Tavern Law's cocktail menu was built for the bookish drinker. In fact, if I didn't know any better, I'd say it was built specifically for this column. Not only does the menu offer a wide selection of whiskey, it also has: a table of contents, a lovingly crafted overview of the bar's goals, and oftentimes even cites its sources (okay, the citations aren't proper MLA formatting, but I suppose concessions must be made to design).
The Seelbach Cocktail, for example, is attributed to the Seelbach Hotel (1917), an establishment well known for helping F. Scott Fitzgerald drink his way through the long, laborious creation of The Great Gatsby -- a favor he returned by writing the Buchanans' wedding scene into the hotel's ballroom. Tavern Law doesn't make any promises regarding literary success, but if your book tanks, you can always come back for another (drink, not necessarily another book--but that depends on your publisher).
The drink consists of bourbon, cointreau, bitters, and sparkling wine. The last ingredient is used sparingly, giving the drink a nice lift without turning it into something you could pour out of a can. It's breezy, unpretentious and just bitter enough to enjoy the whole way through.The Seelbach is one of many delicious exhibitions of classic mixology, but Tavern Law serves as a tribute to classic cocktails, not a museum. As such, the menu also integrates original recipes from the staff. The Birchwood (Rye, Cognac, Cynar, Punt e Mes, Licor 43 and a cucumber garnish) was invented by Nathan Weber, a current bar manager at Tavern Law.
"He's working upstairs right now," said our bartender, who nodded to the bank vault door to the side, referring to the bar-within-a-bar that's the center of most Tavern Law-related conversations between people who've yet to go there.
The Birchwood's flavors are staggered so well the only thing that came to mind at first was the three-course-meal gum from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory--first the cognac, then the cucumber, rye, vermouth, and the citrus-based Licor 43 for dessert! Finally, the Cynar serves a bitter artichoke-based kick in the ass to bring your taste buds full circle.It reminded me of the prototype booze I was served at Sun Liquor, a fact that was unsurprising, as it shared a majority of ingredients. But this version was more matured, more balanced and more, well, complete. In addition to the comfortable base of cognac, vermouth and whiskey, the Cynar and Licor 43 duel for attention, both dominating the beverage in their own ways. It's like a delicious turf war in your mouth!
It was a tremendous cocktail. Knowing the creator was right upstairs definitely built on my urge to check out the bar within a bar, but honestly the kid in me was sold the instant I heard I got to go through a locked vault door.
After a reasonable wait, we were buzzed in through a rotary phone connected to the metal bank door. I'd explain the unique, affecting ambiance in detail -- but really, press can only ruin an intimate hideaway like this. I'd explain what I ordered, but "The Needle and Thread" doesn't have a drink list -- just a series of questions and suggestions from an attentive server, then possibly a follow-up from the bartender himself.
Don't be shy, just think about what you want out of booze and try to talk about it. Nathan did one hell of a job when all I could manage to mumble under pressure was "something floral with fernet and rye."
Where did I go from here? I'd come pretty far from meekly ordering "anything with whiskey in it" at the edge of a crowded bar, but what cocktail could possibly top a custom-made quaff from a manager of one of the best bars in Seattle? And how in the hell could I afford it?
"Well, you're not going to get that in a sports bar," smirked the progenitor of the Birchwood, "you have to go to a place like The Zig Zag."
The Zig Zag and Tavern Law might not share any owners, but they certainly seem to be joined at the hip when it comes to any discussion of the best bars of Seattle. As a matter of fact, Jason Sheehan's review of both establishments' lesser-known food menus can be found here.
"It's sort of hidden in the back of Pike Place," Mr. Weber nodded, "but it serves one of the best cocktails in Seattle."
Next Wednesday, I do something completely predictable -- take my bartender's advice.