In My Experience: Murray Stenson

by Paul Clarke

Photo by Dan Crawford

“In My Experience” is drawn from conversations with veteran bartenders across the country, covering matters of significance to those pursuing a long-term career behind the bar. These industry veterans are sharing their experiences on practical issues such as money and how to save it; health, and how to keep fit both mentally and physically; how to find a good balance between the bartending life and spouses, partners and family; and how to maintain a healthy relationship with alcohol.

Thirty-six years. That’s how long, give or take, that Murray Stenson has been tending bar. For much of that time, Stenson has played a dual role as mentor to the Seattle bar community, introducing scores of bartenders and customers to interesting and obscure spirits, and serving as the ultimate insider to the city’s bar and restaurant trade. In 2010, Stenson was named “American Bartender of the Year” at Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, and the current cocktail renaissance has spread his reputation globally—among cocktail fans for his mixing talent and his resurrection of the Last Word, and among bartenders for his impeccable skills as a host and barman. Former head bartender at institutions including Il Bistro and Zig Zag Café, Stenson now tends bar three nights a week at Canon. Here are a few things this noted bartender has learned in the course of more than three decades behind the bar.

First bartending gig: The original Benjamin’s in Bellevue (Washington), 1976 

In your experience as a bartender, what have you learned about:

Money—having, saving and spending it

I’ve always been pretty frugal. I grew up lower middle class; I’m not a good guy to ask about finances. I kind of got forced into a savings plan when I went thought a divorce—a divorce is one thing that really makes you focus on your lifestyle, and your finances, so I was kind of forced into being financially responsible.

But on the other hand, I went through a period where I would blow a lot of money just because I’d rather enjoy it myself, living here and now, rather than have my ex-wife get it. I can remember distinctly going into a bar over in Bellevue, I was there by myself, and one of my regular customers from Seattle came into the bar. I was so bitter about my finances and whatnot that I sent a bottle of Dom Perignon over to his table, just because I didn’t want the ex-wife to get any cash. And the guy came over—he was a very successful business guy, he owned a printing company that did all the menus for all the restaurants in the Seattle area—and he had tears in his eyes. He said nobody’ d ever done that for him before; people always expected him to pay. He said, “That was the greatest gesture”—I couldn’t tell him it was because I’d rather have him have it than the ex-wife.

The downfall of a lot of young bartenders is, they can be pretty hard drinking—and while it’s not as much anymore, you still get a lot of drug use in this business. You get the instant gratification, then you wake up the next day and your tips are gone. I never had that problem. The only time I drank heavily was when I went through a divorce, and at the time I was a beer drinker. I never paid a dime for any cocaine; drugs never interested me. My biggest vice, if I’m gonna blow money, is I’m gonna buy stereo equipment.

Staying healthy

The only time I’ve had a problem with it was at the Zig Zag; there was so much volume, it was a combination of mental and physical stress. That was out of my control; it was entirely based on who was working the door and how many people came in.

I’ve always been an adherent of letting the younger bartender do the hard work, and at the Zig Zag, Kacy [Fitch, the bar’s co-owner] would treat me like the most fragile guy; he wouldn’t let me change a keg or get ice. That’s helped extend my career a little.

Dealing with the intensity of working behind the bar

I’ve learned that with people I find a little off-putting, I try to figure out why I’m not that fond of those individuals, and I’ll realize that I know where they’re coming from. I have a lot of understanding of people going through personality disorders, because I’ve already been there.

It’s the old story of bartenders being psychologists; some bartenders really care about the guests, and others don’t—they see them as a cash machine. For whatever reason, I’ve always had an interest in, and usually a connection, with many of my customers. A lot of my friends start off as customers, and turn into long-term friendships. At Canon, I have one lady come in, I’ve known her since 1977.

Developing an appropriate relationship with alcohol

I’ve always been a lightweight. When I first got into bartending, I was virtually a nondrinker. I got into bartending totally by accident, and I liked the sociability of the job. The alcohol wasn’t originally the primary interest; I had the potential to be in a sociable situation without any of the deleterious effects of alcohol.

Maintaining a balance between work, relationships and family

The first divorce was easy; it was a four-year relationship, a one-year marriage, and it was over. The second one, with two kids, that was a lot rougher. Emotionally, I just got crushed. Because of the situation with the divorce, at one point she moved away with the kids to California for a while, with no kind of visitation. Growing up, they had a good mother, but I’ve never had a really close relationship with my kids. It’s only been in the last couple of years I’ve had a relationship with my daughter; we talk sometimes. My son has no interest in me whatsoever, and that’s tough.

Meeting Amy was the best thing that’s happened to me. She’s really flexible, and she’s always been able to roll with the punches. She just finished college, and she’s totally understanding of the bartending lifestyle. It’s one of those deals where the relationship is based on trust; she knows I work until 2am, I may not get home until 3 or 4, and she’s incredible—if she’s not up to cook me a warm meal, she’ll have a sandwich waiting for me. She’s one of a kind.

Back when you started your first shift, is there anything you wish you’d known that you know now, that would have made your life and career a little bit easier?

I’ve been doing it so long; I’ve seen the profession go through big changes. In the ‘70s, you didn’t need to know that much about liquor; it wasn’t as varied and as high quality as it is now, and the drinks were sillier, Harvey Wallbanger kinds of things—it was all about hospitality. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, it started turning more into being about the product and the perfect drink, rather than sociability; it’s just a changing profession.

Depending on what bar you work in, you have to know your wines or about serving food; I knew a guy who worked as a bartender in the ‘60s, and he said he wouldn’t have been able to keep up in the ‘90s, based on the changes in food and wine. He came up as a simple highball or martini guy.

Any advice for younger bartenders looking to follow a similar path?

Work on your life like it’s a cocktail—look for the balance. That’s it.

Read more from In My Experience.