I’m going out on a tipsy limb, but I think we have the best bartenders in the world. Seattle has an abundance of bartending superheroes who are convivial, courteous (mostly!) and, most important, creators of delicious cocktails. We asked a few of our favorites about what drinks they’re serving up, where they go to unwind and what they’re sipping for inspiration.
Bar Manager, E. Smith Mercantile
Jesse opened E. Smith Mercantile with her mom Kate and sister Sara. As an ex-honor graduate in apparel and art, it makes perfect sense that she helps run a unique store+bar combination. While she’s not shaking drinks there every day – it’s a team effort with sister Sara doing lots, too, including making the fine homemade ingredients – she still is in charge of the bar program. We caught up with her to talk about the bar, and about artistic cocktail making.
1. E. Smith Mercantile has now been open about 2-1/2 years, and you’ve being making drinks there the whole time, though you also help run the whole place. What’s been your favorite drink during that time?
I still craft the cocktails for our Guest Chef dinners and special events, but stepped out from behind the bar about a year ago to focus on keeping our Mercantile portion of the business running smoothly. My favorite drink is always the one that's best for the person at that place and time. There's nothing more satisfying than listening to a customer and delivering something they didn't know they wanted.
2. What do you think the most popular drink overall has been at the bar?
Our two most popular drinks consistently are the Cure-All and the Miner's Campfire. Both are drinks that have sustained from our original menu and are true to our ethos of “Medicinal” cocktails. The horehound-infused bourbon in the Cure-All is a traditional remedy for respiratory ailments. The Campfire is an homage to our namesake Elmer Smith, who engineered at gold mines in Southern Idaho. The signature smoke flavor from our house-made bitters keeps the crowd coming back.
3. The bar space at E. Smith is small, but comfortable, and always feels cozy. But that’s sitting at the bar as a customer. Is it just as comfortable behind the bar?
We were very fortunate to have some priceless consultation from Craig Schoen when we were designing the bar. It was built to feature the bartender and designed to have everything within reach. Our horseshoe shape also encourages a community aspect. It's just as easy to enjoy the person next to you as it is to engage with someone across the room. It is indeed, a comfort, to see strangers in Seattle talk to each other, and make friends! I wouldn't have it any other way.
4. You graduated magna cum laude from Cornish College of the Arts in fine arts, and grabbed top honors in Apparel Design at Seattle Community College and pattern making at New York Fashion Academy. Does this art and design sense influence your cocktail making and how?
Being an artist trains you in taking a risk and not being afraid of it failing, which is definitely an asset behind the bar. Sometimes the best resolutions are birthed from combinations gone awry. I'd also like to think there's an aesthetic quality to everything we do here. We're an artistic family, so of course our space and our product will be a reflection of that.
5. E. Smith also has a nicely curated apparel selection up in the store area – does anyone ever ask you to match a drink to an outfit or piece of clothing?
Not yet! I do pair cocktails for our special events and have done signature drinks inspired by the work of our artists doing trunk shows, including Black Anchor (leather goods out of Tacoma WA, the drink was made from bourbon, walnut liqueur Nocino, and Cocchi Barolo Chinato fortified wine) and Brookes Boswell (handmade hats from Portland, and the drink started with a demerara sugar cube soaked with cardamom bitters placed in a champagne flute, then combined with house limoncello, lemon juice, and Champagne).
6. I know E. Smith has a lot of housemade drink ingredients, like the bitters and more. What’s been the most interesting cocktail ingredient “experiment” you’ve had?
Sara and Kate (Kate is Jessie’s mom) actually make all of our bitters and do most of the flavor experimenting. My favorite one Sara's done so far is the lovage tincture. It's a plant in the celery family and lends the most perfect savory umami flavor to a cocktail. We've also got a pineapple- infused rye in the bar now that's incredible all on its own.
7. When you’re not making cocktails, but going out to drink them, where do you like to go, and what’s your regular drink?
My staple is a dirty potato vodka martini, but if I'm going somewhere where I know the bartender I make them play for me. I'm probably a bartender’s worst nightmare, ha ha. Bartenders are known for drinking shots and beers, but I got into the field because I love a good cocktail. Show me something new, seasonal and beautiful.
Up Next: Seven questions for Joshua Batway