Reflections on the best bartender in America: Murray Stenson

Nicole and I didn’t go to Tales of the Cocktail this year, having between us two backlogs of work and wanting to save our money for trips this fall and next spring/summer.

But we did wander into Zigzag Cafe last Saturday night, knowing that nearly everybody in town was at Tales, but that Murray had decided not to go. So we knew we could get the best cocktail experience in town for an hour or so before we headed off to an outside table at Place Pigalle.

Murray wasn’t there. Erik served us, and we had a terrific experience and met new cocktail enthusiasts (as we always do sitting at Zigzag). A month or so ago, when I asked Murray if he was going, he smiled a secretive and sardonic smile and alluded to not wanting to get involved in all that, and being sort of pissed about the nominations. I didn’t ask further, but I assumed he was alluding to the fact that not a single West Coast bar made the nomination list this year (a criminal shame, given the quality of what Daniel Shoemaker is doing, not to mention many others).

After a delightful discussion about cocktails, Continental philosophy, and many other topics with Erik and our newfound friends at the bar, we headed off to Pigalle, and enjoyed a terrific dinner and sunset on the patio. Midway through, Nicole and I poked at our iPhones and told each other, “Murray won American bartender of the year.” Suddenly it all made sense.

Not only was Murray not at Tales to avoid the attention that seems to embarass him so much, but he wasn’t even behind the stick at Zigzag that night. Not that he won’t have to endure many, many nights of his peers and customers congratulating him, but in characteristic fashion he avoided spectacle.

I can’t add much to the rivers of digital ink now being spilt in adjective-laden paen to the local Hercules of the shaker and bottle. I haven’t known Murray for decades, except in the old days as a barely noticed presence at Il Bistro, in days when I was far more concerned about the wine list.

But for those who haven’t spent time at the counter with Murray, you’re missing something very special. The skills Murray possesses are not necessarily what you expect. With sufficient research and the willingness to chase down ingredients, and the near-OCD-ridden hobbyist attitude that comes naturally to those who work with computers or software for a living (especially those that write the latter), it’s not hard to mix a technically amazing cocktail, or wax loquacious about the late 19th century history of the Martini.

Heck, it’s not even hard to stump Murray by naming an obscure cocktail you just quarried out of some book. Nor does Murray follow any of the “rules” of modern craft cocktailing — I mean, good god, the man doesn’t even measure!

But none of us go to sit at his bar because we care about those things. Murray is a master of his craft, of course. But most of all, he’s a master of hospitality. Not only does he keep dozens of people happy with superbly made cocktails at all times, but he’s keenly and almost supernaturally aware of dozens of conversations happening simultaneously. More than once, Murray has been at the other end of the bar, mixing drinks for a different party, and someone I’m hanging out with will ask about an ingredient or ask for my preference in gins for this particular cocktail, for example. Just in passing, you understand.

Five minutes later, often after the conversation has moved on to other topics, Murray silently places glasses in front of everyone in our party and pours a tasting sample of the ingredient, or a comparison between gins so folks can see the differences. He heard the whole thing — the question, my answers, the interest level of the people — from across the bar while doing five other things. He heard *everyone* and their conversations, and is ready to expand horizons, satisfy curiosity.

And ready, always, to build loyalty, especially in those who are loyal customers in return. I suspect that many of us now think of ourselves less as “customers” of Murray’s, and more as “ambassadors,” our job being to find those friends whose interests and sensibilities will vibrate in sympathy to this peculiar and rare treat, and introduce them, so that they can begin their relationship with the place, with the staff, and most importantly, with the Best Bartender in America.

Thank you, Murray, and whether you’ll admit it or not, this is well-deserved. Expect to be congratulated a fair bit, because I don’t know anybody who doesn’t feel the same way.

Comments

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  1. What a nice post! Murray is a true professional & so deserves this award! As for his schedule it’s tues-fri, there’s (going) to be an app for that! Lol! & Erik is an awesome bartender in his own, Murray has a way with the education, no? As always Mark you have a way with words!