New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles tend to get the bulk of the cocktail coverage, but don’t sleep on Seattle, which has a thriving cocktail scene of its own. One of the city’s leading practitioners is Zane Harris, who co-owns Rob Roy with fellow Vessel vet Anu Apte. Harris follows in the footsteps of his grandfather, a Bay Area barman in the ’40s and ’50s. Harris recently flew down to L.A. for a guest bartending stint at The Edison. Before he departed, he shared some insights about his background and approach.
Do you consider yourself a bartender or mixologist? What’s the difference?
To me, it’s quite simple and not a question of opinion. If you’re behind a bar, and tending it then you are a bartender no matter how good you are. Bartenders calling them selves a mixologist with no actual qualification is like a welder deciding one day to call himself a metal bonding specialist. Another way of putting it is a mixologist is in the drink business serving drinks and a Bartender is in the people business serving people. I personally strive to be a Bartender.
How did you become so interested in cocktails?
My Grandfather was a bartender in San Francisco in the 1940’s and 1950’s. When he passed away, I came across some old bar books that he may have used at my age and I was hooked. I taught myself how to bar tend from these books and never looked back.
What’s your first cocktail memory?
Doing coloring books under the bar of one of my parents’ restaurants. Somehow I don’t think that was the answer you were expecting.
Do you have any cocktail mentors? If so, who are they?
Obviously my Grandfather but as I started realizing there were other bartenders out there with the same mindset, I started seeking them out and in a way, all of (now mostly friends) the ones I met became my mentors. This list if I had to make it would look like this:
Murray Stenson for his ability to make everyone in his bar special and I don’t mean feel special, somehow actually makes them special.
Jamie Boudreau for his palate and ability to combine flavors seamlessly. He also taught me the importance of being on time.
Andrew Bohrer who has the uncanny ability to genuinely take interest in every conversation. I once saw him talk to one woman about her new hair cut, then walk to the other end of the bar and geek out about Battle Star Galactica. He also reminds me about what is important in this biz… The people.
Anu Apte… because of all the reasons listed above. She is inspirational and keeps me in line. She allows me to keep my head in the clouds but at the same time reminds me that there is such thing as common sense. If you ever want to be amazed and completely relaxed at the same time at a bar, make sure Anu is tending it.
That list was just Seattle by the way. We don’t have all day.
Who are some other bartenders or mixologists who you respect?
This list would get very long, very fast. Besides the bartenders in the last question here’s a short list.
Jeffrey Morgenthaler – He just gets it and he’s not afraid to be a bit ridiculous. A great bartender that never takes himself too seriously. I hope I get to work with him someday.
Daniel Shoemaker – He owns and bar tends the Teardrop in Portland. Enough said. Owner operators are a dying breed and he’s got it down to an art form. You think you love your Job? Talk to Daniel some time.
Erick Castro – Erick is excited about everything and it’s infectious. He also proved to a lot of nay sayers that world class drinks can be made with fresh ingredients at ridiculously high volumes. Don’t take my word for it, go see him at the Rickhouse in San Francisco. Enjoy the show.
Jon Santer – One of the best bartenders I have ever met. Besides helping to open most of the best bars in San Francisco, his talent to fill any role put before him in this crazy business is amazing. In short, he manages to be better then almost anyone at anything without being fancy or gimmicky about it.
These are only some of the bartenders I know and respect. I don’t know the big names like Dale DeGroff (who I do respect from a distance) and honestly they get enough press.
What are some other bars that you enjoy drinking at?
I don’t require much to enjoy myself at a bar. Cheap beer, something brown in a glass and good conversation. Surprisingly that’s a lot of bars.
What differentiates Rob Roy from other bars in Seattle?
I hope its because we’re interested in what our guests want. It seems like a lot of bars have a gimmick or theme these days and the concentration goes to making the bar cool or hip. I’d like to think that our gimmick is being nice to people. Oh, and fruit in the urinals.
What’ a great simple cocktail recipe for people to make at home?
I suggest an Old Fashioned. Old Fashioned refers to a style more then an actual drink so you can make it with any aged spirit you happen to have at home. Bourbon Old Fashioned, Tequila Old Fashioned, Brandy Old Fashioned, you name it. Here is how I make mine:
2 oz Any aged spirit
2-5 Dashes Angostura Bitters
1 bar spoon 2:1 simple syrup (this refers to the ratio of sugar to water by volume)
stir in a mixing glass with ice and strain in to an ice filled high ball or Old Fashioned glass.
Garnish with an orange peel and you can find them, brandied cherries. Not those bright red, formaldehyde soaked maraschino cherries.
If you could only drink one more cocktail, what would it be?
An Old Fashioned. For the same reason as above. It’s simple, you can make it with just about any aged spirit and it’s damn tasty.