Diffords Dozen:Seattle's 12 Best Bars

Blame it on the rain. Seattle's famously wet weather leads its citizens to seek solace in energizing coffee, invigorating rock music (and, for some, numbing heroin), and in small close-to-home bars that function as community living rooms. Most of the more notable cocktail bars can be found clustered in a few neighbourhoods though. In Downtown/Belltown where a mix of city workers, tourists, and weekend warriors may be present at any given time, we find the famous Zig Zag Café and Rob Roy, but also (not rated for this story) Spur, Bathtub Gin, Coterie Room, and the soon-to-reopen Vessel.

In Capitol Hill, a long sloping hill (start at the top and drink your way down) with several micro-neighbourhoods and a wide mix of blue collar, student, and young and old professionals, we find Canon, Tavern Law, Liberty, Chino's and Artusi, along with many others. The Ballard neighbourhood, which is a good distance (but an easy bus ride) from the other two, includes both quirky locals bars like Copper Gate, but also a row of upscale and high design bars and restaurants including Bastille, The Sexton, and Macleod's.

Outside of this 12, we think there is a wide enough range of fancy cocktail bars and restaurants, charming neighbourhood spots, and higher-energy drinking pubs to plan a great night out, no matter the neighbourhood.

Zig Zag Cafe

Address: 1501 Western Avenue, Seattle, WA
Tel: +1 (206) 625-1146
Type: Cocktail Bar

Zig Zag is Seattle's most famous cocktail bar and winner of two Tales of the Cocktail awards for Best Classic Cocktail List and American Bartender of the Year for Murray Stenson (who has since moved to another venue), so you might expect to find it a fancy hotel bar with white-jacketed bartenders and expensive drinks. You'd be dead wrong. Zig Zag's appeal is in its boozy cocktails, laid-back atmosphere, and excellent service. But because of all of the accolades, the bar can fill to capacity so it is best to go at off-hours.

The large L-shaped room has a curved bar in the corner that allows bartenders to serve customers on both sides of the room, who sit on large, swooping benches and at tables and chairs about the tile-floored and cinderblock-walled room. A jazz soundtrack plays but is largely drowned out by the buzz of the (usually well-buzzed) crowd.

Those people, a mix of industry and consumer folk from their twenties to their seventies, choose from the large menu of classics and classically-styled cocktails. The drinks are strong, not-so-citrusy, and include lots of fortified wines, liqueurs, and bitters. None of this would stand out so much in Seattle were it not for the bartenders, who seem to make time for all customers at the bar, remember their names, consult with them on cocktails, and take down rare bottles to give tastes of spirits, all the while working fast to satisfy the thirsty clientele. Believe the hype. 4.5/5

Rob Roy

Address: 2332 2nd Ave Seattle, WA
Tel: +1 (206) 956-8423
Type: Cocktail Bar

Straight out of a 1960s Playboy Club or Mad Men episode, Rob Roy has black leather couches, thick black seats at the bar, and even a padded (p)leather wall on one side. Other Swinging Sixties design elements include a slate rock wall behind the bar, a boar's head mounted to another, and a nook filled with a record player and stacks of vinyl. It's both hip and good humored, with clever elements like bathroom grafitti made up of cocktail recipes scrawled on the walls instead of dirty limericks.

However cool the space may be, the bar is located in Belltown, which on weekends can be filled with patrons more interested in Red Bull and Jager Bombs than in classic cocktails. No matter, say the bartenders, as serving quick drinks to that crowd allows them more time to hand carve ice balls or light up a Blue Blazer for other drinkers. The drink menu is split into eight each of (obscure) classics and house originals made mostly with aged spirits including calvados and cognac along with the requisite whiskies, plus lesser-known vintage ingredients like old tom gin, pineau des charentes, and pimento dram. Rob Roy serves substance with style. 4.5/5

Tavern Law

Address: 1406 12th Ave, Seattle, WA
Tel: +1 206 322 9734
Type: Cocktail Bar

Speakeasy theme bar Tavern Law is a high ceilinged space with several seating areas: the bar/waiting area with its stools and high tables, a middle section with rows of restaurant tables, and a back nook containing a big booth beneath a striped wallpaper wall. The 1920s thematic touches are all there - vested bartenders, a wall of books, rows of bitters, a blood bank refrigerator, and a roulette wheel as decoration behind the bar - though the service can feel more like a transaction than a conversation. It's a bar for hanging out with friends more than worshipping at the altar of the mixologist.

