The word "guild" conjures images of secret handshakes and missives, freemasons and fezzes. The Washington State Bartenders Guild (wsbg.org) has none of those things, but they are on a mission, dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and the freedom of choice, primarily in spirits. Aiming to join a disparate group of bar professionals hell-bent on the same goal—the ultimate in tasty cocktails—the WSBG wants to enhance the Seattle drinking experience as educators, party-throwers, and gentle lobbyists.
Last Sunday, the guild, led by the owner of Liberty Bar, Andrew Friedman, threw a vermouth tasting at a SoDo loft, complete with an antique wood bar stocked to the hilt. I don't care what bar you work—who ever gets to taste that much vermouth in one sitting? The expense alone makes it prohibitive, and many bars stock no more than two.
I relish this sort of thing for the grasp I gain, tasting major brands side by side to gauge their varying levels of bitter, herbaceous, floral, and sweet flavors. No tender is so gifted that they don't need to check in once in a while. In this case I realized that I absolutely am using the wrong stuff in my rye Manhattans. Boissiere's sweet vermouth was only slightly so, its nutty punch of tawny port flavor shot through with a slight medicinal bitterness, altogether the perfect foil and complement for rye. That alone was worth the price of admission. So long Lejon, back to rocks with a twist for you.
Along with the most common bar vermouths—such as the above, Noilly Prat, and Martini & Rossi—attendees had the treat of tasting Noilly Ambre, Carpano, and Dolin, all at the moment unavailable either in this state or this country (Dolin will be selling here in four weeks). Part of the guild's mission is to bring a larger variety of spirits to state liquor stores, creating a relationship with the Washington State Liquor Control Board (WSLCB) to, in effect, lobby for listings. Current procedures for listing a bottle of alcohol for sale in our state can vex the most dedicated and moneyed beverage supplier. By expressing a group interest in the ability to purchase certain spirits, the guild hopes to make alcoholic beverage suppliers and the WSLCB see the value in pursuing a broader selection of booze.
Guild vice president Keith Waldbauer, who bartends at Barrio, explained: "We've made progress as an industry; we have these great distilleries like Pacific coming on line. I think the Liquor Control Board is starting to see the positive value in it all. We don't want to push and shove, just be cheerleaders and hope to encourage that momentum toward a more open market." Not that plenty of ingredients don't exist to mix an artful drink in this town, but imagine that your favorite mustard or olive oil was unsanctioned by the state. That's what it's like to be a bartender in Seattle without your favorite sidearm of amaro or vermouth.
The guild hopes to provide a range of events that appeal to bartenders and customers alike. Last Sunday's nerd-out on vermouth definitely qualified as industry-only, but anyone curious or wild for the stuff would have been welcomed. Coming soon, the guild will host its first public event, a gin extravaganza. "We want to provide educational events such as this one [on vermouth] to members and bartenders, but we also want to reach out to the city and showcase all the amazing things our members are doing," says Waldbauer.
I still remember a time when bars could get away with sour mix; now no one would be caught dead without fresh lime and lemon juice, and house-made bitters is the mark of true seriousness. In the realm of cocktails, Seattle has traveled light-years, but still has far to go if we're ever to see vodka-dominated cocktail menus become extinct. And I still hold to the dream of one-stop shopping in Seattle: milk, butter, bread, bourbon. As far as any club that would have me as a member, I just have to know: Will there, could there, ever be fezzes?