Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

Where Seattle Bartenders Find Local Flavors for Their Cocktails

They put a sense of place in the glass with ingredients from the Pike Place Market, shops in the International District, and more.

The I See a Light cocktail at Inside Passage in Seattle

Inside Passage

Seattle bartender Jabriel Donohue believes that at their best, cocktails convey a sense of place. At Dino’s Tomato Pie, that means mirroring the vibe of a New Jersey pizzeria with Rat Pack-approved classic cocktails and Negronis on tap. But even closer to his heart is the program at craft-cocktail bar Essex, where he can pour stories about the seasonal rhythms of the Pacific Northwest. 

It’s there that Donohue makes Margaritas with roasted-carrot curaçao and a pickled-carrot garnish, and gin-Chareau highballs with local blueberry-rosemary syrup. “There’s a perpetual bounty you can’t get in other places,” he says, who sources much of his produce from the year-round Ballard Farmers Market. 

But there’s more to representing Seattle in the glass than transforming peak-season produce. For that, Donohue and his bartending peers shop for ideas and ingredients in the city’s tea shops, Asian markets, Latin grocers, and the iconic not-just-for-tourists food hub that is the Pike Place Market.

An Iconic Market

“There’s this wonderful sensation when you walk through Pike Place Market,” says Donohue, who grew up just outside the city and first visited the market as a kid. “You get all the smells: vegetables, herbs, soups, barbecue. Then there’s that undeniable dampness of being on the bay. When I go back and walk there again, when I’m feeling in a rut, I get these sparks of Seattle popping up here and there.”

Pike Place Market, located on Seattle’s waterfront, first opened in 1907 and is now home to 240 vendors, including 85 farmers’ stalls and 70 restaurants, visited (in normal, non-pandemic times) by 10 million shoppers a year. There’s a Filipino grocery and lunch counter, an OG bread bowl chowder joint, a creamery with 15 kinds of butter, a pan-Latin market, stalls with foraged mushrooms, and, yes, fish throwing

Jars of spices at World Spice Merchants in Seattle's Pike Place Market
Jars of spices at World Spice Merchants in Seattle's Pike Place Market.

Amy Buthod/Creative Commons

Wandering is central to Donohue’s approach. A few years ago, he passed a dried-fruit vendor next to a honey vendor, and a garnish was born: dried apple rings with a honey stick stuck through their center. But his first or last stop is nearly always DeLaurenti, a purveyor of Italian cheeses, meats, truffles, tinned seafood, olive oils, and wine and spirits, including an impressive selection of fortified wines and bitters. “When you get a full drink concept in your head, that’s where DeLaurenti brings it home for me,” says Donohue. 

Lauren Darnell, the head bartender at Dreamland in Fremont, likes to drop into herbal apothecary Tenzing Momo to browse a back wall full of dehydrated fruits and powders. A few years back, Darnell and bartender Jen Akin tag-teamed a Botanist gin competition that required sourcing ingredients from the market. The duo flash-infused gin with dried citrus peels from Tenzing Momo, added bergamot tea from the shop, sweetened the cocktail with local honey, and won the competition.

International Inspirations

Donohue, Darnell, and Akin, who runs the cocktail programs at Rumba and Inside Passage, find plenty of inspiration outside of Pike Place Market. Akin browses Central and South American groceries in South Seattle and will soon add a mole-inspired drink to Rumba’s winter menu. The combination of Puerto Rican rum, coffee liqueur, mauby syrup (mauby is a cinnamon-like bark from the Caribbean), lime, Bravo chocolate liqueur, and mole will be bedecked with a molinillo. “Molinillos are an old Aztec tool for frothing milk, almost like a swizzle stick,” says Akin. 

Darnell likes to pursue the tea selections at Rainbow Natural Remedies in Capitol Hill and Vital Tea Leaf in the International District. The latter neighborhood is the heart of Seattle’s Asian communities, with shops and restaurants specializing in regional Chinese, Filipino, Thai, Japanese, Korean, Cambodian, and Vietnamese cuisines. 

Vital Tea Leaf
Inside Vital Tea Leaf in Seattle.

Rich Harris

Donohue once built an Old Fashioned variation with tequila, cognac, black trumpet mushrooms, bird chile syrup, and roasted pecan bitters, inspired by bowls of pho he eats in the neighborhood and garnished with dried chiles from Pike Place Market. 

Darnell’s drinkmaking style leans culinary, playful, and, at Dreamland, “fun, fun, fucking fun,” she says. She’s the kind of bartender who sneaks into the kitchen both to learn techniques and steal from the pantry, and it was at stores like Viet Wah (opened in 1981 by a Vietnamese refugee) and Uwajimaya (a regional chain of Asian markets) that she first encountered lychee, pandan, and matcha. Now those ingredients weave themselves seamlessly into drinks like her Jasmine Garden, with jasmine tea pearls, lychee syrup, lemon, and a floating flower garnish, and Dreamland’s Lychee Daiquiri. 

Whenever Darnell encounters an unfamiliar ingredient, say, cans of wobbly green grass jelly or a new tea blend, she takes them home and makes them into syrups. “A lot of times, I do anywhere from three to five experiments, adding sugar or boiling it down to see if the flavor inspires me to take it further,” she says. 

At Akin’s newly opened Inside Passage, the bar’s identity is Don-the-Beachcomber-tropical-meets-Pacific Northwest, and “the driving force is that every cocktail has to have a complete story,” she says. 

Akin worked on the cocktail program during the pandemic, at a time when leisurely in-person shopping wasn’t safe. But in the before-times, she would spend hours at Uwajimaya, browsing home decor, picking up sake sets, eating lunch, and stocking up on fresh and canned fruits, teas, snacks, and candy. “That’s a daytrip: hang out, eat, and shop,” says Akin. 

That influence is easily visible on the menu at Inside Passage. Bar manager John Fry developed The Four Boys, named for four influential Filipino barmen who worked for Don the Beachcomber. A combination of rums, mango, rice milk, ube, lime, and ginger, it’s served in a rice-cooker vessel with a side of lumpia, whose wrappers are sourced from Viet Wah. 

Akin bought anglerfish mugs for the space and initially struggled to come up with a drink to fit the glass. Her “I See a Light,” was a Seattle-inspired solution. With a Japanese rum base and kick of absinthe, the drink has yuzu, lemongrass, lime leaf, and mango in the spirit of Uwajimaya and kelp that points to the Puget Sound. “It wasn’t until I could find a concept that made sense, and would be this whole cohesive thing, that I could put it on the menu,” she says.