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A Nightcap with Rob Roy

For this week’s nightcap we stopped in for a cocktail and chat with Jesse Cyr, the General Manager at Rob Roy. Rob Roy is a classic cocktail lounge known for their hand-crafted cocktails located in the Belltown neighborhood of Seattle. Join us for a drink with Jesse and get the scoop on why they go through the painstaking process of chipping ice for each cocktail.

NightOwl: Tell us about Rob Roy and your bar inspirations.

Jesse Cyr from Rob RoyJesse: Rob Roy has been around for over eight years now and it’s one of the original cocktail spots in Seattle when the cocktail renaissance was creeping back into American culture in the early-mid 2000’s. Our vibe is dark, intimate, and warm. It kind of feels like your cool uncle’s basement with all the vinyl and black leather walls. The bar can get a bit wild on the weekends, but it still retains our welcoming nature. It’s really important to us that people feel comfortable in Rob Roy and see that we take what we do seriously, but with no pretentiousness.

NightOwl: What is your aim for the drinker to experience with each cocktail you create?

Jesse: First and foremost I want to give the guest exactly what they want. Whether I get to create something really nerdy and weird for them or pour a standard gin and tonic – I’m happy if they’re happy. That being said, those who want to have a custom creation, I like to try and introduce people to things that they might not have had before. There are new products coming out every day and styles of liquor that really aren’t mainstream yet. When a guest tries something in a cocktail and goes, “Whoa! What’s this?” it’s always a fun process to walk them through it. Creating cocktails is great, but creating experiences is even better.

NightOwl: You also manage the recently opened Navy Strength, the company’s tropical/tiki inspired bar. What’s the biggest challenge managing your time?

Jesse: Self care. This was the first bar that I’ve been able to be a part of from before it was even built. The time we all spent in the months leading up to the opening were intense. There are so many things that you don’t even think of that need to be done. I had a really hard time prioritizing what I needed to do to help get Navy Strength open while still managing Rob Roy. Saying no isn’t something I’m personally good at. I have a terrible habit of taking on anything given to me even if my plate is already full. That will start to hurt you physically, mentally, and in personal relationships. Luckily, I’ve gotten better at managing my work and personal life and delegating things that need to be done. We hired an amazing staff, one of which has stepped up beyond belief and helps me out so much. Cera quickly became our bar manager and is our go-to gal for basically everything. With her taking on more responsibility, it has allowed me to step back a little bit from Navy Strength and think more big picture rather than day-to-day.

NightOwl: At Rob Roy, you go through the painstaking process of chipping ice for each cocktail. Why?

Jesse: We’ve been called crazy, savages, and foolish. And that’s all just from my friends. Yes, for every Old Fashioned we hand cut a big ice ball to fit in the glass. Any spirit on the rocks gets hand cut cubes, too. Why? It’s simple. The larger the ice the slower the dilution. I don’t want to give you your expensive Japanese whisky on crappy ice and have it watered down before you even get halfway through it. We care about what your ordering. We care so much, in fact, that even on the busiest of Friday nights I’m still going to take the time to cut you a piece of ice for your whiskey. It’s how it’s been since day one and it’s how it will always be. Plus, guests specifically come to watch us hack away at the ice with our large serrated blades. It’s a show, but with science to back it up. I’m guaranteed to be asked almost every night I’m behind the bar, “Isn’t that really annoying to do every time?” My answer is always the same. “Absolutely not. It’s pretty fun to do.” And it doesn’t hurt to take out a little aggression on that ice sometimes. Ha!

NightOwl: Tell us about a cocktail experiment that failed spectacularly.

Jesse: I was really into trying to infuse spirits with tea for a little bit. I had the notion that putting an orange spiced tea into Punt E Mes would be so incredibly tasty. It sounds delicious on paper, but I tried so many times to only end up with the most bitter and aggressive vermouth I’ve ever had. Punt E Mes is fairly big and bold on its own, so adding the tea made it more tannic and extra bitter. I love bitter, but that wasn’t going to fly on our cocktail menu. I tried different amounts of time and amounts of tea and it was either too much or too little. I eventually got too frustrated with it that I gave up to tackle it another time. It’s still in the back of my mind to try on a rainy day.