Drinks on the alphabetically-arranged menu are a mix of classics and house creations that (as in many Seattle bars) include plenty of gin and brown spirits mixed with bitter amaros like Cynar, Fernet-Branca, and Averna. A shorter and simpler happy hour menu includes more citrusy drinks like the New York Sour and the Old Cuban. All drinks on review visits were well-executed. Upstairs is Needle & Thread, a separate room (not always open) with its own bar and more personalized service, which sometimes plays host to guest bartenders. 4/5


Address: 517 15th Ave E, Seattle, WA
Tel: +1 (206) 323-9898
Type: Cocktail Bar

Coffee bar, sushi bar, and cocktail bar Liberty is most of all a casual neighbourhood bar, serving a random assortment of Capitol Hill dwellers along with an industry crowd. Seating is made for group conversations, with many couches near the front windows and tall bench seating opposite the bar. The back-bar is cluttered with the coffee station, sushi station, more than 70 whiskies, and a dozen or so vintage crystal decanters filled with barrel aged cocktails (a house speciality) and homemade ingredients.

Cocktails on the menu span seven pages, mostly arranged by base spirit, with each one listing the drink's creator. Craft cocktail bar touches include citrus squeezed to order for each drink, and jumbo ice cubes stored in the freezer already inside rocks glasses. As not all patrons order the sometimes-precious cocktails, bartenders have the time to execute them while maintaining friendly level of personal service. Liberty is the casual cocktail bar you want next door to your house. 4/5


Address: 928 12th Ave, Seattle, WA
Tel: +1 (206) 552-9755
Type: Cocktail Bar

Canon is the cocktail bar founded in 2011 by Jamie Boudreau, one of Seattle's most influential bartenders. The small space is gorgeously appointed in shades of dark brown (the bar and tables were stained using Angostura bitters), with speakeasy design touches like Edison bulbs, framed newspapers announcing the repeal of Prohibition, and a silver pressed tin ceiling. Behind the bar and stretching all the way to that tall ceiling are shelves filled with one of the greatest collections of liquor for sale in any bar in America, including more than 50 spirits dating back to Prohibition and earlier. The list of spirits is found not in an ever-expanding book, but by using a QR code scanned from the cocktail menu with a cell phone, revealing some spirits on offer for prices reaching $950 for an ounce-and-a-half pour.

Despite the huge selection of spirits, the cocktail menu is quite petite, listing a dozen mixed drinks and one punch. Half those cocktails are pre-made, split into barrel-aged cocktails like the La Bicyclette and Hanky Panky that are served in chilled flasks, and carbonated cocktails that are served in soda bottles with a straw. Surely these save both serving time and glassware, decreasing the wait for drinks at this popular new bar. Canon's design and operation are next-level clever. 4.5/5


Address: 1024 E Pike St, Seattle, WA
Tel: +1 (206) 860-4238
Type: Restaurant

Billing itself as an "urban tiki house & Taiwanese cantina," Chino's might seem a tad unfocussed, but as the bartenders explained the place was created by a Taiwanese and Mexican couple who were initially considering a food truck featuring the ethnic cuisine of Los Angeles. Diners and drinkers both order from the bar and wait for orders to be delivered to the tables, which may be covered both in a loud floral prints and a Virgin of Guadalupe candle. A television behind the bar was playing a basketball game on one visit: casual is the keyword here.

To wash down the food (pork belly on steamed buns are featured, as they are in several Seattle bars) is a menu of mostly tiki drinks including the Mai Tai and Zombie, plus non-rum tropical-esque drinks like the Ramos Gin Fizz and Suffering Bastard. Cocktails were enjoyable but could be improved with better quality base spirits, but overall match the fun and informal space and pace of the bar. 3.5/5

Sun Liquor Distillery

Address: 514 E Pike St, Seattle, WA
Tel: +1 (206) 720-1600
Type: Cocktail Bar

Sun Liquor owns two venues in Seattle: one a lounge and the other this bar/distillery. A small copper pot still can be seen from a glass wall in the bar, making this one of the few spots in the US where one can drink spirits on the site where they are created. However, this is more of a small, fun, party bar populated by multi-cultural twenty-somethings with enough tattoos, ear plugs, dreadlocks, and bicycle gear to make you question whether you've walked into happy hour at the school for the arts.
The short, laminated food and drink menu lists nine cocktails, all classics, including the Hemingway Daiquiri, Southside, and Seelbach. Rather than "brown, bitter, and stirred" in style, most drinks here include fresh juice that is squeezed-to-order. Drinks are fairly executed and fairly priced at $8-$9, but the energetic and happy atmosphere is the main reason to visit. 3.5/5


Address: 1535 14th Avenue, Seattle, WA
Tel: +1(206) 251-7673
Type: Restaurant Bar

Attached to restaurant Spinasse but connected only through a door in the back, Artusi operates as a separate small plates restaurant and bar in Capitol Hill. The square room is bright, modern, and stylish with tile-topped bars, hanging light tubes, and tiger-striped wood. The vibe in the restaurant is hip-yet-casual, with many young professional couples on dates dining at tables, a mid-tempo electronica soundtrack to soothe them, and a friendly staff who might come out from behind the bar to take orders at tables between making drinks.

