Unveiling Wisdom: 5 Life Lessons from the Legendary Seattle Bartending Folk Hero, Murray

Murray Stenson, acclaimed as the best bartender in America, left an indelible mark on Seattle's cocktail scene, earning legendary status for resurrecting The Last Word, a pre-Prohibition-era drink. Despite his global recognition in the craft cocktail renaissance, our 15-year-long coffee meetings seldom delved into mixology. Stenson, the maestro behind Zig Zag Café, saw bartending as a people-centric profession rather than just mixing drinks. While his legacy is intertwined with The Last Word, his true superpower lay in memory recall. Our casual coffee rendezvous, dubbed "Tuesdays with Murray," revealed a man who cherished personal connections over cocktail recipes.

Stenson's genuine interest in people set him apart. Unlike transactional bartenders, he made every interaction feel personal, going beyond the norm. If queried about a cocktail, he'd jot down the recipe on a coaster, making everyone feel significant. This authenticity wasn't an act; it was a rare and genuine quality. A notable incident from 2008 encapsulates his approach: when a customer ordered an Old Fashioned, Stenson invited him to a gin tasting, offering an impromptu education on seven different gins. The lesson culminated in crafting a personalized cocktail based on each customer's preference.

Murray Stenson's recent passing at age 74 prompted reflection on the Tuesdays we spent together. Beyond mixology, his bartending philosophy imparts inspiration, wisdom, and life lessons. This narrative aims to share the essence of those moments, offering a glimpse into the soul of a man who saw bartending not as a profession but as an art of connecting with people.

Nicholas Chappellet fondly recalls Murray Stenson's unparalleled hospitality at the bar, describing it as the most memorable drinking experience. Stenson's commitment to customer satisfaction extended beyond the immediate moment, as evidenced by an Old Fashioned promise that materialized four years later at Canon on Capitol Hill. His ability to recognize and remember patrons was a hallmark of his bartending prowess.

Stenson's genuine concern for regulars went beyond the typical bartender-customer dynamic. When Gary Simeral, a grieving patron, sought solace after the loss of his longtime girlfriend, Stenson not only knew the situation but also offered comfort with a compassionate hug. Bartending, according to Stenson, was a noble profession, and he was fervently dedicated to sharing his knowledge. He often mentored fellow bartenders, exemplified by a stack of coasters bearing names of professionals seeking advice. In an era lacking online tutorials, Stenson's encyclopedic knowledge made him a go-to resource, with renowned mixologists reaching out for guidance.

Despite a dislike for flying and New York, Stenson's influence transcended these preferences, earning him recognition among East Village mixologists. His commitment to mentorship went beyond words – he mailed cocktail manuals to mentees and ensured a personal touch, even if delayed. An aspiring bartender in New York received The Last Word from a local bartender with a message from Stenson, apologizing for the delayed response and promising future contact.

Stenson's legendary status soared with the resurrection of The Last Word from his extensive cocktail book collection. This drink, embodying his curiosity and historical appreciation for his craft, serves as a testament to Stenson's enduring influence on the global cocktail landscape.

The cocktail renaissance in the Northwest witnessed the emergence of The Last Word, a libation that would garner a devoted following not only in New York but also across the globe. Comprising gin, fresh lime juice, maraschino liqueur, and green Chartreuse, this concoction birthed several popular offspring during the 21st-century cocktail revival, including The Paper Plane, The Final Ward, and The Naked and the Famous.

Before "paying it forward" became a trend, Murray Stenson pioneered a gesture known as Murray Mail or Murray Money. Renowned as one of the most generous tippers in town, Stenson would occasionally leave substantial tips or creatively attach bills to coasters. These playful notes, sometimes accompanied by $20 or even $100 bills, were then delivered by friends or customers to bartenders across town or in different states. This act of generosity, known as Murray Mail, aimed to showcase the excellence of various bars and spread camaraderie within the bartending community.

In 2012, when Stenson faced a heart attack, the global bar community rallied to raise over $200,000 to aid in his medical expenses and rent, a testament to the impact he had on countless lives. Bartenders from Australia to England contributed to this cause, some affectionately labeling their donations as "Murray Mail." The generosity wasn't a one-way street; bars that received Murray Mail often reciprocated, exemplifying the interconnected spirit Stenson fostered.

