As it turns out, it’s not last call for bars, after Gov. Jay Inslee threw out a lifeline to cocktail dens and watering holes late last month.
In a surprise move for a state with some of the strictest booze laws, the governor is allowing bars and restaurants with liquor licenses to sell vodka and other spirits as takeout or as a delivery sale. The asterisk is that you must purchase food with your spirits.
In recent days, hundreds of bars and restaurants have taken advantage of that temporary exemption in creative ways. Some are selling their unopened booze bottles to make rent. Others are hawking “cocktail kits,” packaging gin and whiskey bottles with bags of sliced lime, simple syrup and other cocktail ingredients so customers can mix their own martinis or daiquiris at home.
But the bar community isn’t exactly toasting the governor over his latest olive branch. At a time when the industry is reeling economically from the coronavirus pandemic, many owners want the state to offer more assistance and allow bars to sell mixed drinks to-go as some states have recently done. In New York, for instance, bar owners sell bottled cocktails out of coolers, and in Los Angeles and Dallas, bartenders sell margaritas in 32-ounce jars with your taco order.
If Washington state allowed bars to sell cocktails to-go, “I can sell them right this second,” said Jamie Boudreau, owner of the critically acclaimed cocktail bar Canon on Capitol Hill. “I have them in my fridge.”
Boudreau said he wouldn’t have had to lay off all 17 bartenders and servers last month if Washington state had given bars more assistance as other states have done. Inslee “has done nothing for me,” he said.
The tension started in mid-March after the governor banned people from congregating in bars and restaurants but allowed those establishments to continue doing food takeout and delivery. That decree sidelined many bars since food isn’t their big revenue generator.
But in other states, New York, California and Texas among them, the playing field was leveled by bars being allowed to sell cocktails to-go.
Many Seattle bar owners and out-of-work bartenders were angry that Washington state didn’t immediately relax liquor regulations during this dire economic time for the industry. Then on March 24, the governor compromised by allowing bars to sell cocktails as part of kits, as long as the booze bottle was still “factory sealed.”
Canon opted not to go that route. Bourdeau said kits require more labor for little if any profit, since bars have to invest in massive amounts of bottles and other packaging.
His sentiment is shared by many Seattle bartenders who begrudgingly are doing cocktail kits because any revenue is better than none. Brian Lee, who owns Belltown Pizza, a popular late-night haunt, has already invested $1,500 in packaging, including airport-size booze bottles.
“I wish we didn’t have to buy unnecessary things to stay open. We could use the things that we have on hand,” said Lee. “It would make my life a lot easier if I can pour (the cocktail) into a travel pouch and have it ready. And (customers) can pull it out of their refrigerators and pour into their glass.”
At Lady Jaye in West Seattle, co-owner Evan Carter projects his smokehouse restaurant would make 30% more on cocktails if his bar could do mixed drinks to-go instead of cocktail kits. His $60 assemble-your-own Old Fashioned set includes a liter bottle of whiskey along with three other bottles and jars of house-smoked demerara syrup, bitters and maraschino cherries, with recipe card and to-go bag.
“We would love to do cocktails to-go. We could put it in a Mason jar,” he said. “It would make our lives a lot easier. The bar would make more money. The customers would be happier.”
Navy Strength in Belltown encourages bars to try to make the most of the cocktail-kit exception. In a Facebook post to the bar community, co-owner Chris Elford wrote, “in the fight or flight of all of this, we had to relax some standards we would normally be dogmatic about … we are doing a blend of fresh squeezed and local flash pasteurized juice. Also the packaging is a challenge but I’m hopeful down the road we can find some solutions there. First we gotta keep the lights on.”
Other bars are trying to create a virtual third place. The storied Canlis invites patrons to buy its cocktail kit and watch the live stream of its lounge piano player performing “Moonlight Sonata” on weeknights, from 6-9 p.m. You can request songs and leave a tip online.
