First Call: Staying Cool, Expertly Mixed and Deceptively Mellow at Liberty

The Watering Hole: Liberty, 517 15th Ave. E. CAPITOL HILL

The Atmosphere: Hiding in plain sight on an awesome stretch of 15th Avenue East just down from Victrola Coffee, Coastal Kitchen and Hopvine Pub, Liberty looks and feels like the neighborhood bar you've always wanted. Eclectic and classic at the same time, exposed brick contrasts with hanging art and oversized mirrors while Cold War Kids or Peter Bjorn and John--and a smattering of OutKast--plays in the background. Where more than a few bars keep their stocks filled with rows of the same bottle, Liberty's shelves sit at least three deep with a wide variety--including a rotating list of 40 bourbons and a dozen absinthes--and bartenders who have no difficulty navigating them. There are plenty of bars in Seattle with expansive liquor collections and dedicated mixologists, but as I was later informed, "We're not pretentious here--we just like booze."

The Barkeep: Justin Freet has been behind this particular bar for around three years, but his skill and knowledge--traits rumored to be standard among Liberty bartenders--make it obvious the man possesses an experience with the art of bartending that goes back much further. Plus he's just a really solid dude.

The Drink: Being a guy who "pretty much only drinks bourbon," Freet mixed me what was once his sole contribution to Liberty's menu when he first started there: The Rat Pack Manhattan, made with a touch of Grand Marnier, orange bitters, sweet and dry vermouth and a base of my new favorite liquor, Blanton's Single Barrel Bourbon. Now, while the rules of First Call are simple--drink what the barkeep drinks--they are also flexible. So when Freet decided I needed to try another "deceptively smooth" but "pure alcohol" cocktail, I wasn't about to fight it. Round two brought me the last word, the pre-prohibition gin drink--shaken with maraschino liquor, chartreuse and fresh pressed lime juice--that has become "Seattle's unofficial cocktail" since its resurrection by Zig Zag's virtuosic Murray Stenson.

The Verdict: After feeling the heat of the unmixed bourbon, the Manhattan's subtle citrus tang was perfectly cool and, as promised, deliciously mellow. The follow-up Last Word was almost as cool and equally as refreshing as the cocktail before it, and made it easy for a guy who doesn't really like gin to, well, enjoy gin. I stayed for a while, trying some new whiskeys including the new Makers 46 (much better than the original, with a nice little kick at the end) and my first (but certainly not last) experience with a Japanese whisky, Hibiki. What began as a quick stop turned into over an hour of tasting--and a promise to come back.

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