When asked about influential figures to study, Stenson, known for his unconventional wisdom, often scrawled the name "Ray Oldenburg" on a coaster. This wasn't a mixologist but a sociologist who coined the term "third place." Stenson believed that bars should aspire to be these third places—a space beyond home and work where people gather to connect, exchange ideas, and savor the warmth of community. For Stenson, the neighborhood bar held transformative power, fostering health, kindness, and a better world simply by providing a welcoming space for people to come together. In his vision, it wasn't about the quantity of drinks or extravagant spending; the essence lay in the shared experience of being present with others.

The essence of Murray Stenson's bar experience transcended the role of a mere drink server; he embodied the role of a genuinely warm and welcoming host. Beyond crafting cocktails, Stenson was deeply attuned to the lives of those around him. An avid reader, he once expressed concern about layoffs at The Seattle Times, illustrating a level of care that extended beyond the bar. When Zig Zag Café hired Stenson in 2000, the once-under-the-radar establishment transformed into a pilgrimage destination for drink enthusiasts.

Stenson's tenure at Zig Zag spanned 11 years, during which the bar became a magnet for food and drink luminaries. Notable personalities, including former New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni, acclaimed cocktail historian David Wondrich, and star bartender Joaquín Simó of New York's Death & Co., made the journey to experience Stenson's unique touch. Even seemingly mundane tasks, such as the meticulous way he wiped down the bar between guests, left a lasting impression on visitors like Toby Maloney of the Violet Hour in Chicago.

Despite the accolades, Stenson faced challenges when he was crowned "Best Bartender in America" at the Tales of the Cocktail festival in 2010. The sudden influx of attention disrupted the intimate third-place atmosphere he had carefully cultivated at Zig Zag. The bar, once a haven for locals and cocktail aficionados, was transformed into a spectacle, with long lines forming outside and an intrusive atmosphere that Stenson found uncomfortable. He confided over coffee that the award, while an honor, was misunderstood by the public. The focus on his mixology prowess overshadowed the communal spirit he cherished. Ultimately, this shift in dynamic led Stenson to step away from the bar he had made famous.

Ironically, Zig Zag only returned to its roots as a genuine third place after Stenson's departure. His legacy lives on not just in the drinks he crafted but in the warmth and camaraderie he instilled in the very fabric of Zig Zag Café.

Following his time at Zig Zag, Murray Stenson navigated through various Seattle bars, and our coffee outings became less frequent. The intervals between meetings stretched from three months to six, then even longer. Four years ago, facing temporary paralysis from Guillain-Barré syndrome and using a walker, Murray regretfully postponed our meeting until he could fully recuperate. Our paths intersected for the last time in October 2022 at Place Pigalle in Pike Place Market. He looked frail, yet his keen eye noticed my new pair of Air Jordans. Our banter flowed seamlessly, touching on the state of Seattle, recent restaurant discoveries, and reminiscing about Zig Zag regulars. His parting words lingered: "I owe you coffee. Let's catch up."

Regrettably, I postponed our coffee meet-up for various reasons, failing to heed the lessons Murray had imparted — to keep tabs on friends and show loyalty to those we love. However, another crucial lesson from our Tuesdays together resonates: the least interesting part of a drink is the drink itself. Murray's philosophy highlighted that it's not about what's in the cup but who you share it with—the Champagne on your wedding day, the beer at the ballpark with friends. The echo of his infectious laughter from our last encounter still reverberates.

As Murray walked away, gradually shrinking until only his silhouette remained in the glow of the light above, I realized I wouldn't see my friend again. Yet, his legacy endures, not just at Zig Zag but far beyond. Murray Stenson, the man who made bars more than places to drink, lives on in the countless lessons learned during our Tuesdays together.

In conclusion, Murray Stenson's journey from Zig Zag Café to various Seattle bars and our infrequent coffee meet-ups left an indelible mark on the fabric of camaraderie and friendship. The haunting words of our last encounter, "I owe you coffee. Let's catch up," now serve as a poignant reminder of lessons overlooked—the importance of keeping tabs on friends and showing loyalty to those we love. Murray's legacy extends beyond the physical spaces he graced, encapsulating the profound lesson that the essence of a drink lies not in its contents but in the company you share it with.

The echoes of Murray's infectious laughter and the camaraderie we shared still resonate, emphasizing that the drink itself is merely a vessel for moments of connection. As Murray walked away for the last time, his silhouette fading into the light above, the realization dawned that I wouldn't see my friend again. Yet, his influence lives on, not only within the walls of Zig Zag but in the broader tapestry of the bar community and the lessons learned during our Tuesdays together. Murray Stenson's legacy is a testament to the enduring impact of genuine connections and the profound truth that the heart of any toast is not the beverage but the company with whom it is shared.