The Bar Code: Has Seattle Reached Peak Craft Cocktail?

Customer expectations have reached a point where nearly every bar and restaurant in Seattle has an understood obligation to offer craft cocktails, even if that’s not the focus of the establishment. That’s a problem.

I think we’ve passed the craft-cocktail event horizon; in all honesty, it probably happened a few years ago. By that I mean that customer expectations have reached a point where nearly every bar and restaurant in Seattle has an understood obligation to offer craft cocktails, even if that’s not its focus. That’s problematic, because constructing a craft-cocktail list and executing it nightly is much more difficult than most of us think.

The difficulty starts with the fact that making a drink well is tricky, especially when what you’re really trying to do is make a dozen different drinks in three minutes while keeping the guests at your bartop happy. Skilled bartenders have gotten a bit thin on the ground in Seattle due to the ever-increasing demand, and some ambitious cocktail programs have collapsed when faced with the reality that you can’t teach just any 23-year-old with three months of restaurant experience how to make craft cocktails properly.

Even more than execution, though, it’s planning that trips up bars and restaurants. There are billions of possible combinations of ingredients, and, no surprise, many of them don’t actually taste good. As a result, there are fewer possibilities to explore than you’d think, and most of the great combinations have already been catalogued. That’s not to say that experimentation and invention are bad or worthless; without them we’d have a much smaller drink lexicon. Yet just as not every restaurant should be re-inventing the wheel with its cuisine, so too should most bars focus more on turning out great drinks consistently, and less on putting something on their menu you’ve never seen before.

Yet the reality is that more and more customers demand novelty no matter where they go. Not only is the whiskey lover no longer satisfied with a well-made Manhattan, I’ve heard patrons at a Thai restaurant ask to see a craft-cocktail menu. That is perhaps taking things two or three steps too far. These unfounded expectations hurt everyone: genuine craft-cocktail bars who see what they offer bastardized and diluted; other establishments that can’t please guests with unreasonable expectations; and drink lovers who don’t know whether or not a specialty cocktail will actually be any good.

Creative food and drinks are just a small part of why I go out. I don’t expect every diner I patronize to be doing something creative with fried chicken, or every pizza place I frequent to be challenging my expectations about pepperoni. Most of the time, the classics are just fine the way they are. And on those occasions when I want to try something new and innovative, I seek out the bars and restaurants that understand how to make something new and innovative. Seattle has no shortage of them.

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