Welcome back to The Barkeepers, a column dedicated to the men and women who work behind some of Seattle's hottest bars.
It started with a celery soda that is fiercely sought after by some of Seattle’s best restaurants. The owner of Seattle Seltzer Company, Anna Wallace is obsessive when it comes to tinkering with technique to create the brightest, freshest flavors in her soon-to-be famous sodas. Though she has yet to open a storefront, Wallace is already testing her wares on accommodating colleagues and in cocktails for you.
But before there was soda, the statuesque beauty held it down at The Walrus and the Carpenter, Dot’s Delicatessen (RIP), and now at Single Shot. Eater sat down with the tattooed lady to discuss the future of Seattle Seltzer, why-oh-why Dot’s had to close, and whether it’s really okay to drink cocktails with your dinner.
Last I saw you, you were selling secret cocktails with your celery soda. What’s the story with Seattle Seltzer Company?
I’m in the process of writing my business plan right now, working out next steps for bottling and production and maybe even a little retail space.
Right now, I operate out of the commissary kitchen at Rain Shadow (in Pioneer Square, owned by partner Russ Flint). I make everything by hand myself, currently, so I have enough sodas to have about three accounts at any given time, including Rain Shadow. The next steps include hiring staff and finding space to produce out of. I want to be very thoughtful with the next few steps.
I’m a very ambitious person, so for me, I’m always thinking endgame. But you have to take those middle steps.
When did you start being interested in making sodas?
I was working at Oddfellows and there was a baker there, Quill was her name, and she had just bought a couple books about soda pop. I looked at them and realized it could be an interesting adventure to experiment with sodas and expand my repertoire as far as what I could create behind the bar.
I started making ginger beer and learned to ferment that, and over the years, I began to play with ideas of flavors and how to make them really vibrant and get around oxidization. The sustainability was next, then the carbonation. It became a radical search to perfect the technique and get to the next level, like a video game.
I’m really in love with classic American stories, and I started reading about celery soda, but the Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray stuff is just sugar and artificial flavoring. Celery is such a great flavor, so herbaceous. But in soda form, it takes on a spicy brightness; people often compare it to ginger beer even though they’re night and day.
So I started fooling with that, and all my dear, supportive friends at Walrus & the Carpenter, where I was working, I started subjecting them to tasting different recipes, different formulas, different combinations… Figuring out the nuances. I had the end date, which was the opening of Rain Shadow, where Russ was reserving a tap for me. So, what was this fun, side project for me, it had a very real future.
Did people love the soda off the bat or was there somewhat of a training the public that had to happen?
The celery soda was picked up immediately. People were all talking about it, writing "you have to try the celery soda." GQ said to try it with the corned beef on rye. It was kind of cool. It was like this little side thing, not intended to be more than me learning and picking up new techniques.
Beverages, whatever they are, should enhance whatever’s happening in the moment. So, what I was really striving for with the celery soda was to make it food-friendly, rounded.
When I started with celery, I was taking it and putting it in a goddamn Robot Coupe. I was basically processing it, straining it, and then trying to figure out how to keep the vibrancy. I got the color down, finally, then the flavors… then I wanted to turn everything into a carbonated beverage. I had a childlike enthusiasm, was asking all the questions, nothing was too mundane.
Besides making it to serve at Rain Shadow, what else have you done with it?
Just figuring out how to produce enough for restaurants. Walrus had it, it was at Essex for a while, then at Whale Wins. Manolin has it now, and they’re making a really good cocktail with tequila. Watching people take this product I make and seeing how bartenders and creative types create things with it... I’m trying not to be borderline narcissistic about it. The Whale Wins had a cocktail that was almost Waldorf Salad-like, with the celery soda, walnut bitters… it made me so excited. I never would’ve gone down that path, but I get to supply them with something they’re going to turn into really thoughtful, creative recipes.
How did that versatility integrate into the plan, and how do you make something that can do so well standing alone but become something else as well?
There wasn’t that much foresight put into it, honestly. It was about how to make a perfectly balanced soda, one that is technically precise. And the cool thing about a lot of the recipes that I’ve worked on over my career is there’s never just one endgame thing that happens.
The good news is, it mixes really well with a lot of different flavors. And then there’s this other thing happening, where the excess becomes this really green, intense flavor, and it’s the stuff you’d normally skim off. I’ve been turning it into shrub and giving it away to play with. Eventually it could become a cordial. I have this dream of making a true seltzer with the solids, which becomes really light in flavor… I just want to facet this flavor profile in a really complete way. Plus, there’s essentially no waste.
