Last weekend was unofficially Murray Stenson weekend in Seattle’s bars. The city’s most famous bartender died on Friday at the age of 74, so every round came with a cheers to Murr the Blur, and Murray stories were flowing as freely as the Chartreuse.
Here’s one to start, from Matt Pachmayr, now the bar manager at Le Coin, who worked with Stenson at Il Bistro:
“He was the best host I’ve ever seen in my life. My favorite Murray story is, this guest was doing the thing where he hits on every single woman down the bar. So I was like, ‘Yo, Murr, I’m gonna go take this guy out,’ and he was like, ‘I got it.’ I see him talking to the guy and then he places a drink order, and I’m like, ‘What the fuck?’
“So Murray goes into the liquor cabinet, and this is the only thing I know was in the cocktail — a bottle of Montana whiskey that a regular had brought for us. I see the guy take a drink, and he makes, like, a pinched face, like ‘Disgusting!’ He put the drink down after one sip, paid his tab, and left. Murray Jedi mind-tricked him into leaving. He kicked the guy out with a drink. He kicked him out by giving him incredible service. And the guy paid for it, and he TIPPED.”
That’s how people who knew Stenson remember him — as the bartender every bar regular would love to have in their corner, the bartender other bartenders aspired to be.
Born in 1949, Stenson moved with his family to Kirkland as a kid from tiny Colville, Washington, and got his start tending bar in the ’70s at swanky Benjamin’s in downtown Bellevue. Later, he polished his skills at Seattle bars like Henry’s Off Broadway and Oliver’s at the Mayflower Park Hotel. He’s most closely associated with Il Bistro, where he tended bar during the ‘90s, and the Zig Zag Café, where he spent the early 2000s. In 2010, his fellow bartenders named him the best bartender in America at the Tales of the Cocktail festival. He left the Zig Zag in 2011 and suffered from various health issues in the last decade, including a heart attack and a case of Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare neurological disorder.
He’s perhaps most famous for reintroducing the world to the classic cocktail the Last Word.
In a 2020 blog post, bar industry veteran Casey Robison recounted how this came about. In 2003, Stenson told Robison, a bar had copied the Zig Zag’s cocktail menu. “So we started looking for drinks that included the kinds of alcohol that other bars probably didn’t carry.” The Last Word, which Stenson dug up from a dusty copy of a 1951 cocktail recipe book called Bottoms Up, included Chartreuse, and Maraschino liquor along with lime juice and gin.
“The Last Word went on to become a staple on the menu at Zig Zag,” Robison writes, “and after a few years, especially with the rise of cocktail blogging, the Last Word and Murray became synonymous with each other within the industry. As we discuss his history and relationship with the Last Word, Murray just shrugs. Reflecting the characteristic calm and blue-collar humility that has made him Seattle’s most beloved and iconic bartender, he simply tells me: ‘I got famous on someone else’s drink. That’s about it.’”
It wasn’t just Stenson’s drink-making ability that people remembered, it was the way he had about him.
Jamie Buckman, who tended bar at Bastille and Bar Sabine for ages, had this to say about Stenson as a mentor:
“Murray had a way about him; a gentleness and a kindness that you only encounter in another human once in a while. A patience mixed with playfulness and sincerity. Many people will tell stories about his knowledge, his impeccable memory, his mentorship or his flawless mechanics behind the bar. They’ll tell you about how he connected strangers, how he’d remember your name a year later after only meeting you once, and how he would openly and lovingly share any and all of his knowledge with you. But Murray also taught us to be passionate and professional, and to be honest and humble. He was a beacon of hospitality in an industry that has a tendency to eat you alive.”
Over a Hot Charlotte — another of Stenson’s signature drinks from his Zig Zag era — Keith Waldbauer at The Doctor’s Office told me what he learned from Stenson.
“He lived up to the hype. People might make better drinks than Murray, but nobody bartended better. Huge difference! Murray was a living school, but without being a teacher. I originally met him when I was working at Ethan Stowell’s first restaurant, Union, and really getting into classic cocktails, and a regular customer told me, ‘You need to meet somebody. This is your soulmate.’ He sent me down to the Zig Zag. I started just hanging out there with a bunch of other bartenders, four or five of us, and we would be there to learn. We’d sit there in a row at the bar with pens and paper while Murray worked and take notes.”
Waldbauer nodded at Chelsea Matthews, who’s tending bar alongside him. “There’s now a generation of bartenders who give off what they’ve learned to thousands of Seattleites every night. Chelsea here is the next generation, and she is inadvertently learning from Murray, thanks to everything I learned from him. I see her picking up things that come directly from Murray, so in that way, his memory’s gonna live forever.”
So will the stories. Here’s one for the road, from Lauren Thompson, who tends bar at Oliver’s Twist: “Murray sat at my bar once, and I was super honored to have him! I was so excited to make him a drink, and he ordered a Miller High Life. Classic Murray.”