NightOwl: What’s the most obnoxious thing a customer has asked for?

Jesse: There isn’t one specific super obnoxious thing that comes to mind, but it’s always frustrating when guests don’t trust you to make something they like so instead they give you the list of ingredients that they want in a cocktail, sometimes even the proportions, and then get upset if you don’t have some crazy spirit. If you give us the gist of what you want, we’ll do the best we can to make it tasty. Don’t get mad at me because we don’t carry huckleberry flavored vodka (as if that’s something every bar has?!?) or this one amari you had on your vacation to Italy. We can get close to what you want, probably make something that’s even better, but you just have to trust me to do it.

NightOwl: What are your favorite ingredients at the moment? What are you doing with them?

Jesse: Sherry and brandy will always be my favorites. I know sherry is a big bartender favorite right now and it’s nothing new, but I’m in love with the stuff. Every menu I’m putting out, whether it’s for Rob Roy or an event I’m working, there will be something with sherry in it. And brandy has so much depth and history to it. I’m not sure why people don’t drink more of it, but if I can get it in your hand at the bar, then I’m doing my part. And as you can guess, mixing them both together is right up my alley. Cognac/armagnac with Amontillado or Oloroso is a great combo. Pisco with Fino, Spanish brandy with Pedro Ximenez, and Calvados with Manzanilla are super cool flavors, too.

NightOwl: With cannabis legal in Washington, any plans to create a cocktail around it?

Jesse: Nope. I’ve been asked, and I just won’t. I’m not against legal weed at all, but I want to keep my controlled substances separate in their own little worlds. Each of them have their own effect on the human mind, and I think mixing them can make some people really messed up, which I don’t want to deal with at the bar. Also, we’d need a specific license to sell any tinctures, etc. in cocktails. That’s a whole different legal world that I don’t want to mess with.

NightOwl: How has the influx of the tech world changed the landscape of Seattle?

Jesse: It has changed it exactly how you think it would. There’s a huge increase of people in Seattle. A lot of them with disposable income, too. Several of the tech companies bring in staff on six-month to one-year work permits. That means there’s constantly new people coming into the city that want to explore, eat, drink, and see what Seattle has to offer. We’re growing very quickly. I believe we have more cranes than any other city in the United States at the moment. The skyline is full of them. It’s very exciting to think about where our city will be in the next five years.

NightOwl: When you’re not behind the bar, what do you like to drink and where?

Jesse: Guests ask me that a lot. Honestly, I’m usually drinking wine at home with my wife. I rarely make cocktails outside of the bar and defer to drinking spirits neat when I’m off the clock. However, when I do end up going out I want to visit my friends and people that I respect in our industry. Zac Overman of L’Oursin and Marco Haines at Herb & Bitter Public House are the two guys I’m usually sitting in front of. As far as what I’m drinking when I’m there, I pretty much leave it up to them. I absolutely hate ordering drinks in bars oddly enough. I have to think of cocktails all the time while I’m working, so thinking what I want to drink when I go out kind of feels like work. But I trust both of them to make me something amazing. People that know me well will most likely throw some cognac in front of me.

NightOwl: If you can only have one last drink, what would it be and who would you ask to make it?

Jesse: I’m really torn on this one, but I’m going to say that my last drink would have to be a Champs-Élysées. It was the first real cocktail I ever had and it was at The Varnish in Los Angeles. And by real cocktail I mean I used to think sour mix from a soda gun was an appropriate thing to put in a drink. It was my first, so it should also be my last, right? As far as who should make it for me, I think if Sasha Petraske was still with us I would want to sit at his bar for this cocktail. He was truly an innovator for our industry and the definition of hospitable. That would be one heck of a last drink.

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NightOwlA Nightcap with Rob Roy