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A Mixologist's Quest for the Next Big Cocktail Flavor

A Mixologist's Quest for the Next Big Cocktail Flavor

At her Rob Roy bar, Anu Apte cuts chunks of ice to order for old-fashioneds. The flavors in her drinks range from dried flowers to oddities like gunpowder. Photo © DYLAN + JENI

Anu Apte, owner of Seattle's Rob Roy cocktail bar, gets her creative spark from the familiar Indian tastes of her childhood, Mexican coke and beyond.

Q. Do you remember where you had your first real cocktail?
A. Yes! It was at the only cocktail bar I knew of when I first moved to Seattle, Zig Zag Café, and the legendary Murray Stenson poured me a Satan's Soul Patch. It's a whiskey variation on the classic Satan's Whiskers, which he made for me with Scotch. I was young and thought it was supercool to be drinking Scotch.

Q. Your childhood seems to have had a big impact on the style of drinks you make.
A. My parents are from India, and we always had delicious Indian food. When I was young, my mom used to make a mixture of turmeric, black pepper and cloves topped off with soda water when I was feeling sick. And now, one of our most popular drinks at Rob Roy is called a Blue Bark Rickey, made with turmeric syrup. I like using ingredients that are earthy and unusual. I've been experimenting with myrrh oil recently.

Q. How did you get your start in the bar world?
A. When I moved to Seattle from Utah in 2005, my first job was at this place called Caffé Minnie's, a divey, punk-rock, 24-hour diner. It was such a crazy atmosphere, but we were all making enough money to live our lives. I wasn't drinking anything good at the time, but I was going out and drinking with good people and experiencing bars in Seattle.

Q. I noticed the bartenders at Rob Roy haven't embraced the Prohibition Era-style vests and ties that so many others have.
A. When I got my first bartending job, one of the owners presented me with an outfit: It was a fedora and suspenders. I said, "I will wear this today, but I do not want to look like Janet Jackson every time I'm behind the bar!"

Q. What's your go-to after-work drink?
A. Scotch aficionados will hate me for saying this, but when I'm closing up the bar, I'll take a couple of sips out of a Mexican Coke and then add a shot of Laphroaig to it, so it looks like I'm just drinking this Coke. It's the best thing ever. I'm a Scotch lady and I'll always be a Scotch lady.

Q. What's your favorite drink to make for a crowd?
A. I, shamelessly, have to say the Gunpowder Punch at Rob Roy. It's a blend of aged rum, agricole rum, gin, spices, lemon juice, orange and actual, antique-formula gunpowder.

Q. Gunpowder?!
A. Yes! My parents are into Ayurvedic and homeopathic medicine. Gunpowder is just carbon, sulfur and potassium, all of which are used in homeopathy. I wouldn't tell anybody to just sit there and eat gunpowder, but in small quantities it's fine. It makes the punch gunmetal gray, which is cool. And it adds a sharp, nicely acidic, slightly metallic finish.

Q. What's the best hangover cure?
A. I'll do a crossword puzzle, or there's an app called Lumosity that has memory games to help me snap back into being focused. Although sometimes it's not the greatest thing to look at your bright screen if you have a headache.

Q. Where do you go for the best bar snacks in Seattle?
A. I love the salt-and-pepper pork rinds at La Bête on Capitol Hill, the soft pretzel at Altstadt, the meat pie at Zig Zag Café and the bone marrow at Canon.

Q. Many bars make their own bitters and vermouths and such these days. Are you making a lot of cocktail ingredients in-house?
A. We are making some, like that turmeric syrup and a saffron shrub, but my take on making versus buying is that if there's something on the market that's delicious and that somebody spent years perfecting, then I will always buy it. As a bar, it's our responsibility to take the great things that people are making and showcase them.

Q. What other drink ingredientsare you experimenting with?
A. I love amaro and I'm obsessed with learning about all of the different kinds and using them as cocktail modifiers. Rather than using simple syrup or another sweetener, you can use a sweeter amaro to change the depth and flavor of a drink.

Q. Have you been doing anything cool with garnishes?
A. My favorite tool at the moment is my Excalibur dehydrator. I've been making edible stir sticks out of fruit or vegetable purees. They're kind of like fruit roll-ups, only much smaller and more compact. I've made everything from bitter, herbaceous stirrers to strawberry-mango or ginger ones.

Rob Roy, 2332 Second Ave.; robroyseattle.com.

Related: Best Cocktail Bars in the U.S.
Amaro: A Bittersweet Obsession
Star Mixologist Julie Reiner's Tips for Crafting Perfect Cocktails

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