Welcome back to The Barkeepers, a column dedicated to the men and women who work behind some of Seattle's hottest bars.
Formerly the Japanese Commercial Bank, Pioneer Square stunner Good Bar has been fast gaining a reputation for its great drinks and upscale bar bites. Bar Manager Josh Batway has a lot to do with the increasing popularity, thanks to his menus full of original cocktails and smart takes on classics. Eater sat down with Batway to discuss what makes a great bar menu, cocktail foibles, and the new moves he has in mind as Good Bar reaches its first birthday next month.
How did you come to be Bar Manager at Good Bar?
I was with Skillet for a few years, from when they opened the diner on Capitol Hill through the Ballard opening, and then managed that. Eventually, I wanted to make the transition from working somewhere with cocktails into working at a cocktail-focused place. I was ready to be somewhere where people were coming to have what I was there to do.
What do you drink when you go out?
I almost always end up drinking something neat or a beer, even at cocktail bars. I like to try new things, new spirits and ingredients, but prefer them on their own. When I read a menu, I can just piece together what it will taste like in my mind, so it’s not really fun anymore. I also don’t want to make bartenders work harder than they have to already.
But I love making drinks for people, though, creating layers of flavor. And I definitely enjoy when people just ask me to make something up for them. If I do go out for cocktails, I’ll go to Canon, as it’s a more experimental type place.
Describe some of your favorite drinks on the Good Bar menu that are a little bit different.
Most drinks on our menu are based on classic cocktails, or the intersection of several coalescing into something new.
One of our bartenders, Dan, created the Carpano Antiki. We were wanting to make a Tiki drink with Italian ingredients. We brought in aspects like crushing the ice to order and lighting it on fire, and such, and the flavor profile is similar to a Jungle Bird.
My favorite thing on the menu, conceptually, is the Japanese Commercial Bank (Good Bar's long ago predecessor in the space). It’s based on The Japanese Cocktail, but it’s made with a very specific process. Instead of using traditional orgeat, we made our own and skipped the water. We made kind of an almond milk, using cognac instead of water to maximize the flavor.
It was inspired by this thing I’m really into: The Jerry Thomas Project that Dr. Adam El Megirab is doing. He has his own bitters company, making flavors like dandelion and burdock, and has a real interest in the history of cocktails and recreating those from Professor Jerry Thomas’s guide, How to Mix Drinks or The Bon Vivant's Companion, from 1862. I love nerding out on cocktail books and learning about the history of things.
Which cocktail trends do you find to be overplayed?
Citrus in everything, bitters in everything. I love playing with balance and acid, which are obviously needed for balance sometimes, but I like a little diversity. I know shrubs are played out a bit, and bitters can’t not be on a menu, but restraint is good on those.
Draft cocktails and barrel-aged cocktails are cool, but they need to make sense and be enhanced by using those methods, not just gimmicky. It’s not really a trend, but a big pet peeve of mine is when a menu lists an ingredient for a drink and I can’t taste it at all. You have to be really delicate with certain things, and that can be trickier than just saying, "I want to put fig in this," and leaving it at that.
I want to do something with persimmon this season and am working out how to transfer that flavor effectively. I also really want to make a drink with hops, to go back to that bittering agent issue. I want to make something with hops and apples next fresh hop season.
Have people discovered Good Bar? You’re a bit on the edge of the Pioneer Square scene, kind of off the drag.
I think it’s getting there. We’ve been redefining who we are, moving into a stronger cocktail bar menu. I think drinks were a little bit more basic before, and now we’re really getting the groove of experimenting. We’ve had some random nights where it goes from chill to a horde of people showing up out of nowhere. Games at the stadium really change things, of course, but we’ve been getting a more steady stream of neighborhood locals and industry folks, which we really appreciate.
What’s something about your menu that’s different than others?
You’ll notice a really wide range of base spirits, which is something I’m pretty obsessive about. You can list a ton of "brown bitter stirred" cocktails and that’s great, but pretty limiting for your clientele. When you expand, you can really please a lot more people. So, you’ll see a lot represented and plenty of bottles on our shelves to play with.
Name a cocktail trend that never took off but should have.
Flights of cocktails. I know it can be hard for people to look at spending 20 bucks in one go, but it’s a really nice way to explore how subtle changes in ingredients make drastic changes in flavor. I think you have to be a bit of a drink nerd to want to do flights, and if you are, you’ve probably tried two out of three of the drinks.
Are there cool things happening with a spirit or group of spirits you’re excited about?
I think the cask-finishing of whiskeys is awesome. Angel’s Envy is doing a rum cask that’s amazing, and Willett has a Curacao cask finish that is my favorite. The Westland Sherry Wood is so good, and part of our Westland flight featuring their great Scotch-style whisky from SoDo. Their Port cask finish is, in my opinion, one of the best being done right now.
What’s next for cocktails?
An awesome barkeep named Niah Bystrom just started working here, and he and I are talking about doing nitro cocktails, which would be amazing. I really want to get a laboratory distillation set, to add essential oils to drinks without adding body from those flavors.