My last day in New Orleans was Sunday, July 25th. That day at noon, being a few hours away from my flight departure, an hour past having checked out of my hotel after getting one hour of sleep, and 6 hours after having gotten caught in the mighty aqua force of Tropical Storm Bonnie on Iberville Street, I was interviewed by Tim McNally on AM 690 WIST New Orleans. Barely moments into the interview, and before I'd really even gotten my bearings, Tim asked me what got me into this whole cocktail field.
Oddly enough, I had no prepared answer for this. I'd never really thought about it. It just kind of seemed to happen. But faced with the embarrassment of making my live radio debut by saying, "uhmmmmm," I quickly reached into the proper spot of my subconscious and fetched the real answer. The real answer was, quite simply, Murray Stenson.
Murray Stenson is a bartender at The Zig Zag Cafe in Seattle. He's been bartending here in Seattle for over 30 years. Those of you familiar with US history know full well that Seattle did not exist 30 years ago. Therefore, the idea that Murray has been bartending here for longer than that is impossible. And that's OK. Because all of what Murray does is impossible.
This past Saturday night, Murray was named Bartender Of The Year at the Spirited Awards at Tales Of The Cocktail. At the time, I was sitting in The Bourbon House having dinner, when a text I had requested from Jon Santer came in simply saying, "Murray won."
I love the cocktail industry. It is brimming with creativity and with beautiful and amazing people. The affection people have for what they do, and for the others that do it, is unmatched in any other community on earth I have ever encountered. But...too often the tireless self-promoters are the ones who gain notoriety, while the truly talented people are overlooked. Bartenders complain justifiably that this happens at the hands of the media and the spirit companies with their deep pockets. But even bartenders are not immune to it, often recognizing and seeking out their own peers who focus on making a name for themselves, while other more talented smiths of the craft focus on honing their skills, improving their bars, building the foundations of their community, pleasing their customers.
If ever in this industry there was a person who was emblematic of the humble devotees to the craft of bartending and the art of hospitality, forsaking the grand-standing and career building, it is Murray. It was only fitting that Murray was not there Saturday night to accept his award. He never seeks out the limelight, and would have been embarrassed, even encumbered, by all the attention. He would have had to schmooze it up with the throngs of new adorers, made appearances at the ensuing functions, and stayed up past his bedtime. All things I dare say Murray prefers to avoid.
All this is what makes it so special that Murray won. Hard work, dedication, and passion won. Bartending is hard work folks. I've done it a few times. It takes it out of you. Try doing it about eight thousand times. Now try doing it eight thousand times at such a level of intensity that you always inspire, and frequently straight up blow minds.
I wish the whole world could have been a pack of flies on the wall this past April, when at the unofficial wrap-up party for the Seattle BarSmarts program at Zig Zag, many of the world's finest bartenders sat at Murray's bar with jaws dropped and, in a few cases, tears in eyes, witnessing the Murray show. It wasn't about drink making technique. It wasn't about displays of cutting edge trends in mixology. It wasn't even really about the drinks. It was about an absolute master of his craft displaying an undying passion for what he does, an impossible level of speed and efficiency, and a keen awareness of every single person at his bar (and there were a LOT of them that night) that superseded even their awareness of themselves.
I've gone on long enough. I'd love to share anecdotes about amazing Murray feats, but I don't want to write a book here. Feel free to leave your own comments with your own Murray tales. Suffice to say, the judging panel of the Spirited Awards should be very proud of themselves. They got it all perfectly right.
photo by Dan Crawford