The Watering Hole: Liberty, 517 15th Ave. E., CAPITOL HILL.
The Atmosphere: Hiding in plain sight on 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) play in the background. Where more than a few bars’ shelves are filled with rows of the same bottle, Liberty’s sit at least three deep, with a wide variety—including a rotating list of 40 bourbons and a dozen absinthes—and with bartenders who have no difficulty navigating them. Plenty of bars in Seattle boast 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 make it obvious his experience with the art goes back much further.
The Drink: Being a guy who “pretty much only drinks bourbon,” Freet mixed me what was his sole contribution to Liberty’s menu when he 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 liqueur, 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 Last Word was almost as cool and equally refreshing, and made it easy for a guy who doesn’t really like gin to enjoy it nonetheless. 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.