Bar Code

Striking a Balance Between Innovation and Tradition in the Drink Scene

In Washington, we must look back as we move forward.

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about the current ethos of Seattle as we all grapple with what our city might become. Innovation, for one, is a big part of who we are now, and while I’ll leave it to those who cover such things to relate it to politics or business, I am seeing a lot of it in our beverage scene. Innovation is necessary for growth, but balancing that growth against long-established traditions is a challenge.

We as drinkers feel the natural tension between innovation and tradition; certain cocktails derive their prestige from having been invented long ago. We venerate the longtime practitioners of the craft while at the same time looking out for the best new bars and bartenders. Social media’s ability to accelerate the pace of everything means that drinks and bars come into fashion and fall out of it almost at once.

In Seattle, innovation has often been driven by the opportunity to make full use of the Pacific Northwest’s incredible natural bounty. Our ability to grow world-class barley (for malting) and world-class hops has helped drive a beer culture that’s truly remarkable in its breadth and depth. The same can be said for our wine industry, especially now that growers and producers are exploring many different parts of the state, often with unfamiliar varietals that prefer cooler climes, more wind, or other conditions than those first pioneered.

Distillation is perhaps the greatest testament to what can be achieved when tradition and innovation are synthesized. When laws were rewritten to allow for craft distillation in the 2000s, lawmakers in Washington included a key provision: To qualify for that craft-spirit designation, more than half of the raw materials in a spirit must come from within the state. While craft-spirits labels have sprung up around the country in the past decade, a strikingly high percentage of them purchase distilled spirits (often unaged whiskey) and then merely age it and bottle it.

That’s not permitted here in Washington, and that has forced distillers the state over to actually learn how to distill. That’s been more costly and challenging up front, but also more rewarding for distillers and drinkers alike in the long run. It’s forced distilleries to figure out what local grains they can work with to make their base spirit, what local herbs and spices they can use to flavor their gin and aquavit, and even how to source local malted barley for single-malt whiskey.

Innovation doesn’t always work, and that’s why tempering that force with a certain appreciation for tradition has born the best results: Hyper-hoppy IPAs have led us to a better understanding of what hop varietals work best together to create balance, while high-alcohol, high-tannin reds have increased our understanding of grape-growing and vinification. Bread Lab in Mount Vernon and Washington State University’s Walter Clore Center in Prosser have broken new ground in our understanding of the science underlying beverage production, and an ever-growing army of brewers, winemakers, distillers—and drinkers—have done the rest.

barcode@seattleweekly.com

More in Eat Drink Toke

Photo by J Tucker/Sticks & Stones Photography
Meet the Seattle Chef Making a Meal of Marijuana

A latecomer to the world of weed, Unika Noiel is now serving up cannabis-infused dishes.

Giving Vegan a Chance at Kati Vegan Thai

The South Lake Union spot is the perfect place to experience an animal-free meal.

Canopy Growth Task Force Coming to a Farm Near You

New rules might make it harder on small operations.

Jeff Sessions Drags His Feet on Cannabis Research

The U.S. Attorney General is at it again.

The fried cauliflower with buffalo sauce and blue cheese mousse. Photo by Nicole Sprinkle
In the Ballard Commons, an Uncommon Spot

Gather Kitchen + Bar gives diners a reason to depart from the neighborhood’s restaurant row.

The Halal Place You Haven’t Heard Of

Gyro Time in Greenwood turns out fresh food and a welcoming vibe.

California Weed Farms Go Up In Smoke

The wildfires ravaging the state hit at the heigh of outdoor grow season.

As Seattle’s Culinary Scene Booms, These Restaurateurs Resist Expansion

Three owners on why they opted out of investor money and stuck to one place—and what that means for the city.

Must Autumn Drinking Be Such a Dour Affair? These Bartenders Don’t Think So.

Forget the bitters and the bourbons. Light and bright drinks are just as appropriate.

Most Read