Remembering Murray Stenson, 1949-2023 – Imbibe Magazine

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Ever since news broke this past Friday that bartending legend Murray Stenson had died earlier that day, social media and Seattle media have been filled with stories about his life, and about the connections he shared with friends and acquaintances around the world.

Murray would have hated the limelight part. The many stories from friends, though—those, he would have loved.

I knew Murray for close to 20 years, and I was a dedicated regular at his bar for a good chunk of those, particularly during the decade he spent at Zig Zag Café, near Seattle’s iconic Pike Place Market. Zig Zag had debuted at the dawn of the new millennium, and the founding owners, Ben Dougherty and Kacy Fitch, didn’t just want to open a great bar—they wanted to establish a place where Murray, their mentor, would feel at home. 

At the time, he’d been working the bar at Il Bistro, a restaurant just up a few flights of stairs from Zig Zag. During his many years there, he’d turned the bar top in front of him into a de facto bartending school/job resource office for other bartenders around town. Whether they’d been working behind the bar for a few weeks or for many years, bartenders (including Fitch and Dougherty) would gravitate to Murray’s bar to taste spirits and cocktails they may never have heard of, and to watch and learn from a master bartender at work.

Murray had a method of sorts when you sat across the bar from him. Even when every seat was full, he’d find a moment to stop in front of you, and lean over to check in. He’d put his elbow on the bar and his hand against his face to chat for a moment, share a piece of news, ask for any gossip, and to inquire what you were in the mood to drink. And every guest at that bar on that night would feel like they were basking in his full attention, his eyes gleaming at them over their full-to-the-brim Martinis as he juggled orders and mixed cocktails and grabbed bottles to pour little tastes of things he thought this guest or another would find interesting. 

Yes, there were the cocktails. When I interviewed Murray more than a decade ago for a profile in Imbibe, he shared that his cocktail explorations had been both driven by his desire to keep guests happy (and, occasionally, by necessity, while working in a poorly stocked bar), and by his own taste and curiosity. He collected vintage bar manuals like David Embury’s The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, and frequently purchased several copies so that he could pass one along to a promising new bartender who’d shown an interest in improving their craft. And he became synonymous with the Last Word, having dug the recipe out of Ted Saucier’s 1951 book, Bottoms Up, and reviving it for an early menu at Zig Zag. I think the drink appealed to him because of its strangeness—on paper, the recipe makes no sense, with full measures of two potently flavored liqueurs squaring off against gin and lime juice—but also because of its use of green Chartreuse, which fit into Murray’s own fondness for powerful, take-no-prisoners flavors. 

Strange or not, the cocktail took off, and the Last Word became the cocktail that put Murray, and Seattle, on the global mixology map. Between his mastery of hospitality and his cocktail proficiency, Murray helped place Zig Zag at an advanced position as the 21st century cocktail renaissance blossomed. Bartenders from New York, and Australia, and Berlin, and beyond, would pull up a bar stool next to local bartenders to watch and learn from Murray at work. 

And while he appreciated their interest, the accolades that inevitably followed didn’t quite suit his style. In 2011, when he was a finalist for Bartender of the Year at Tales of the Cocktail’s Spirited Awards, he chose not to go to New Orleans. He asked me to attend the ceremony in his place, and after his name was announced and I took the stage to accept his award, I stepped out into the hallway to give Murray the news. It was a Saturday night, and he was at home; his girlfriend answered the phone. I excitedly told her what had happened, listened as she shared the news with Murray, and heard the murmur of his reply. She came back on the phone and asked, “Could you tell him about it tomorrow? We’re in the middle of watching a movie.”

If your social media feed is anything like mine, then you’ve scrolled through and clicked on countless posts the past few days, from bartenders and Murray’s regulars around the world. In these posts, they’re all sharing their love for him and their sadness at his loss, and passing along their own stories from the time they spent with the man. 

Everyone who ever sat down at his bar seemingly has a Murray story. I’ll close this with one of mine.

In 2007 or so, I came into Zig Zag for one of my regular Wednesday night sessions with Murray. After a little banter, he asked me what I was drinking that night, and I asked for a Boulevardier. Even a year before, that cocktail was almost entirely unheard of; it wasn’t until Ted Haigh—“Dr. Cocktail,” a cocktail historian and Imbibe’s first regular columnist—revived its recipe in one of his columns that the drink once again entered the cocktail vernacular. 

Murray had mixed me my first-ever Boulevardier soon after that column appeared, but like many others, he used an Americanized pronunciation of the name: Boulevar-DEER. And that’s the way everyone referred to it, until I sat down on that particular Wednesday and, having recently been corrected on the name (the cocktail originated in Paris, after all), I asked for it using its French pronunciation: Boulevar-DEE-AY

Murray leapt back in comically exaggerated surprise, his eyes open wide. “Did you hear that?” he asked Kacy Fitch, who was standing nearby, laughing. “Boulevar-dee-ay,” Murray repeated, stretching out the word and making a trilling, smoothing gesture with his hand to emphasize the luxurious fanciness of the French pronunciation. “We could’ve been charging $2 more!”

Rest in peace, old friend. 



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