I have still yet to have the pleasure of meeting Murray Stenson, Seattle bartender of legend. But this Wine Enthusiast assignment gave me the chance to chat with him on the phone.
Mixologist of the Month: Murray Stenson
By Robert Simonson
Star bartenders of the 19th century, like Jerry Thomas, became famous by hop-skipping the nation, setting up short-lived grog shops in San Francisco, New York, New Orleans and Chicago. Murray Stenson is a more efficient worker. He became a modern-day legend by working a couple of bars along a two-block stretch in Seattle.
Last July, Stenson, 61, was named the best bartender in America at the 2010 Tales of the Cocktail convention in New Orleans. Stenson, who doesn’t think much of awards, did not attend, instead putting in his usual shifts at the Zig Zag Café, Seattle’s best-loved classic cocktail bar. Murray’s been senior bartender there for a decade, ever since he abruptly quit his job at Il Bistro, an Italian restaurant down the street. Stenson considers his education in craft cocktails to have begun at Il Bistro. But he is as loyal to his customers as they are to him, and he saw red one Valentine’s Day when the owners favored lovey-dovey diners over regulars. “I saw them turning away people who had been coming for a year and half. I just turned in my keys at the end of the night.” The Zig Zag lost little time capitalizing on Il Bistro’s loss; the bar hired Stenson that night.
Unlike today’s career mixologists, Stenson fell into bartending the old-fashioned way. “I was drifting, trying to figure out what I was going to do when I grew up.” His first job was at Benjamin’s, in the Seattle suburb of Bellevue. He worked the service bar, dealing only with waiters. That suited him fine. “At that time I could not talk to people at all. I had the biggest inferiority complex.” His next gig, at Henry’s Off Broadway, cured him of his shyness. “It was one of the most popular bars in the city. I was forced to talk to people.”
Stenson figures he has 10 more years of drink-slinging left in him. His model is a bartender at Maneki, a Japanese hole in the wall that is the oldest restaurant in Seattle. “She’s tended bar for 50 years. She is 80 and still going strong.”