Drinking is easy. Finding the right bar, not so easy. We’re here to help. As a public service to all of you thirsty explorers, every week we highlight the best bars in America and tell you what makes them so damn great. This week we’ve got a tiny bar in the Pacific Northwest that’s garnering big, national accolades.
LOCATION: Capitol Hill, Seattle
ON THE JUKEBOX: R. L. Burnside, Radio Moscow, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
WHAT TO ORDER (NEWBIES): Campfire in Georgia: mezcal, peach-habañero shrub and fresh orange juice, served under a bell jar filled with the smoke of cinnamon-French oak wood
WHAT TO ORDER (REGULARS): Campfire in Georgia
WHY WE LOVE IT: Jamie Boudreau, the owner of Canon whiskey and bitters emporium in Seattle, has a joke: “If we are at full capacity and the zombie apocalypse comes along, we could shut the doors and board the windows and each person would have 200 bottles of booze to themselves until it was over.”
This math sounds unbelievable, albeit awesome. But it checks out: Canon has 7,000 bottles of alcohol (3,500 different labels) in the building and only 32 seats. “We have $1 million in inventory,” Boudreau says. “We have more American whiskey that anyone else in the world and the largest collection of amari in the United States. And we’re only 450 square feet.” The bottles are stacked on shelves all of the way up to the ceiling, giving visitors the feeling that they’re ensconced in a fortress of booze. And most of these bottles are within arms reach—even the bathroom walls are lined with bottles. (Don’t get any ideas; they’re secured in cages.)
While the unassuming Canon is located far away from the cocktail hotspots of New York and San Francisco, it has gained national attention since it opened five years ago. Canon has been a semi-finalist for the James Beard Award for outstanding bar program every year, including this one. But unlike many of the other bars up for awards like these, Canon does not have a public relations (PR) team to politick on its behalf. “I hate PR companies,” Boudreau says. “I’ve never used them. What people don’t realize about Canon is that it’s just me and my business partner. There’s no management team, there’s no cleaning team, there’s no Web designer, there’s no photographer… We do everything.”
Boudreau says he has been fighting a host of preconceived notions since the bar opened. One of those is that you can only go to Canon to drink geeky cocktails. In fact, the bar has wine and beer lists and a food menu comparable to a fine dining restaurant. It even has bone marrow luges. “People get it now and there’s a better mix of people who are coming in to see us,” he says. “It’s fun. I hate going into a bar where everyone looks the same.” In fact at any one time half of the people in Canon are from out of town. “Seattle is a smaller city. We aren’t New York. To make it, we can’t do something uber specialized, because there’s just not the population here to support that. We’ve been trying really hard to appeal to as many people as we can.”
When Boudreau designs the cocktail menu, for example, (the menus change every two months) he makes sure he hits all of the categories: “Is there an equal amount of drinks that are rum and tequila? Is there an equal amount of drinks that go into a rocks glass and a Collins glass? Are there original drinks and ancient classics, bizarre, high-presentation drinks and simple drinks?” Boudreau also makes and sells his own bottles of bitters behind the bar and offers bottled cocktails—aged and served in flasks or carbonated and served in mini Champagne bottles—that are sealed and stamped with the bar’s logo. To make the aged cocktails, he uses a Solera system, the same method used to age sherry.
“Unlike everyone else that I know of, we actually age our cocktails properly: they’re in barrels outside,” he says. “This is important because the whole point of aging is to pull the cocktail or the booze in and out of the wood. If you have it in a barrel in a room inside, there’s no temperature change, so you aren’t going to get that motion of booze coming in and out of the wood. You’re essentially making wood tea. There’s no oxygen exchange.” Canon has an outdoor rickhouse that Boudreau lays the barrels in. When doing a bottling, he never pulls out more than half of the liquid inside the barrel before filling it back up with more alcohol. Some of the booze has been aging in there for five years.
While Canon does have its share of classic and simple drinks (the Fernet and ginger beer is a succinct yet tasty example), its lavish libations are absolutely delightful. They include elaborate-presentation drinks such as the Transfusion For Two, a red cocktail that’s served in a blood bag. “We have a lot of toys,” Boudreau says. “Our Tea for Two goes into a cast iron teapot and is served with teacups. It looks like it’s steaming hot, but it’s actually cooled with liquid nitrogen. The steam messes with your mind.” To righten your head, the Canon menu offers sage life advice, scrawled across the bottom of page three: Alcohol, eggs, sex, undercooked foods and most enjoyable things in life can and will kill you if you give them enough time. Live life to the fullest until then.
Alyson Sheppard is the resident hangover specialist at Playboy.com. Find her on Twitter: @amshep