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The Essence of Essex: Kenaniah Bystrom Would Prefer Not to Tell You What to Drink

Welcome back to The Barkeepers, a column from Julia Wayne dedicated to the men and women who work behind some of Seattle's hottest bars.

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[Photos: S. Pratt]

Somehow, one of Seattle's best bars remains a tad under the radar while sharing a wall with the most bustling pizza place in town. For two years, Essex has been the little brother Delancey always knew it wanted, greeting customers waiting to dig into a pie with well-balanced cocktails and small plates.

Bar manager Kenaniah Bystrom has been on staff since before the paint dried. Amari lovers lining up to try Niah's gracefully shaped cocktail menu might be surprised to learn the narrow neighborhooder is the former dancer's first stint behind the stick.

Essex is your first bar gig. How did you end up managing it so quickly?
I started working at Delancey like three years ago, and during that time I started taking interest in the spirits world, cocktails, I guess because of Robert [Rowland] at Oliver's Twist, and I started trying to find a barback job in the city. Brandon [Pettit, of Delancey] one day told me we were going to open a bar next door. And so I figured they would need a barback, and decided, that's going to be me.

So I helped build out Essex, some of it, like put tables together, paint stuff, and assemble shelves. So I've been a part of Essex since before it opened, which was about two years ago.

And probably, like, 20 days into being open at Essex, both Brandon and bar manager, Gary, had their first children, like a day apart. But we had to stay open, because it's a business, and that's when I first started doing my first bartending shifts. So I learned really quick what to do and what not to do. Just getting thrown into the deep end of the pool.

You know a ton about what's on the wall at Essex. Where did you get your spirits knowledge?
I just read a lot, and would go out to bars and ask a lot of questions. I basically just watched other people work and listened to what they'd tell other people and take notes. And did my own research...I drank a lot. And at the end of every shift, I would pull down a bottle I didn't know, look it up online, taste it, and think about how I would describe it from my perspective.

Rather than me telling people what something tastes like, I wanted to figure out how to invite them into what story is, because everyone has a different perspective and reality when it comes to the flavor and taste and smell. And that's really what I feel like my job is, to introduce people to their own experience with what's going on in the glass, rather than projecting my preference of what's in the glass.

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Is that hard when people are constantly asking what you like to drink as a starting off point?
Yeah, I usually say "I could tell you what I like, but that's probably not going to be what you'd like." The majority of the population wants bourbon or rye, cocktails that make them feel more in touch with their masculinity. And I like daiquiris and gimlets and cosmos…I like drinks that go well with food. So, my goal is to guide people to order things that go with their food, because I feel like that's a lost part of the bartending culture. People don't really think about what they're going to eat with their drink, or how those work together, at least not with cocktails.

So, I usually try to discover what people would like to drink and I used to ask, "do you take your coffee black, or with cream or sugar? Or if you were to go to any bar, what would be your go to: gin and tonic, Manhattan, whiskey neat?" I try to get a conversation going that way, versus trying to project. Every once in a while, I'll try to change people's minds about daiquiris, and that usually goes pretty well.

Have you always been a rum fan, or is it part of the resurgence of tiki drinks that you've been featuring at your bar (on Tiki Tuesday)?
No, rum was the first spirit I tasted, when I was like 18, and then for a long time, I was afraid of it. It was like Bacardi 151. I had a sip—I called it my secret sip—I kind of thought it was my asshole beverage, that it turned me into an asshole. And then I realized I was just an 18-year-old. And then there was a rum that changed my life, Aniversario, which was roasty, had notes of vanilla…It was so long ago, but I remember being like, "that was fucking amazing." Now, I kind of just like getting a Rhum Agricole Blanc with a couple dashes of Peychaud's bitters. That was the first bitters bottle I ever bought.

You have a tattoo of it…
Yeah, it's a Peychaud's bottle as the barrel of a cap gun. It's kind of the story of my childhood self and my today self, just always playing. I used to play with cap guns and now I play with bitters, but it's all the same sort of thing, just messing around.

