Murray Stenson, Unassuming Leader of a Cocktail Renaissance, Dies at 74

Murray Stenson didn’t look like a revolutionary. Balding and slightly stooped, the son of a small-town grade-school principal, he spent decades quietly making cocktails at bars around Seattle, honing his classic, unfussy style. He favored regulars over celebrities, steady work over flair, handwritten notes over email.

He shunned attention, even as his fame grew alongside the rise of craft cocktails in the 2000s. When he was named the best bartender in America in 2010 by Tales of the Cocktail, an annual conference in New Orleans, he refused to go to the ceremony. He said he had a shift to fill.

And yet the cocktail renaissance of the last 20 years would be unthinkable without Mr. Stenson, who died on Sept. 22 at his home in Seattle. He was 74.

His daughter, Cali Freddolino, confirmed the death and said he had been dealing with complications of Guillain-Barré syndrome, a nerve disorder.

Mr. Stenson was among a small group of bartenders who as early as the 1980s began to push back against the sickly sweet concoctions of the 1970s — Sex on the Beach, Harvey Wallbanger — in favor of elevated drinks made with quality ingredients, a seemingly obvious approach that was almost unthinkable when he began.

“For American bartenders at the time, Murray was a complete anomaly,” Jim Meehan, the author of “Meehan’s Bartender Manual” (2017), said in a phone interview.

He was known, above all, for resurrecting a forgotten pre-Prohibition cocktail called the Last Word, made with equal parts gin, lime juice, green chartreuse and maraschino liqueur. He discovered it in a 1951 cocktail book and added it to his menu, and within a few years it had not only spread nationwide but had become the archetype for a whole genre of modern classic cocktails, like the Paper Plane and the Gin Blossom.

A popular drink rediscovered by Mr. Stenson was the Last Word, made with equal parts gin, lime juice, green chartreuse and maraschino liqueur.Credit…Erika Schultz/The Seattle Times, via Associated Press

He worked at often nondescript bars that didn’t stay that way for long once he arrived. His longest stints were at Il Bistro in the 1990s and Zig Zag Cafe in the 2000s, both of which became sites of pilgrimage for cocktail fans and budding craft mixologists, who would crowd around the bar to watch the master at work, taking detailed notes on his every move.

“When I was starting out in the cocktail world, I had heard stories about Murray Stenson from various industry people in New York City, and as far away as London,” Franky Marshall, a bartender and educator, wrote in an email.

In 2010, the same year that Tales of the Cocktail named Mr. Stenson the best bartender in America, Esquire named Zig Zag Cafe the best bar in America, largely on the strength of his bartending, beating out famed New York establishments like Please Don’t Tell, Death & Co. and the Clover Club.

Mr. Stenson did not consider himself a mentor. He did not write books or become a highly paid brand ambassador, as many successful bartenders do, especially once they reach middle age and their bodies start to rebel against hours of constant standing. Well into his 60s, and even after open-heart surgery in 2012, he worked up to seven nights a week.

“I enjoy being behind the bar,” he told Imbibe magazine in 2012. “That’s where you meet all the really interesting people.”

Murray Russell Stenson was born on July 29, 1949, in Colville, a small town in northeastern Washington. His father, Wayne, was a grade school principal, and his mother, Eileen (Anderson) Stenson, was a homemaker.

The family moved to Kirkland, a Seattle suburb, when Murray was young. He attended Shoreline Community College, north of Seattle, but left before graduating.

He married Cynthia Carson in 1980; they divorced in 1982. That year he married Antonia Busto; they divorced two years later. In addition to his daughter, he is survived by his son, Colin; his sister, Loree Stenson; and three grandchildren.

Mr. Stenson spent several years working entry-level jobs he despised: He sold shoes, assembled doors and stocked a Safeway grocery store at night.

He was lounging by the pool of his apartment complex one day when the owner’s son came by with an offer. He had a restaurant with a bar, and he needed someone to man it. Was he interested?

The restaurant, Benjamin’s, was the first of many spots where, over the next 20 years, Mr. Stenson learned his trade. Cocktails were popular, but also loaded with sugar and artificial sweeteners.

“God only knows how many Sex on the Beaches he made,” Paul Clarke, the editor of Imbibe magazine and a longtime regular at Mr. Stenson’s bars, said in a phone interview.

He came by his art in part by necessity. When one boss spent the bar’s profits on cocaine, Mr. Stenson was forced to economize and improvise, coming up with creative twists on old standards. When other bars started copying his menu, he added drinks made with obscure ingredients that only he knew how to procure.

Mr. Stenson in 2012. Even after he retired from bartending he shunned the fame he has received, telling one person, “I don’t see what the big deal was.”Credit…Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

More than anything, he learned hospitality. He was naturally shy, but also curious and warm, and he learned how to bring those qualities to the job. He had a mind for faces, and could remember details about the most irregular of customers — names, where they sat, what they ordered.

He cultivated a network of friends and contacts. When someone asked him for a recommendation for a bar in a different city, he would write down the name, then staple a $20 bill to the paper, telling them to use it as a tip.

For up-and-coming bartenders, Mr. Stenson was a refreshing throwback to a quasi-mythical era when bartenders doubled as best friends, news sources and community organizers — all while mixing the perfect drink.

“Even if he didn’t make good drinks, he would still be a great bartender,” said Robert Hess, a cocktail expert who, through his blog Drinkboy, was among the first to bring word about Mr. Stenson to the national public in the late 1990s.

The accolades for Mr. Stenson transformed the Zig Zag Cafe into a tourist attraction, with regulars fighting with lookie-loos for one of the bar’s 12 seats. Calling it a “Disneyland,” he quit in 2011.

He spent the next few years hopping around Seattle bars, working for short stretches at Canon, Il Bistro and, most recently, a Japanese restaurant, Kaname Izakaya. But his health was in decline, and after the pandemic, he stopped working.

Even after he had put away his shaker for good, he shrugged off the honors and fame.

“Eh. It was okay. I don’t see what the big deal was,” he told the writer Casey Robison in a 2020 interview. “I only ever saw myself as a bartender.”

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