle gigs you're involved in right now is working with Safeco Field, designing the cocktails like the Martinez Michelada for Edgar's and a couple new projects this year. How did you end up making those and where are your drinks available?
So last year, I got a call from Ethan Stowell, and he was the one who connected me with Safeco. I designed the menu for Edgar's Cantina and it's gotten even bigger now. I did the specs for the Diamond Suites and Club Level, and then they created the Sound Bar on the Terrace Club Level. The Terrace fans were a little unhappy they had to go all the way down to Edgar's for a cocktail, so Centerplate approached me and they had a list of local spirits, and I got to pick what I wanted to work with.
I made four to five cocktails, and right now they're just available at the Terrace Club. But they may make them more accessible in the future. These first two years have been great, and Centerplate is so nice to work with. I'm looking forward to working with them in the future.
How do you maintain your specs and branding when they're being made so far outside your domain?
Well, the cocktails are pre-batched, but I trained the barkeeps and bar manager on how to make everything. They're batched in two to five gallon portions, and they know the procedure of what to do with them if there are fresh juices and so on, to toss them. They actually all took my Swig Well class. They came in over a week and a half, trained at Rob Roy. I taught them how to shake, strain, swizzle, how to pour beer…basics, but they were all really great. A lot of them have been working there for a long time. Safeco is basically the biggest, busiest nightclub in town on game nights, so they get it. They have their own challenges.
What is Swig Well, exactly?
It's Seattle's Drinking Academy, as we call it. I founded it in 2011 and anyone and everyone is encourage to take classes, but we do a lot with bartenders for the most part.
How did you get from being a quiet kid in Utah to this huge presence in the bar scene?
Well, I had my first bartending shift at 21. It wasn't, like, I had been counting down, and then all of a sudden I just hopped behind the bar. A friend of mine owned a bar I'd been hanging out in (underage) and he was like "can you pour beers and make shots?" and it was fun. I didn't just jump right in then. At the time, I was heading toward medical school, living in Salt Lake City… But when I was 25, I was trying to find a job and kept submitting resumes and they were like "uh, Salt Lake City? Mmm pass."
I ended up getting a bussing gig at Minnie's, because I was like "I'm not above bussing…" and I proved my work ethic, my reliability. I loved my co-workers. They weren't all as… reliable…as I was, but they were a great time, and I moved up really fast to bartender, and then on. I managed a steakhouse in North Bend for a while, then banquet and wedding stuff. I moved on to Vessel, the old Vessel, back when it was on Fifth. I owe a lot to Jamie Boudreau, actually. I learned a lot there.
Have you always just been a kickass bartender?
No, no. Robert Hess actually came into the steakhouse I managed in North Bend and asked me to make an Old Fashioned, as he does, and he told me it was bad, so…
Somehow, with your hand in all these pots, you manage to travel more than most, mostly for industry events. Where are you going next?
I'm actually going to Scotland next week! I had said, "This year, I'm not going to travel so much, I'm going to stay put." But about a year ago, both Chris and I entered this Ardbeg competition, and we both made the Top 5.
Chris actually won, so the prize was a trip to the distillery, and it came with as a plus one. As soon as Chris told me about his drink, I knew it was going to win. Mine is on our menu, Ainsley's Meadow. We're going to spend three or four days at Ardbeg, then at least a night at Laphroaig, and try and see a few more distilleries.
I just got back from judging the Diageo World Class in Portland, and I'm going to Denver the day after we get back from Scotland to judge the Toques and Tails competition—it's a food and cocktail competition. And in July, I'm heading to Brazil with Novo Fogo Cachaca for the World Cup! (So, no Tales of the Cocktail?) Maybe not. It'd be the first time, but you never know, things change and move so fast in this industry, it's entirely possible. The first year I opened Rob Roy, I was invited. We'll see.
I suppose we should maybe mention that you're a woman? Who tends bar? Really well, obviously. Should we discuss?
Sometimes it's hard for me to look at myself from the outside. I've always been a woman so I don't know what it's like to not be one. I've always worked hard, and been a creative person. I would like to think that I am where I am because of that; however, I do realized that I often get chosen for things because I am female. That's okay though, I'll take it, I'll show the world how a woman gets it done.
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