What do you think of the whole tiki revival in cocktail drinking these days?
I kind of figured out it was trending at the same time I had the idea for Taco Tuesday at the bar. There's something that tiki does for the cocktail culture, it kind of takes like this nuanced, highbrow bit away, and lets people sit back and enjoy the beverage. It elevates the party atmosphere instead of it being snobby. There's this feel of, "Oh I'm just going to drink, and this drink is going to go good with tacos, and that's okay."

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Where do the drink recipes come from for the Tiki list?
I researched Mai Tais, finding as many recipes as I could, and tweaked it down to a good balance. I wanted everything to be kind of dry, since I think people expect everything to be really sweet, with the pineapple and all that, like something they may have had on vacation in Hawaii. I wanted to take these really loud beverages down, make them like a girl you could see across the room in a really cute dress, and you're like nervous to talk to her, but you did it anyways.

That's kind of what I wanted people to experience with Tiki. Like, a Manahattan drinker doesn't usually go after having a drink with two types of rum, lime, Curacao, and orgeat, but then they taste it and are like "Oh, this is really dry, really delicate, really beautiful, but at the same time, I can feel it." So, finding something spirit-forward with the delicate kiss of citrus, that's the way I've been thinking about it. Just getting people outside of their comfort zones and getting people outside of their norms, which is what going out is supposed to be: trying new things, exploring, having an adventure.

What are some of the tough parts of working in a super narrow space with really tall shelves
The shelves are kind of annoying. Jay Kuehner said, "the prettier the room, the more dysfunctional the bar." And basically I put whatever we don't sell a lot of on the top shelf, otherwise it's just a pain in the ass. We use that ladder, but I don't know why it was decided to be that large. I wasn't in charge of any of the design, but I think about how I would design it all the time now, now that I know things.

We did a whole revamp of the well because we used to have just like two five-gallon ice wells, and had to refill them like 12 times a night. We recently cut into the marble and put a big ice well in. It's pretty streamlined and I took a lot of ideas from places where they can pound a lot of drinks out fast, like Percy's, and some dive bars. We don't have the same flow or pace of some bars where we can spend 5 to 6 minutes on a drink. We have to get them out fast and accurate and make people happy.

That's a wide berth. What would you describe the relationship with Delancey as a restaurant and the customers?
We're primarily a waiting room for Delancey, and often customers are anxious to get through their wait time and get to their pizza, so we like to make sure they don't have to wait around for their drink, too. We want to be delicate with people who are already mentally resigned to having two hours for a table for pizza. I had to figure out how to combine the craft cocktail world with a dive bar-style service and production. It's been a lot of fun to figure it out. I like to think of our service as a diner-style with a prettier room, kind of like the Sweet Hereafter in Portland. They have a beautiful room and it looks like a cocktail bar, but it's shots and beers and taking numbers at the bar. All the bartenders are these crass motherfuckers. We're somewhere between them and Canon.

We have a really great regular base that know when to come in and chat, and they're also regulars at Delancey. Right now, we're definitely dependent on Delancey's wait time for the brunt of our business, but we're definitely doing a lot of work to pull ourselves away from just being the waiting room for Delancey. We have a really incredible food menu, that's totally separate from the pizza and everything being served next door. We're working on some wood-fired items that are cooked in the same oven.

You have a past as a dancer. Does that affect your bartending self much?
Actually, yeah, quite a bit. In fact, one of the reasons Brandon hired me was because I was a dancer. He was actually a dancer, too. As far as the space, I try to conserve movement and move as deliberately as possible. I actually want to take the staff for a dance class and do spatial awareness exercises. The space has expanded a little bit from what it used to be, but it's still really tight back there, and being able to move through the bar and through the restaurant with the right steps would only up our service.

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Artistically, I think it has allowed me to listen to people's moods and attempt to distill their personalities and give that back to them (on a really good day.) I think the heart of Essex is being inspired by what is around us and giving that to our guests with complex, yet approachable, product. At the end of the 9 to 5 work day, we are where people feel comfortable sharing more than a simple hello. It has affected me very deeply to see how many people come together and create a really beautiful and inspiring community. That's the hoky poky.
—Julia Wayne
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