It’s been two years, and the quality of it is nailed down, which is the most important thing. Now, branding is becoming important. I’m very particular about how I want the voice, the personality to come off.
How do you define that voice?
I’d like it to feel like an old soul, if you will. You could look at Seattle Seltzer Company, and know it was established in 2012, but you could feel like it’s always been there.
My really good friend, James Zerkel, has been tremendous with helping me do my branding. I’d like to have a great nostalgic feel, but without it being so antiquated, it’s alienating.
Do you think even once you expand Seattle Seltzer, you’ll still be behind a bar?
Bottom line, the reason I enjoy what I do so much is the people. So, to remove myself from working with people in that regard would be a challenge for me. Somehow or another, I’ll always find a way to work directly with the guest. I teach at The Pantry at Delancey, which is a really great way to dig in and ask people questions, find out what they enjoy. It’s very similar to being at a bar or a restaurant, but more pointed; you get more control over what’s happenings.
But that’s what I’m toying with right now: is Seattle Seltzer going to be production space in the meantime or will it have a retail and bar space? It’s TBD for the moment.
As you expand, how will you integrate other flavors? Are you seeking to follow kind of the Rachel’s Ginger Beer model, with seasonal versions of a single base flavor?
I appreciate what she’s got going on; she has this really fresh, farmers’ market niche. But for me, what gets me excited are the really Americana, traditional, roots-oriented flavors. So, on deck I’ve got orange pop with fresh oranges and really bright, fizzy soda. It’ll debut in Ericka Burke’s Chop Shop, when it opens. I’m putting her bar program together.
So, it’ll be there exclusively? What kind of oranges?
For a little while. I’m making everything by hand, so I can’t really expand too fast. I’m using navel oranges, and not really looking at it from a hyper-craft perspective. But more of a blue collar, good, earnest, consistency standpoint. Sourcing is always important to me, but as far as the flavor profiles, I’m thinking of the way things would be made. Like, with a root beer, making it with actual roots that you would brew into a beverage, so it’s almost more medicinal. I’m always trying to work my recipes into something that feels like it has some history and soul to it. I’ll do lemon-lime eventually. 7-Up doesn’t have a citrus flavor to it; it’s like sugar and bite. Mine will taste like lemons and limes and be fizzy and refreshing and bright.
What are you putting your sodas in?
They get kegged and carbonated—that was a real process to figure out. Bottling is in the works, with the branding in progress.
Hot button issue: Bottled cocktails? Discuss.
Oh, big time. I used to think that was cheating; that kegged and bottled cocktails were the epitome of laziness, thoughtlessness. But I’ve done things like Outstanding in the Field, with a jockey box with an old Coleman cooler with taps coming out of it—it’s pretty sexy, actually—and I stood in the middle of this field at the farm serving celery soda cocktails out of it. It was really fun, but everything came premade and at that time, I was figuring out how to scale recipes. It was a cool lesson to exact the balance, consistency.
No longer is it feeling like "whatever, just give them a kegged cocktail." Now, it’s about bringing drinks to the masses. My problem was the throwaway quality of making things easier but people who know me or work with me, they know I’m not about making anyone’s life easier. I’m about making it the best. It was really irking me. I think a lot of people don’t tie the idea of dilution into it. You mix all the ingredients and that’s it. That water element you’d get from shaking or stirring a drink is not there.
Can we talk about Dot’s? You left Walrus to run dinner service, but it ended up closing pretty shortly after the remodel. We still haven’t gotten over it...
I was living down the street from it in Fremont when it first opened, and had been dating Russ for a little while. I went and picked up some pâtés and a sandwich and brought it all back and it was delicious. When I finally met Miles [James], he was just this giant tattooed Yogi Bear of a man, and we started talking and totally hit it off. And at the time, I had just finished a project consulting on the cocktail menu at Hot Cakes for Autumn Martin. At this point, I just wanted to be in everyone’s space and work with everyone and help make their ideas come to fruition, and finesse them. So when he was talking about dinner service, I offered to help him… We had just opened Rain Shadow Two and I was in this mode. I came in and observed dinner service and worked a couple of them, and we started to formulate what the service should look like.
