Murray Stenson Needs Your Help

Source: NY Times

Seattle bartending legend Murray Stenson is very ill with a heart condition. It may require extensive, and thus expensive, heart surgery. And you probably know how much health insurance bartenders tend to have. A movement is underway to raise funds to help out Murray. You can go to to send a donation via PayPal. I have. Or, if you must do everything via Facebook, you can donate there, too. Though if you go the Facebook route, be aware that Zuckerman will get his cut, and Murray needs the money more. There will also be several benefit events at Northwestern cocktail bars in the coming days, so if you live up there, check out for info on those as well.

I was just going to sidebar this, but I decided to do a full post so I can explain why Murray may deserve your help, and also blog about the one time I got a chance to meet the man.

Murray is one of the Ur-Bartenders of the modern cocktail renaissance. And perhaps the Ur-Bartender of the Pacific Northwest cocktail movement, which in turn seems the most important wellspring of the whole cocktail geek/enthusiast side movement. I heard about Murray’s condition from Paul Clarke (a foundational, if not Ur-Blogger himself), and you can read his thoughts on Murray and how he nurtured boozenerds like Paul over at Cocktail Chronicles. Here’s a taste:

This is all to say that Murray’s given me a lot. And if you’re at all interested in cocktails and bars — and really, why are reading this blog if you’re not? — then he’s given you a lot, too, because this story I’m sharing about how Murray’s influenced me can be echoed by dozens of bartenders, bloggers, cocktail enthusiasts and others who enjoy relaxing in a bar, not only in Seattle but around the world, as well.

What distinguishes Murray from his contemporaries who resurrected the world of cocktails is that Murray remains a bartender. The DeGroffs and Regans of the world have gone forth and evangelized. They consult and write. And while they may still get behind the stick for an “Event” now and then, guys like that haven’t counted on tips to make the rent for a very long time. Very well-deserved fame has been good to them.

Fame and Murray don’t get along. Sure he is famous, in a certain way. The deeper you steep yourself in the craft cocktail culture, the more likely you are to know Murray, or at least know of him. And Murray values anyone who understands what Murray is doing, whether he knows you or not.

But when the mainstream media tried to make Murray into the next big “bar star”, it brought him nothing but misery. A few years back a major magazine wrote a profile of Murray and his then home, the Zig Zag, telling the world of this mixological colossus standing astride Peugeot Sound, mixing liquid miracles for the cognoscenti. Newspapers followed up, and the World beat a path to his door. Unfortunately, to Murray’s way of thinking, the World consists mostly of posers who don’t and can’t appreciate what he really does. The World that walked in his door was there mainly to be able to tell their friends that they’d been there, and would not return because they deep down didn’t understand what made Murray special. And most importantly, when the World is crowded into your bar every night, there is no room for your regulars. No room for the friends who knew Murray, appreciated what he did, and who had the knowledge to understand and let him do what he does so very well.

Murray couldn’t wait for the spotlight to dim, and never could recapture the magic of being a mere master craftsman behind the mahogany at Zig Zag. Which is why he has moved out to Jamie Boudreau’s Canon, where he would be working tonight, most likely, were it not for the heart condition which engenders this post.

That is where I met him, the one time I had that chance. I confess I was drunk before I walked through the door. Spending a few hours with Kieth Waldbauer at his bar Liberty will do that to a man. Kieth came with me, so at least Murray knew by association that I knew what I was doing, and not just some derelict. I haven’t blogged about Canon because I remembered almost nothing about it the next day, or to this day, except for one standout thing: Murray.

I like spending time in bars in large part because I like the kind of people who work there, and I like watching them go about their craft. This goes for regular bars, dive bars, and hotel bars too, in addition to the craft palaces I so adore. I know, at by now an unconscious level, what a good bartender looks like. And even through the haze of a couple hours at Canon, overlayed by whatever gin concoctions Murray prepared for me, it was apparent that this not just a good bartender, but a very special one.

His drinks, of course, were great. But I’ll leave the specifics of Murray’s mixological knowledge to folks like Paul, who’ve had years to experience and appreciate that. What I could see almost the instant we entered Canon was the diamond cutter focus that Murray brings to his work. His piercing gaze focuses on each customer in turn, giving them the attention they deserve. Drinks, no matter how complex, are made in the most efficient manner imaginable. Nothing behind his bar was ever out of place, no customer was ever long without a full glass, and yet he still had time to talk to everyone and make them feel like he was there for them.
In short he was in complete and utter control. Morganthaler has a bit of the same vibe. But whereas Jeff maintains his rule with a happy, albeit iron, fist, Murray stays king by always seeming a step ahead. Everyone gets in the weeds sometimes, but I wager the weeds fear Murray.

With which I return full circle. Murray is in the weeds right now. Weeds his skills aren’t suited for. He could use your help.


  1. James

    26 October

    Murray is one of the most incredible people you will ever meet. Having spent time in bars throughout cocktails havens like NYC and SF, I’ve never come across a bartender like Murray. He has an astonishing memory – I had been to Zig Zag once 3 years earlier on a busy night and I returned 3 years later to Murray saying “So, would you like another Bourbon Dynasty?”. He remembered the drink I had 3 years earlier. I was a “regular” by my second appearance in 3 years.. And his manner, humor, and general attitude really makes the customer feel special. So genuine, really seems to love talking to people and has an incredibly quick wit.

    Nevermind the fact that he does all of this while maintaining an impeccable bar, moving at 60 mph to make drinks, and putting together some of the best cocktails you’ll ever have. The guy is too good to be true. A class act beyond description, a master of his craft, and ultimately someone who makes you feel special (in a real, genuine way) the moment he engages you.

    Get well soon, Murray! We’re all pitching in!

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