Your Guide To Helping This Weekend: Famed Seattle Bartender Murray Stenson

Heart surgery won't have The Last Word.

It’s long overdue. He should be knighted, but this will have to do. 
-David Wondrich, on famed Seattle Bartender Murray Stenson’s 2010 Best Bartender in America Award at Tales of the Cocktail.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that if it weren’t for Murray Stenson, my career, and my life, would be disappointingly different…Without Murray, this blog would be depressingly flat. Without Murray, my skill — and my career — as a drinks writer would be weaker. Without Murray, my Wednesday evenings — which for years were (and to a certain extent, still are) my regular nights at Zig Zag — wouldn’t have been one of the highlights of my weekly calendar; they would have been, well, Wednesdays — the blandest night of the week.
-Paul Clarke

In every professional field, there are people who are transcendent, whose influence extends beyond the confines of their company or location or field. Steve Jobs comes to mind. Charles and Ray Eames do as well. In my field, there is one clear example.

Murray Stenson has been pouring drinks in Seattle for 36 years. Since 1976, America’s Bicentennial, through drink fads and style changes, Murray has been a bartender. He would have ensured his place in the pantheon of contemporary bartenders for his resurrection of The Last Word, but he hasn’t just poured drinks.

For those three plus decades, for four fewer years than I’ve been breathing, Murray has been renowned for his generosity to stranger and friend alike, for his dry and wicked sense of humor, for his remarkable memory of faces and his uncanny recall of drink choice and spirit preference. But, mostly, Murray has been known for his hospitality. When you cross the threshold of a bar with Murray behind the stick, you are immediately the most important person in the room, a feeling somehow shared by everyone else in the place too.

He is famed for his encyclopedic knowledge of classic cocktails and his collection of classic cocktail books. He has been known to give those valuable books away, gratis, to guests he barely knows who find themselves enchanted by them.

More than one of my contemporaries, when confronted with a challenge, has been known to ask, “What would Murray do?” or to comment, “I want to be like Murray when I grow up.”  I have met Murray exactly twice.

The first time was in Seattle, as a guest at the Zig Zag Café, a bar that Murray called home for nearly a decade. It was a Friday night, the place was jammed, and to my disappointment, there were no seats at the bar. But my party was seated at a table with a clear view of Murray at work, and I do what I do (to the probable consternation of the people I’m with) when at a bar where a master is toiling. I watch. He was making a drink for a bar guest with the easy elegance of long practice, and placing the bottles along the bar top as he worked. There was one I didn’t recognize, and I was craning my neck to try and determine what it was. While carefully stirring the drink for the guest in front of him, Murray caught my eye from across the room, poured a small taster from the unfamiliar bottle, and nodded in my direction.

The bottle turned out to be an obscure Italian Amaro, unavailable in Texas. It was delicious and I had a few moments to introduce myself, probably fumbling like a tweener in the presence of the latest boy band heart throb, and we shared a few words again before I went out into the night.

Almost a year later, I was traveling and bumped into Murray. I congratulated him on his being named American Bartender of the Year at the recent Tales of the Cocktail. He looked at me for a moment, and, smiling, thanked me by name and asked, “Did you ever track down that Amaro?” 

Murray, at his core, has always been humble and adverse to the spotlight. Other bartenders in his position would have given up the daily grind, taken advantage of the quiet fame and gone to work for a liquor company as a brand ambassador, or become a full time consultant or somehow cashed in and cruised. Instead, Murray recently joined the staff at Canon, a new bar in Seattle where he’s working for people whose drink education was started, in part, by Murray himself.

It is a cliché, but in this case it is true. No one has ever said a bad word about Murray Stenson.

But now, Murray needs help. Like so many who work in bars and restaurants, Murray does not have health insurance. Recently, he began to have fainting spells and broke his arm, leaving him unable to work. But the real issue is the underlying cause of all this, a heart ailment that will require surgery and  a recovery period that will keep him from where he belongs, behind a bar, for some time.

In just about a week, a grassroots fundraising effort for Murray has translated into, at this writing, $35,000 for Murray during his time of need, mostly from people in the global bartending community, giving what they can. What is more remarkable is how the news has spread beyond our insular world. Noted cocktail enthusiast Rachel Maddow has chipped in and publicized this story and the New York Times had a mention.

But the fact remains that Murray will be racking up medical bills, while being unable to work at his profession for some time. Bars in different cities will be hosting benefits (details are updated at murrayaid.org) and individuals, who are so inclined, can donate to Murray directly through PayPal.

Next week, I’ll be back in the space with an obscure cocktail that Murray has probably poured more than anyone else on earth. But, this week, instead of buying a bottle of liquor or a few cocktails out, consider donating what you can to Murray Stenson. In the piece I wrote here on the Last Word, I said of Murray, “He is one of the most beloved figures in the craft bar scene, and has earned every ounce of the tons of respect he is given by bartenders the world over.” The outpouring of devotion that Murray has seen since his medical issues became public supports that contention, but any little bit helps. The world is a poorer place without Murray Stenson pouring drinks; if you love cocktails, please help get him behind the bar again.

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