Then, Miles was calling me often enough to say, "hey, come work for me, come work for me." I was really happy at the Walrus and I was thriving at the Walrus. So, this was that moment where I was taking a chance to do a project of passion—to turn around a business that wasn’t profitable. We put our hearts and souls into it, and we were so proud of it. I was especially proud of the bathroom; we spent like nothing on it and it went from truck stop disaster to high-class.
And people didn’t come and they didn’t come… The first opening days, we were packed. Line was out the door, the food was amazing, music was loud… We really dialed in service and put a ton of energy into training and product knowledge and team spirit and morale. So, when it started to fall off, we were like "okay, it’s just the opening energy fizzling a little," and then it really started to fall off. The place just wasn’t profitable and we had sunk a bunch of money into trying to turn it around, and now it really wasn’t profitable. The main backers, and Miles, decided to pull the plug two months in.
When Miles told us, it was a Thursday night, and his partners had wanted him to just close up shop that night. But we decided to do one more day of service. I called the staff that night to explain to them what was going on, and one person was like "well I’m not coming in then," but everyone else pulled together. We played gangster rap at top volume and had a line down the block, and people came by and sort of said their goodbyes, and dinner service was what it should’ve always been: a packed room, with people excited about the food, excited about the energy in the room. And that was it. That was the last day.
How did you make that cocktail menu sing without booze-booze on the menu?
We had a really restrained cocktail menu. It was probably one of my favorite moments in cocktail menus, because we didn’t have space, we didn’t have money, we didn’t have a bartender. The Rubik's Cube was how to make delicious beverages that everyone could put together on the fly. I put a lot of energy into flavor profiles that were almost complete: just add soda, or just add sparkling wine. So, for me, it really challenged me to take a big, deep breath and I was extremely happy with the results. I worked on making a perfect Manhattan sans bourbon. The perfect vermouth cocktail. Someone who wanted to come in and have a boozy cocktail, it’d satisfy that craving, but without punching you in the face. I felt inspired by having all those limitations.
How did you end up at Single Shot?
So, Dot’s closed, and I was just kind of… I was excited that I had this blank slate in front of me to figure out what I was going to do next. James Sherrill called the day it closed and told me about Single Shot. At the time I hadn’t met (owner) Ruadhri McCormick, and we can’t put our finger on it, but we should’ve met somehow, because we have everyone in common. So I met him and saw the space and said "yeah, sure call me." And it was the end of summer, they were getting ready to open soon, and I hadn’t heard from them. So I thought maybe they forgot about me or something, and I was getting ready to write it off. And right at that moment, I got a text from Ruadhri and he said "Okay, do you have two days a week for us?"
There are so many incredible bartenders there, with Adam Fream and Ruadhri and you and everyone. What’s your role?
I’m having a great time, not managing anything there, so I get to put all my energy into my projects. And my sweet coworkers put up with me being my sounding board and allowing me to bring in my syrups, my deadkill for the day, and let me do my thing.
I’m always working on some syrup. I did a winter citrus syrup with a little Tabasco and olive brine, and the end result was sort of effervescent, like it was fizzing on your tongue—even though it’s a still syrup. It’s stuff like that where I’m trying to play with mouthfeel, beyond just making it taste good. Like, orange makes you salivate, gets your appetite whet, your digestive juices flowing… I actually just salivated thinking about it… but it’s one of the things I like to play with in drinks, where I like to think, how can I make this more of a sensory experience?
It’s also coordinates with my obsession with ritual. How do you give beverages this full roundness of life, rather than just being something that you consume?
What would you say about people who say cocktails don’t go with food?
I’ve only ever worked places with food. I’ve never been attracted to being at a bar that has a cocktail program and maybe a couple wines and some beer and a fried snack. For me, I really like the aspect of dining. Of piecing together an experience involving food and beverages.
But I’d say I fit into that category. If you want cocktails with your food, I’ll happily create something that will accompany the food. But I tend to be a total purist. You have your aperitif or hors d’oeuvres hour, and food should fit. If you’re having an aperitif, some salty ham or a cool pickled snack makes sense to me. If it’s dinner time, I don’t want to drink Negronis and sours… I want to switch to a glass of wine that enhances the food. I don’t want to sit down and have a glass of whiskey throughout my meal. I want that glass of whiskey or scotch to be the last thing I put in my mouth, besides a toothbrush. But for those who want to have a cocktail with their meal, great, I say "do it till it don’t feel good no more."