Q+A with Anu Apte: Seattle cocktail icon + bar co-owner

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Anu Apte is a Seattle cocktail industry powerhouse with several national and international awards. | Headshot via Canoe Ventures

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Like all art forms, the world of cocktails is fascinating in the sense that our experiences with it can be just as shallow or deep as we want them to be.

While everyone loves a good marg’, the most brilliant + talented bartenders consider even the tiniest details, like the rate at which ice will melt in the drink given the ingredients (someone get them a lab coat), just to build a 30-minute experience for someone.

As Drink Up Week continues, we’re mixing things up with someone who knows how to really get in the spirit. Anu Apte is a co-owner of Seattle institutions like Rob Roy + Navy Strength, plus newer additions like Trade Winds Tavern and Vinnie’s Wine Shop. She’s bartended all over the world and a couple of her spots have been nominated for James Beard Awards.

To celebrate #DrinkUpSeattle, she answered some of our burning questions.

Q: How did you get into the cocktail industry?

A: It all happened when I moved to Seattle. I was looking for a job in the restaurant industry while I was also looking at going back to school. The food and beverage scene in Seattle stole my heart. I was like “I gotta be a part of this.”
The first thing that really grabbed me was that I realized that it could be a career, it’s not just something that people do to get them through school. It was the people aspect.

Q: What inspires your process when you go to make a new cocktail?

A: Observing people’s behaviors or reading about what new or interesting tastes are out there currently. I’ll draw inspiration from things like an article that talks about some Indigenous, floral herb from some rare country that you can only find there — I’ll try to imagine what that flavor is and make it in a cocktail.

Q: What’s the weirdest cocktail you’ve ever made?

A: I was asked to make a cocktail that needed to incorporate chicken bouillon. The guest wanted something that was umami and at the time, that term was pretty new to American culture. I don’t think that person realized there were other ways to find that flavor — like just brine or sea salt. So it ended up being a sort of martini riff with chicken bouillon as the “dirty” party of it. It actually turned out really delicious — you wouldn’t have known if you tasted it that it had chicken bouillon.

But also, I have to say, I was definitely the first person to put gunpowder in a drink. A lot of people are afraid to do it still because, well… it’s gunpowder. So, Rob Roy’s gunpowder punch is up there, too.

Q: As you get further into the world of cocktails, a lot of folks start to reference stylistic differences between drink-making methods in different regions and cities in the US. What do you think sets Seattle apart?

A: I think Seattle’s sort of a hybrid between two styles that I really love: San Francisco’s fresh produce, fresh herbs, fresh everything + shaken style of drink making — plus the New York style of really well-curated, stirred drinks. The city came from the proletariat and a really industrial workforce and so I think even the fancy bars here are still humble.

Q: So Rob Roy was the first of the bars you bought. What inspired you to make the jump?

A: I had already been working on a business plan because I knew that I wanted to own a bar someday. At the time, I had hired to help Rob Roy with their cocktail menu when I found out it was for sale. I just happened to be at the right place at the right time. I loved the decor and ambience of that bar and so it was just kind of a no brainer at that point.

Q: And then how quickly after that did you buy the rest of the bars?

A: About three years after I got the itch to open up something else, so I started looking at spaces with multiple friends of mine — like chef friends, other bar friends. And then I met my business partner Chris Elford and all we were doing was talking about opening another bar. In 2015, we got the keys to where Navy Strength and Vinnie’s is now.

Q: What has been the most challenging part of your career?

A: There’s been many and they’ve changed over time. The biggest challenge currently — hot topic here — is inflation. A few years ago it was operating a business during the pandemic. Five years ago it was being a single business owner who’s a woman of the BIPOC community. You know, little stuff.

Q: What has been the most rewarding part of your career?

A: It was the moment I was able to provide healthcare for all of my employees. I had been researching it for awhile and for a long time it had just felt out of reach financially for the businesses. Part of achieving that goal was changing a lot — the way we structure our pricing scale and staffing. It was a huge puzzle that we had to work out before we were able to provide it. It’s crazy because I think everybody should be able to have health insurance right off the bat. It felt like a huge struggle to get there when it shouldn’t be — that’s the most frustrating part of it. So, when we finally got there amazing. It felt better than any of the awards we’ve won.

Q: So what’s your favorite drink at each of your bars?

A: At Rob Roy, that would be the old fashioned; Navy Strength is whatever is in the slushie machine; Trade Winds would be the espresso martini; and at Vinnie’s at any given day there’s a new biodynamic wine that’s delicious.

Q: Any future ventures?

A: No solid plans, but I might be traveling to another state to look at some spaces soon.

Q: Anything else people should know about you?

A: If there are any BIPOC or LGBTQ+ folks out there that need a mentor, send me a message on Instagram @dayglowbeige.

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