Downtown, the Ben Paris bar sells 10 different cocktail kits including the Boulevardier ($95 for the ingredients) and invites regulars to join star bartender Abigail Gullo for a virtual happy hour every Monday at 3 p.m. on Zoom.
Other bars took advantage of the temporary law change by throwing the equivalent of a booze yard sale. The Barrel Thief in Fremont has put up 500 bottles for sale online including many top-shelf, 25-year-old Scotches.
Across the street, Triangle Spirit bar offers the public a rare chance to buy some of its private barrel selection of Elijah Craig and Russell’s Reserve and soon will roll out several cocktail kits.
On Capitol Hill, the Japanese dive bar Taku is dumping some of its booze inventory. One of the year’s most anticipated openings, Taku opened for four days before closing due to the pandemic. That put the bar, run by one of the city’s rising star chefs, Shota Nakajima, in a deep financial hole.
Nakajima, who has amassed one of the city’s best Japanese whiskey collections, is also putting up those rare bottles for sale, including a Hibiki 21-year-old Whiskey.
“I need cash flow, even if it shrinks my inventory,” Nakajima said. “I don’t need $20,000 of inventory. I need cash to float as long as I can. That is all I am thinking about right now.”
Here are Tan Vinh’s six picks for favorite cocktail kits available right now:
Navy Strength in Belltown offers The Zombie and other fun tiki drinks if you want to transport yourself to some tropical getaway. Its Saturn cocktail is one of the best I’ve had this month. Unlike other cocktail kits around town, the mixed drinks here are versatile enough that you can swap in any spirit. Buy the cocktail kit with a liter bottle of booze (around $65-$75) and make a pitcher, or buy the ingredients sans alcohol ($36) if you have a stock bar at home.
2505 Second Ave., Seattle; pickup only, order online at toasttab.com/navy-strength
Canlis loosened its collar and went lowbrow with drinks such as the Long Island Iced Tea kit. But you should get its signature cocktail, Almost Perfect, in a box for $192 (12 drinks or $16 per cocktail). The kit includes a bottle of Plantation Stiggin’s Fancy Pineapple Rum and eight other ingredients including “fresh flower garnish and 12 large ice” cubes. This elegant rum tipple, which has the creaminess of a piña colada but tastes like a Manhattan, was one of the best cocktails I had in 2017. This cocktail kit is one of the few in Seattle that is available for delivery because, well, this is still Canlis.
2576 Aurora Ave. N., Seattle; for pickup, text 206- 222-7253; canlis.com/cocktails
Lady Jaye offers the best deal on Old Fashioneds, $60 for 15 drinks. Your choice of a liter bottle of Dickel rye or Old Forester bourbon along with a smoked demerara syrup, Angostura and Orange bitters, and Luxardo soaked maraschino cherries for garnish.
4523 California Ave. S.W., Seattle; to-go only, order at 206-457-4029 or email firstname.lastname@example.org; ladyjaye.com
Ben Paris bar downtown serves the usual favorites — martinis, Manhattans and boulevardiers for around $55- $95. Or you can get the Bloody Mary mix without booze for $20.
130 Pike St., Seattle; pickup and delivery available, must call in advance at 206-513-7303; benparis.com
Mezcaleria Oaxaca does one of the best micheladas in the Seattle area. The exact recipe is a well-guarded secret, but it’s the medley of hot sauces that makes this Mexican Bloody Mary sing. The $25 kit includes a jar of the micheladas mix, tamarind-candy-coated straws, four lagers and a lime.
422 E. Pine St., Seattle; to-go only, order at mezcaleriaoaxaca.com
Jude’s Old Town in Rainier Beach runs the best deal in Seattle, with about 20 cocktail kits — sidebars, daiquiris and margaritas for $50 per package (makes 15 cocktails). You can also get single-serving cocktail kits for $8.
9254 57th Ave. S.; Seattle; to-go only, order at 206-379-6629; judesoldtown.com/cocktails