The first time I heard about Murray Stenson, the legendary Seattle bartender who died last week, he was refusing to accept an award.
It was July 2010 and I was attending Tales of the Cocktail, the annual booze-biz confab in New Orleans. Stenson was nominated for two Spirited Awards — the convention’s version of the Oscars — for Bartender of the Year and the Lifetime Achievement Award. But he had no intention of leaving Seattle and attending the ceremony. This, to my mind, made Stenson an instant badass, the cocktail equivalent of George C. Scott or Marlon Brando thumbing his nose at the Academy by throwing their trinkets back at them.
The second time I heard of Stenson was in connection to the Last Word, an obscure pre-Prohibition cocktail that became all the rage in mixology circles in the late aughts and early 2010s. Stenson was given credit for digging up the old drink, an improbable mixture of gin, lime juice, Chartreuse, and Maraschino liqueur, and putting it on the menu at the Zig Zag Café, where he worked. The bartender grapevine saw to it that the Last Word soon swept the nation. Its equal-parts formula of spirit-juice-sweet liqueur-herbal liqueur became the template of hundreds of new cocktails. This, to me, made Stenson a seer and pioneer in mixology.
When I finally met Stenson, however, he didn’t strike me as either a rebel or a trailblazer. We were both guests at a Seattle-area wedding in 2011. He was a balding man of slight build. I would have never picked him out in a crowd as a star in his or any field. When he talked, he was humble, soft-spoken, shy, and self-effacing. When I interviewed him soon after for an article about his career, he was just the same. And yet, Stenson was an inspiration to many young bartenders in the early days of the cocktail revival.
Since Stenson died on Sept. 22 at the age of 74, the outpouring of tributes has been nonstop. Instagram and Facebook were flooded with old photos showing younger versions of now-prominent bartenders happily smiling beside Stenson, as if posing with a favorite high school teacher.
Most of the captions to these photos related what is known in the bar industry as a “Murray Story.” This is a cherished anecdote that somehow illustrates Stenson’s talent for peerless hospitality.
“All of Murray’s unique traits led to a very special bond among many of his guests, and in turn have inspired numerous stories,” says Robert Hess, a Microsoft executive and cocktail expert who did as much as anyone to spread the legend of Stenson during the early days of the cocktail revival. “These are stories where customers would be transfixed by Murray’s amazing superpowers as a bartender. Regularly, customers who had been around Murray for a while, when introduced to each other, would ask ‘What’s your Murray Story?’”
Hess’s own story was having Stenson remember his name, drink, and favored bar stool after having served him only once, a year before.
Many bartenders spoke of Stenson as a mentor, but, in truth, he didn’t directly mentor younger colleagues. Rather, bartenders would simply take a bar stool at the Zig Zag Café — Stenson’s most famous perch from 2002 and 2011 — and watch him work.
“If a regular guest informed him they were traveling to Boston or New Orleans or Houston, or any of countless other cities and asked him for recommendations of a good place to get a drink, he’d take one of his square paper bar coasters, write the name of a bar and bartender on it, and staple a $20 bill with instructions for the guest to leave it as a tip from Murray.”
“Murray rarely, if ever, actively taught bartenders,” says Hess, “but countless bartenders became better at their work simply through the osmosis of spending time at his bar watching him in action.” His nickname was “Murr the Blur” for his effortless efficiency, grace, and swiftness of movement behind the bar.
“My favorite description of him was that some visiting bartender compared him to Harold Lloyd in all the sped-up, silent-movie glory, waving hello, stirring cocktails, smiling and laughing and scanning the room,” says Seattle bartender Keith Waldbauer, who works at The Doctor’s Office.
Stenson owed his rapid rise to fame late in his career to the digital age. But the acts of hospitality and community that led to that reputation were strictly of the analog variety.
His favorite way of communicating information, whether it be a recipe or a suggested bar or restaurant to visit, was to write it on the back of a coaster — something Paul Clarke, the Seattle-based editor of Imbibe magazine, calls “Murray Mail.”
“He sent handwritten thank-you notes, and gave guests recommendations on where to get dinner, and called ahead to the restaurant for them,” says Clarke. “He introduced strangers to one another, or politely intervened in conversations between guests when one of the parties just wanted to be left alone,” he adds. He even lit guests’ cigarettes back when that was a thing.
“His menus were the only ones in the city that weren’t just a bunch of Cosmopolitan variations.”
“If a regular guest informed him they were traveling to Boston or New Orleans or Houston, or any of countless other cities,” says Clarke, “and asked him for recommendations of a good place to get a drink, he’d take one of his square paper bar coasters, write the name of a bar and bartender on it, and staple a $20 bill with instructions for the guest to leave it as a tip from Murray once they visited the bar.” This was apparently Stenson’s idea of professional networking, and it worked.
Another floating-money, goodwill gesture that Stenson practiced was called “Pass the Hundy.” According to Jamie Boudreau, owner of the Seattle cocktail bar Canon, Stenson would go to someone’s bar — especially if they were at a slower venue — have a single drink and then leave a $100 bill as a tip. That “would then get passed right back to him on a future visit to his spot,” says Boudreau, “or perhaps to another bartender’s spot where you would tell the story of how he tipped the $100, which they would then go and do themselves. It got to be quite ridiculous at one point, with $100 bills just floating around the city.”
Boudreau partly designed Canon with a mind toward luring Stenson to work there.
Boudreau knew that Stenson hated computers, so the bar opened for business with handwritten tabs instead of a POS system. (Everyone, it seems, wanted Stenson to work for them. According to Hess, Ben Dougherty and Kacy Fitch, the owners of the Zig Zag Café, intentionally designed their bar to attract Murray’s attention.)
Much of Stenson’s legacy will inevitably be tied to his resurrection of the Last Word. He was an early collector of out-of-print cocktail manuals and was forever scouring them for interesting recipes to put on his menus or surprise guests with. In the late ‘90s and early aughts, “his menus were the only ones in the city that weren’t just a bunch of Cosmopolitan variations,” says Boudreau.
But the Last Word’s significance wasn’t simply as a good old cocktail Murray had dug up. It quickly matured into an object lesson. Young mixologists spied in its structure a formula off which they could sketch. Without the Last Word’s return, we would arguably not have the Paper Plane, Naked and Famous, Division Bell, Final Ward, and many other modern classics. Stenson’s recovery of the Last Word was mentorship at its most direct and practical.
That geeky love of cocktail history, combined with an ingrained devotion to old-school hospitality, made Stenson — along with Dale DeGroff, Brother Cleve, Chris McMillian, and a few other American bartenders — a critical bridge figure in the craft cocktail movement, a man able to execute the finest of mixed drinks while simultaneously providing the best service. As Clarke puts it, he “brought an old-school vibe to a very new-school experience in the cocktail revival.”