Drinking Seattle: The Long and Winding Road

Seattle is made for cocktails. It is not one of the oldest cities in the U.S., being founded by Europeans around 1851, and even the cocktail itself is older than Seattle. The reason why Seattle is made for cocktails is the same reason why grunge music came out of Seattle and why Starbucks started there: the weather, cold and rainy. Even in the middle of July, I had to wear a sweater at night, and it drizzled at various points during the night and day. This kind of weather makes one retreat into the reassuring arms of emo-rock, a cup of coffee, or, in my case, a cocktail. These things remind one that life is worth living, even in a drab city. Maybe that's why the city still seems to vibrant. It embraces the cocktail. Just remember: out of 365 days, it has precipitation on 150 of those, and is cloudy 201 days. That's just crazy.

There were two places I wanted to try on my visit to Seattle. Sure, I wanted to see the Pacific, and I wanted to walk through Pike Market to see the fish mongers. Sure, I wanted to see the losers, I mean historically minded coffee drinkers, line up outside the first Starbucks that opened in 1971. But there were two places that I really wanted to see.

The first one was a speakeasy called the Needle and Thread. At the back of this other place called Tavern Law, there is a phone and a door. Call on the phone, beg to be admitted, and maybe they will let you go upstairs to a 20-seat lounge with no cocktail menu and no food. Supposedly, this one has a single bartender who asks for you flavor profile. Cliched, sure, but still cool. GQ even named it the number 25 cocktail bar in America.

The other place I really wanted to go is the Zig Zag Cafe, which GQ named the #1 bar in all America. Yes, that's right, the #1 bar in all of America. My favorite Houston bar, Anvil, is #15, so the Zig Zag Cafe has it beat. With one opportunity and a closer proximity to the Zig Zag, that was our choice.

I had heard of the long lines at the Zig Zag, how a seat at the bar was impossible, and how a Friday night was probably going to result in a wait rivaling opening night at the final Harry Potter flick.

We had trouble finding it, not realizing that it's actually located on a flight of stairs off the main road. But we got a table right away. Not a coveted bar seat, but a table nonetheless. First thing, they brought everyone water, the first sign of a good cocktail bar. I get a glass of water with every drink, anyway, so it's nice to not have to ask.

I started with the Last Word. In case you haven't heard, the bar guy at the Zig Zag, Murray Stenson, is the guy who revitalized the Last Word, who brought it back to life. It was an old cocktail, but he brought it back to its current status as a bar menu staple. I love the Last Word, but I have never ordered it at a bar. Every Last Word I have ever had, I have made myself, and I love that drink. It is a perfectly balanced cocktail with flavors that the palate doesn't know what to do with. It pulls one out of one's comfort zone but then seems so familiar, almost like a gin sour.

But if the Zig Zag brought it back, they had to make it better than me, so I had to try it. It looked great, with the addition of a brandied cherry as a crowning touch. And the taste...lemon. That was it. It was like a sour that was out of whack. Like the fresh lemon they squeezed in there just had a bit too much juice. The Chartreuse was gone, and the maraschino left only hints of its glory.

I drank in hast, ready to move on to the next drink, an original Zig Zag creation I had been eying on the menu. I chose the Luxuria, a drink made with rye, benedictine, and some other liqueurs that I can't remember. Again, a drink that didn't suit my tastes. I do not presume to know more than these professional mixologists. Heck, this bar is the best bar in America. So I have two choices. I can blame my palate and say that this drink didn't suit my tastes, or I can blame the bartender. As I think about it, I do a little of both. I should have known that I wouldn't love the Luxuria because there was too much going on in it. I can't remember all of the ingredients because there were just so many of them. There were so many liquors and liqueurs in it that they all seemed to compete with one another in my mouth, like they were each jockeying for position on my tongue. Maybe someone would like it, but I didn't.

So GQ can call the Zig Zag the best cocktail bar in America, but I won't. Yes, it's unfair to judge an entire bar program in two drinks, but that' all I have to go on. These two drinks did not warrant such an exclusive title, but I know I may have merely ordered incorrectly, too. If I had chosen different drinks, I may give the Zig Zag its crown. As it is, though, I reserve the appellation. Or maybe it's because Murray Stenson recently left the Zig Zag to take over at another restaurant. Who knows.