Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Tales Dream

I had a little fable dream the last morning I woke up in New Orleans. It was a story of love. I debated for some time as to who it should be for, when finally the skies of my mind cleared and I realized it was for everyone. So if you are you, then this is for you...

Once upon a time we had not yet met, and as a result there was a hole in the sky where you and I belonged. Upon meeting, we knew our love would fill that hole, and so up we flew. But we didn't realize that our love was even bigger than that hole in the sky, and also made of stronger material. And so it was that our love shattered the sky entirely. It instantaneously burst into infinite tiny fragments, scattering across the earth, nestling into the ground and appearing as if tiny red rubies. The sky was now open and stretched out forever.

To this day, when the people of the world look to the wide open, neverending sky, or find one of those precious red jewels upon the earth, they swell with gratitude for the love we had. We blessed them all with something to live for.

Goodbye everyone. See you all next time.

photo by Thomas Bondesson .

Some Post-Tales Reflections on The American Bartender of The Year


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."

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.

Congratulations, Murray.

photo by Dan Crawford

Friday, July 23, 2010

New Orleans: The Sorrow, The Pity, The Awe, The Joy

If I were ever to move to New Orleans I would almost certainly end up writing the best novel ever written. People all over the world would drop their bags and look to the sky in awe and reverence over what had just been accomplished, sensing the seismic alteration of the universe my words had caused. Mothers would clutch their children. Construction workers would remove their protective eyewear and proudly wipe away tears. Football players would pull up short of tacking their prey and instead offer pats on the back and warm embraces. Such is the level of inspiration of New Orleans and such are the possibilities when it gets wired into my brain. The title of the book would be one of those poignant couplings of words we typically take to be contradictory, such as Joy and Sorrow, Hope and Doom, Life and Death, or Sex and the City.

Inevitably a great deal of our time here always revolves around the glorious French Quarter, with its beautiful old buildings and fascinating people, where brilliant troubadours sing from the street corners hoping to be bestowed with a smattering of loose change while lesser talented but better represented musicians earn a living performing inside the bars. Where the people revel in the street corners into the wee hours of the night while a row of horse police line up waiting for one to drop so they can pounce. Where men painting buildings sometimes simply pause and stand still, looking off into the distance as they allow themselves to cool. Where people with carts piled high with new toilets to be delivered and installed discover new and creative ways to roll wheels over a decaying cobblestone street. Where a confused man demands a refund at Walgreen's because he wanted cheese sticks and accidentally bought pretzels.

But this year more than ever before we have found ourselves entering other areas of town. Wednesday night William Grant and Sons bussed 800 of us to the Elms Mansion in the Garden District. Among the well lit partisans in the lush lawn, surrounding the gazeboed brass band, we battled the masses for some sours featuring Hendick's Gin, sweet stuff, sour stuff, and egg white. They were delicious, and when a friend disappeared in quest of air conditioning, I got to drink his as well as mine. Fair play to me. We then made our way across the lawn to the Solerna blood orange liqueur area, where Ms. Jackie Patterson was concocting drinks of Solerna for the adoring throngs. I believe the drink she placed in my hand was simply Solerna and club soda. I can't be sure. As usual, the mere sight of my dear friend Jackie had completely taken my breath away and I was rendered unable to discern the basic sensory input of my surroundings. She might have placed diesel oil in my hand at that moment, and I would have indulged in it with glee.

Inside we found smiling faces pouring glasses of Balvenie and Glenfiddich, and other smiling faces of loved ones we had long not seen. This was my re-entry to New Orleans, and though I have only been here twice before, it felt like a sort of homecoming. And I should mention, New Orleans, Super Bowl champions suits you well. I haven't seen you since you won. You look gorgeous.

Last night, inspired by the opportunity to spend some time with pal Jon Santer, I finally made the cab ride out to Cure. I'd been hearing about Cure for years, and have a long standing mountain of respect for Cure guru Danny Valdez and former Cure/current Teardrop Lounge of Portland, OR bartender Ricky Gomez. So what the hell have I been waiting for? A cab? Yes! And it came. And we went. And I loved it.

The food and drink was delicious, but more importantly the moment we passed through the doorways we had that feeling. That perfect feeling when you enter somewhere and you know you are in some place special. Some place where nothing bad could ever happen to you. Some place where if you died there your soul would flap straight up to heaven and have a bed waiting for it with a cocktail on the end table and a glass of water so as you don't wake up parched.

We ended the night by standing on the street corner outside of the Absinthe House with literally everyone else in the entire world. I went with the flow of my own gentle inebriation and told loved ones things I believe to be true, things like “I love you,” and “I always will,” and “forever and ever.”

I woke up feeling very proud of myself.

Thank you New Orleans. I love you, and I always will, forever and ever.

More to come...