by Michael Sarko
- The Capitol Hill Times -
One could write a removed, impersonal account of legendary bartender Murray Stenson, but what would be the point? His impact on the lives of people at the individual level is part and parcel to his fame. I met Murray several years ago during his long tenure at the Zig Zag Cafe, a mood-lit retreat on the Harbor Steps. It saw some truly dizzying crowds at the beginning of the cocktail explosion that is currently burning like a well-fed bonfire throughout Seattle. Murray’s work behind the bar at Zig Zag was nothing short of astounding despite a house that stayed packed for eight hours straight on most nights. He was one of a handful of dedicated mixologists who taught me, and countless people like me, how to drink. Now, Murray Stenson has been sidelined by a heart condition he can’t afford to treat. That’s why his friends and patrons, past and present, are crowd-sourcing his recovery.
In the middle of October, bar technology innovator Evan Wallace began MurrayAid, a fundraising effort to help Murray Stenson pay the costs associated with testing and surgery for his heart troubles. Wallace is a friend of Murray’s who, among other things, developed the Perlage Champagne preservation system. According to the bare-bones MurrayAid website, the effort has so far raised approximately $64,000 from a combination of online contributions, mail-in donations, and benefit events at businesses around the country. Coming in mostly as small gifts from individuals, the money for MurrayAid is a way for a diverse and geographically disparate community to preserve the health and handiwork of a true master.
Murray’s knowledge and pure technical skill as a bartender are unparalleled, but his most incredible attribute is his memory. Steel traps have nothing on Stenson. From my first visit to Zig Zag, to the last time I saw him there over a year ago, he remembered my fondness for Amontillado sherry, just as he kept a friend’s preference for cucumber in his mind for nearly his entire stint at that particular bar. It was worth fighting the crowds and waiting for a coveted seat at the bar just to watch Murray do his thing. Absent the meaningless flourishes of trick bartenders who toss bottles and light things on fire with 151, Murray’s style is all focus and precision. He eye-measures, he juggles three recipes at once, and he goes from bottle-pull to final pour before you can say “Chelsea Sidecar.”
Twelfth Avenue’s Canon Whiskey and Bitters Emporium inherited Murray from Zig Zag, but he had to take his leave before long due to his health troubles. For now, Seattle’s cocktail enthusiasts will have to get their Murray Stenson experience piecemeal at other bars staffed by a new generation of mixology talents. Gregg Holcomb at the Knee High Stocking Co. keeps multiple orders in the air like a champ and banters with the best of them; Award-winner Shane Sahr at Tini Bigs makes a habit of keeping classics like the Manhattan and the Old Fashioned forever in style; and Mike McSorley at RN74 is an infusion artist and consummate craftsman who builds on a patron’s palate as much as the fundamentals of cocktail science.
“Murray Stenson kept the fire of our art burning during the decades when the trend in the industry was to get away from the classics in favor of mass-produced mixers and artificially flavored liqueurs, and for that we all owe him a great debt of gratitude,” McSorley said. “His presence in our local community is a great source of pride for Seattle, and I have no doubt that Seattle’s reputation as a legitimate player on the list of great cocktail cities of the world is due in no small part to what Murray has given to his fellow bartenders in terms of an example to follow.”
Though Murray’s story is an example of how an appreciative community can rally around one of its own, many in the food service industry have needs similar to Stenson’s but don’t have a charity to foot the bill. The National Consumers League reports that approximately 90 percent of the American restaurant world’s rank-and-file are uninsured. Even cherished industry lifers like Murray don’t receive health care benefits from their employers, though some restaurant owners are starting to put together packages made possible by parts of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare.
Seattle has, by far, the most MurrayAid events lined up, a testament to Stenson’s time and impact on the community here. On Monday, Nov.12, Barrio on 12th Avenue gave its revenue from tequila sales to MurrayAid and its bar director, Casey Robison, pledged his day’s tips to the cause. In December, the biggest MurrayAid event will take place at the Batch 206 Blur Ball located in the budding distillery district of Elliot Avenue West. Seattle restaurateur Ethan Stowell also has two more charity dinners lined up at Staple and Fancy in Ballard for MurrayAid, one on Nov. 21 and the last on Nov. 28. Updates about the fundraising progress are posted frequently on the MurrayAid Facebook page and the associated FundRazr page.