How did you get into bartending and how long have you been at it?
I wear many hats. I've done quite a lot of different things and continue to. We've moved a lot, so I often say I'm as much a professional tumbleweed as I am a geographic one. But for me, it always comes back to storytelling.
It's all about elevating a person's experience and getting them to see something in a different way and consider something that they hadn't before. Bartending is a natural fit in all of that—it's about storytelling, it's about connecting with people and making an experience ideally bigger and better than it was.
What do you dig most about being a bartender?
Absolutely the stories. I did a cocktail competition for Bacardi last year, and I was honored to be a national finalist. When I made my presentation in San Juan, I called the drink the Cuentista, which is Spanish for storyteller. For me, bars and bartending are the last place on earth where people still look each other in the eye and share stories with one another, even strangers, and in some cases especially strangers. In a hotel bar, like where I am, these are all people who are from somewhere else. We don't usually have locals in a hotel bar, so everybody comes to it on a level playing field. And there's an openness in a bar that just doesn't exist in any other place. It's awesome.
You don't go into a clothing shop and buy a shirt for a stranger, and you don't sit at a restaurant and buy a meal for a stranger. But two people will be sitting at a bar and will buy a round for each other, and they've never met one another, they're just having a conversation and one will open up their hospitality to the other. People on the street have their eyes on their phones, people in a coffee shop have their fingers on their keypads, but at a bar, people talk to each other. It's magnificent, it is just about the last bastion, it feels like, of that old place in humanity where people talk to each other, and I love it. I love love love that opportunity for us to be reminded that we're all in this together.
What are the qualities of a good bartender?
When you craft a cocktail or you make something new for somebody, and they say, 'Oh, you're a mixologist,' I know they mean that as a compliment, and I take it graciously, but I actually hate the word. Because for me, that is such a small part of bartending, they mean it as a promotion, that you're not just a bartender, but I think bartending is so much more than mixology.
Anybody can mix a drink. But can you host strangers? Can you make people feel welcome in a place they've never been? Can you be the reason people are talking to each other? Can you make an experience, and tell a joke, and share a smile, and draw something out of somebody? I think that's much more difficult than essentially putting chemicals in a glass, doing a little chemistry, and pushing it across a bar.
For me, being able to make a drink is certainly part of the job; ideally, you should know your flavors and be able to make some good drinks. But bartending is just that, it's tending the bar—you've got people at that bar and you're taking care of them. And you do that in a number of ways. You do that through making a drink that they are surprised by and particularly enjoy, or you do it by making a drink they haven't had in ages or haven't had made well in ages, and then they taste it and you can see that pleasure in their face like, yes, you know what you're doing, you got this right. Or it can be just pouring a beer and hearing their tales of where they've been and talking to them about what's going on in the world. It's having that sense of what a person needs and responding to them. Or it's just giving them their space, maybe they just want to sit there and think, and that's cool, too.
Any particularly odd requests or trends you've noticed?
When you're in a restaurant bar, you kind of have that restaurant's clientele. When you're in a club, you have that club's clientele—you have a smaller pocket of humanity that has self-selected to come to your establishment.
At a hotel bar, that's less the case. The people might be in town for any number of different reasons. They might be work people, they might be in town for a wedding, they might be staying with us because they're getting on a cruise. You have such a huge array of the population at a hotel bar, and it's been fascinating to me how many different drinks that I have not heard of in years get ordered with such frequency. I've never made so many Long Island Ice Teas in my career. I certainly did in the late 1980s and 1990s, but all of a sudden, I'm making a ton of Long Island Ice Teas and Harvey Wallbangers, for Christsakes. These drinks that have almost disappeared. And then there are all the cosmos thanks to
Sex in the City, and the old-fashioneds have made a huge resurgence, which I tend to credit to Mad Men. It's fantastic the different classics and who's ordering them and how they're coming through. That's been really interesting to me.
Anything you can't drink anymore after bartending as long as you have? Current drink of choice?
Here's a confession: I have never felt a love for Bloody Marys. And I keep trying, because I keep trying to make a better Bloody Mary. Because I do actually feel you have to love the drink that you're serving. If you don't enjoy it, I think that does come through, so I've been forever working to find the Bloody Mary that I can enjoy drinking, so that I can enjoy serving it. But, man, it's hard, that's just something my palate doesn't love.
Tell me about the Cuentista. Are there other drinks you've conceived of that you're particularly proud of?
The Cuentista was a drink for Bacardi, which I made for the legacy cocktail competition. The inspiration for that was I wanted to deconstruct a Cuba libre—meant to be gold rum, lime juice, and Coca-Cola, the classic original rum and Coke. So kind of breaking down the flavor profile of the Coke and how to accentuate the rum and the lime juice, and do it without using Coca-Cola, was what I was working for on that drink. It had some success for them.
There are plenty of drinks that I've crafted and created and am very happy with. We're actually in the process of putting together our fall menu [at 1900 Fifth], so ideally we'll have a new menu by mid-October, if not sooner.
Do you have a least favorite drink to make?
There really isn't one. The only thing that makes a drink unpopular with me is if it's a complicated drink and we're slammed at the bar. And then that's my problem, that isn't anybody else's problem. I don't blame you for wanting a particular drink, I just wish you didn't want it right now.
[Laughs] But that's part of my job.
Where's your own favorite watering hole?
I live in North Seattle, so I've always like the spots up there. The first cocktail I had when I came to Seattle was at Percy's & Co. in Ballard, I thought it was great, I really enjoy those people, I enjoy their menu. But most of the places along Ballard Avenue turn out some really nice drinks. The Sexton does some really great work. Little Tin Goods & Apothecary Cabinet also does some nice work. Bastille does some nice work...
One of the challenges of being a bartender, especially one at my age with kids, is on the nights that I am bartending, I'm not out at bars. When I'm not bartending, I want to be at home with my family.
What do you do when you're not slinging drinks?
I have many irons in the fire. I am the editor of Sacred Heart University Magazine, which is at a university back in Connecticut. It's actually the second largest Catholic university in the Northeast, after Boston College. They publish a magazine, I am the editor of that, so I spend my days working on it, and then in the evening, I head in to the bar. Writing is the thing that takes up most of the rest of my time. I am also an actor. I was a professor, I taught an ethics course, but I'm not teaching out here. At the current moment, writing is certainly the biggest piece of the rest of my time. And I also ride a motor bike. Any day you ride is a good day.
You can find Timothy at 1900 Fifth at the Westin Hotel (1900 Fifth Ave) downtown Monday through Thursday.