While Spinasse offers simple aperitif drinks (Campari & Soda, etc.) Artusi's list includes full cocktails. The focus of the room seems shared between the drink and food programs so that one is always tempted to order some of each. Nearly all cocktails contain Italian ingredients including fortified wines and vermouths or amaros. One section of the menu offers up four variations on a Negroni, while modified classics and house bartender originals make up the rest of the list. Some drinks seem a bit unrestrained but overall are fun culinary creations made with unique ingredients like walnut oil, pickled sunchoke, and chestnut honey vinegar. 3.5/5

Bastille Café & Bar

Address: 5307 Ballard Ave NW, Seattle, WA
Tel: +1 (206) 453-5014
Type: Restaurant

Massive bistro/brasserie Bastille includes the design elements you'd expect from a French restaurant - dark wood tables, white tile columns, lots of mirrors, and interesting glass accents, along with some modern touches like seating around an indoor fire feature. There is an additional back bar that's also French in design, but darker and more gothic in style with chestnut brown walls and large paintings beneath a chandelier. Both rooms make for a very impressive space populated by a thirty- and forty-something crowd.

Drinks served over the silver-topped bar include a dozen classics or modified classics like the Plinkster (a play on the Blinker with amaro), the "Perfect" Bijou that adds dry vermouth into the mix, and the Saint-Marc Daiquiri with Benedictine and absinthe. Cocktails tend to have French ingredients like cognac and Chartreuse, and the menu offers a good balance of dark and clear liquors and lighter and heavier flavoured drinks. The cocktail programme is in a bit of a transitional period with Erik Carlson newly at the helm, so look forward to more positive changes coming here soon. 3.5/5

Copper Gate

Address: 6301 24th Ave Nw, Seattle, WA
Tel: +1 (206) 706-3292
Type: Pub

Copper Gate is a quirky small bar/restaurant with an extra room for live entertainment. "Scandinavian since 1946," this bar plays to the Ballard neighbourhood's heritage, with its huge copper-topped bar in the shape of a Viking ship placed diagonally across the square room, along with its selection of commercial and house-infused aquavit and Scandinavian-inspired small plates. Cocktails on the menu also contain ingredients like Swedish Punsch, aquavit, and lingonberry, and are tasty but not incredibly serious.

The rest of the décor is vintage-eclectic with a stack of old radios, gramophone speakers, velvet paintings, and black-and-white nude women pin-up photos scattered throughout. The separate entertainment room is named for and is entered through a large replica of the female anatomy. Inside, red velvet benches and low ottomans make up the seating in the room with a grand piano at one end, at which acts from comedians to jazz groups play on various nights of the week. Copper Gate is a cute and fun pub worth stopping into for a quick one when in the neighbourhood. 3/5

The Sexton

Address: 5327 Ballard Ave NW, Seattle, WA
Tel: +1 206-829-8645
Type: Restaurant

New, Southern-inspired small plates restaurant The Sexton employs a weather-worn seaside look with distressed white woods, tan-on-white patterned wallpaper, and rusty steel girder beams. Added to this are fun, hip touches like white cassette tapes beneath the glass-topped, S-shaped bar, and mini homemade picnic tables for seating. The back bar isn't big enough to hold a huge number of spirits, but what's there is a carefully chosen selection heavy on bourbon and other whiskies but with a good amount of gin and rum as well.

Those spirits are used in a dozen cocktails, about half of them bourbon or rye whiskey based, designed by bar manager Marley Tomic-Beard. They include an apricot julep, a version of the El Diablo with Serrano-infused tequila, and several originals made with house infusions and bitters. A chalkboard behind the bar lists which bitters are currently underway, and which have recently been finished. Cocktails sampled here were boozy, dry (all the better for food pairing), and used a light touch of boldly flavoured ingredients. The drink list is set to change with the seasons, and patrons can also look forward to patio seating in better weather and forthcoming classes on cocktails and spirits. 4/5


Address: 5200 Ballard Ave NW, Seattle, WA
Tel: +1 (206) 687-7115
www.macleodsballard.com (Website not yet live)
Type: Bar

Tiny corner bar Macleod's is a Scottish theme bar, heavy on both the whisky and the theme. Some of the design accents like a cast iron gate (functioning as the railing on the small upstairs balcony level) reportedly were imported from Scotland, while the ceiling is painted with a map of the country and on one wall hangs pictures of famous Scots. Perhaps because the bar was brand new and squeaky clean at review time, it had less of a modern pub feel and more of a 'T.G.I. Scotland' look to it.

Cocktails on the menu are divided into whisky-based ones including the Rob Roy, Penicillin, and Blood and Sand, and house concoctions including a smoky Vodka Martini and a Tatanka made with bison grass vodka. Both the Atholl Brose (scotch, honey, oatmeal water, cream, and cinnamon) and the Nessie (scotch, sloe gin, lemon, orange bitters, absinthe) were more enticing on the menu than they were delicious in reality, the former drink tasting like an oatmeal cookie. Drinkers might fare better with Scott-centric beer selection or the more than 60 bottles of single malt scotch divided on the menu by geographic region. 3/5

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