By Phuong Le Associated Press
SEATTLE — The bartender credited with reviving the classic cocktail scene in the Northwest has endeared himself to legions of drinkers and bartenders with his legendary memory, his attentiveness to customers and always knowing what they want to drink before they do.
So when Murray Stenson needed help to pay for heart surgery, it was surprising to no one but him how swift the response was.
Fundraising events were quickly booked at venues in Seattle and Portland, and as far away as Singapore and Australia. Fellow bartenders put out tip jars. Money poured in from cocktail regulars and others who only knew Stenson by name or by the decades-old cocktail he brought back to life, “The Last Word.”
“It’s absolutely mind-boggling. It’s embarrassing. It’s humbling. What’s amazing is that I don’t know half the people who have donated,” said the 63-year-old bartender, who lives in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood.
The longtime barman doesn’t have medical insurance but is facing tens of thousands of dollars in hospital bills for surgery to replace a defective heart valve.
Stenson blacked out and broke his arm while walking home from work several weeks ago. When doctors investigated, they discovered a defective heart valve. He’ll learn this week how soon doctors will have to operate.
Already, the bills are mounting.
The bartender, who crafted cocktails for years at Il Bistro and Zig Zag Cafe in the Pike Place Market long before it became hip, had health insurance at previous jobs. But he didn’t have insurance when he switched to his most recent job behind the bar at Canon in Capitol Hill.
“I couldn’t afford to pay it out of pocket,” Stenson said.
Evan Wallace, who met Stenson in 1990 as a regular at Il Bistro, is leading fundraising efforts.
“He’s just remarkable for how gracious he is and his ability to make every person in the room the complete object of his attention,” Wallace said. “He can literally make every person at the bar seem like his best friend and his only customer.”
So far, Stenson’s friends have raised more than $55,000. Fundraisers are planned in Seattle, San Francisco, Washington D.C., and New York in coming weeks.
Paul Clarke, a cocktail historian and Seattle-based journalist, said many bartenders would go to Stenson’s bar on their nights off and watch him work.
“Not only does he have a clientele of regulars, he’s a mentor to a lot of Seattle bartenders,” said Clarke, who publishes The Cocktail Chronicles blog.
Clarke said Stenson made an imprint with “The Last Word,” a cocktail of lime juice, gin, Chartreuse and maraschino liqueur that can now be found on drink menus all over the world. Stenson dug the recipe out of a dusty cocktail book.
“It’s a good drink,” Stenson said. “There’s a reason why it should be a classic cocktail.”
Stenson’s attention to detail, and his appreciation for the history of bartending, dovetailed with the rise in recent years of craft distilleries across the country, especially in cities like Seattle, Portland, Ore., and New York. These operations produced local varieties of gin, whiskey and vodka and many people sought out bars and restaurants that featured homegrown products and creative drinks.
In 2010, Stenson was named Best Bartender in America at the Tales of Cocktails festival in New Orleans. It’s considered one of the industry’s top honors. The award prompted one of the judges, David Wondrich, to tell The Seattle Times: “He should be knighted, but this will have to do.”
“He’s a major influence in the world. He’s a fantastic bartender in the purist form,” said Laura McMillian, assistant managing director of The Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans. The museum and others in the city are also planning an event to raise money for Stenson, she said.
“Unfortunately, our great bartenders work in a profession that does not have health care. It doesn’t matter how hard you work or how good you are.”