I had a chance to visit Seattle this Summer with my family. Since we had the kids with us, I didn’t get a chance to do a real detailed exploration of this, one of America’s premier cocktail towns, but I made sure to have enough time to hit a few highlights, and to get a feel for the general cocktail environment in town.
For a variety of reasons, I will lead with a review of Liberty, at 517 15th Ave. E. (@LibertyLovesYou on Twitter) Liberty is the love child of cocktail warriors Andrew Friedman and Keith Waldbauer. Andrew started Liberty in 2006, with Keith joining him later, so that makes this a very well-established and long-lived high-end bar. I’ve known, or at least “internet known”, Keith since I started blogging, as his now fallow Moving at the Speed of Life was one of the first cocktail blogs I read and among the first such blogs written by a working pro.
Liberty and its owners take great care to characterize it as “just a neighborhood bar”, rather than some Fancy Dan Craft Bar.
This is a load of bull fritters.
I insist that this is a fabulous, high-end bar. From the back wall (pictured above) full of a head-spinning array of ingredients headlined by a magnificent but not over the top selection of whisk(e)ys, to the menu filled with a great selection of classics and modern creations, to each and every drink that I saw placed before me or any other customer, Liberty is a cocktail lover’s dream. This is place with drinks like the Point of No Return, which simply lists fire among its ingredients. (If you visit Liberty, be sure to try one. It’s both delicious and a lot of fun to watch being made.)
There is also an excellent balance between the types of drinks on the menu. Andrew and Keith offer not just a wide variety of spirit bases and flavor profiles, but also what I’ll call “levels” of drinks. Many craft palaces I enter have menus of naught but ridiculously baroque concoctions that will be awesome to talk about with one’s fellow geeks at Tales of the Cocktail, but are too bitter, complex, or simply weird for anyone else. There are drinks here for the snob who isn’t “on duty” that evening, and the “training wheels” offerings still have something of interest to be learned from.
That said, Liberty also really is a neighborhood joint. Liberty’s location is one of the things that really strikes me about it. It is is located on a fairly modest stretch of retail shopping in a quiet residential neighborhood, rather than in the restaurant, tourist, or entertainment districts where most “serious” craft bars dwell.
Tourists like me are an anomaly in Liberty, and businessmen drinking here are likely doing so on their own dime, rather than an expense account. As a result, the prices are almost shockingly modest for such offerings.
To satisfy the Licensing Gods’ demand for food service, not to mention that of any reasonable drinker’s stomach, Liberty has the elegant and tasty solution of devoting about five feet of its bar to a sushi counter, with one or two cutters as demand warrants.
The place has that well-used feel of many older bars, the kind that have been open forever, have seen weddings and wakes, sometimes for the same customer, yet never ever feel run-down, through the sheer force of the love and responsibility of its proprietors. The seating is comfortable, both at the bar and around the room. The bar itself is moderately sized and fits in visually, rather than dominating the space like some altar to the Gods of Fernet and Angostura. There is even a large back room for meetings and private parties, but which is essentially invisible to the regular clientele.
Your average oblivious Jack and Coke drinker could make of Liberty his Third Place happily for years and never care or even realize that he was spending his time in a temple of high-end concoctions.
And this last point, the seamless melding of tavern and cocktail palace is what makes Liberty so interesting to me and, so important to the craft movement.
Craft cocktails as an industry have had a fascinating decade-plus of growth now, and are in a different stage of development in nearly every city in America. When you travel like I do all over the country killing people, you can move forward and backward through the whole history of the craft, using airline or auto as your time machine.
Many locales still have yet to see the first blush of our passion; the only “lime” in bars still has with the word “Rose’s” writ upon the bottle. Other cities have merely discovered the joys, and the commercial possibilities, of fresh or more exotic ingredients. Many, like my own Columbus, have a few restaurants and bars that are making a try at true high-end drinks. And cities like Seattle or New York have reached the point where the craft bars are a well-understood phenomenon, and most high-end restaurants have reached the point of having to offer competitive programs of their own.
But like any movement that is reaching maturity, at least in some markets, there is now a lot of angst about where to go from here. Because the simple facts are, craft cocktails made with exotic syrups, or oddball bitters, or cinnamon smoke, are not for everyone. And even among those who do enjoy them, they are unprepared to drink them all the time. There are very real limits to speed of growth and profitability in the craft movement.
This is why bars like Liberty, and Anvil in Houston, and to some extent Passenger or Bourbon in Washington, DC, are so significant, and why I admire them so much. These are places that serve all drinkers well, not just our specific clientele. The aforementioned Mr. Jack and Coke can happily hang out there with his buddy Mr. Vieux Carre. And Mr. Sazerac can find the opportunity to hit on Miss Greyhound here. (Mr. Grey Goose Martini, don’t waste your time hitting on Miss Knob Creek Old-Fashioned. It’s not going to end well for you.)
Bar like Liberty are where previously undiscovered reserves of cocktail lovers (as opposed to cocktail drinkers) will be uncovered. The easy atmosphere provides no barrier to entry for the uninitiated (quite the contrary), but the magnificent offerings are the sort that can open doors and minds. If you visit Seattle, take the time one evening to cab your way to Liberty and settle in for a great evening. If you live there, this is the kind of place you take your uninitiated friends when they are resisting being initiated….