Long before the Canons and the Bathtub Gins, the Liberty Bars and the Oliver's Twists, Seattle had Tini Bigs. Back when we were a town of beer snobs but not cocktail snobs, it opened on a Lower Queen Anne corner in 1996. Those were blissfully ignorant times when you could go right ahead and slap a "tini" onto the name of any drink served in a triangle-shaped glass and virtually no one would cry martini foul, and Tini Bigs did it with gratuitous gusto. It helped introduce cocktail culture to Seattle on a level no one had before and ushered us through the crazes of appletinis, chocolatetinis and Sex In The City Cosmos that have gotten us to where we are today (that is, shunning such drinks as if they were a sign of a sugar- and alcohol-induced apocalypse).
But back then, owner Keith Robbins, who had also opened Belltown's Watertown in 1986 and The Romper Room in 1990 (both now defunct), was on a serious mission to create a place for ambitious cocktails, but that didn't take itself too seriously, dubbing it "Seattle's second best cocktail bar" from day one. "I knew from the beginning that it was going to be a bar with tin ceilings and wood paneling and this beautiful back bar from 1909," he says. "I knew it was going to be a great cocktail lounge."
Fifteen years later, Robbins is celebrating his decade-and-a-half anniversary by taking a trip to that past and honoring the folks who shaped it. He has brought back one bartender from each year he's been in business for an anniversary bash on Jan. 22, each of whom has chosen their favorite drink from their tenure there, most of which will be served in Tini's notoriously large 10-ounce martini glasses, all of which will be available for $5 a piece.
The menu may well read like a hopscotch through time: 1997 bartender Jude Augustine is bringing back the Jolly Tini, made with apple Jolly Rancher-infused vodka and house-made sweet and sour. The Peach Tini is returning from 1999 (courtesy of Kevin Stuart, now of Cantinetta), the Pear-a-dox from 2003 (by Aaron Marshall, now at Peso's). And If you think such fruity concoctions should be banished never to return from the 90s, I've got a bartender named Veronika Groth you need to go visit at Chino's -- but I digress. Moving into more recent times, of course, we start to see rumblings of the classic cocktail revival, with Jamie Boudreau's Chet Baker from 2008.
Robbins recalls other drinks as well that immediately point to certain times and trends. "Remember the pomegranate martini?" he says. "Oprah was big on it and that's how that got started." He also reminisces about the $100 Martini of the early 2000s: made with Ultimat vodka, Hennessy Pardis cognac and Grand Marnier Cuvee du Cent Cinquantenaire, a liqueur in a hand-painted Art Nouveau bottle originally marketed as "hard to find, impossible to pronounce, and prohibitively expensive."
"That one was really a sign of the times," he says.
But Robbins says that while he's excited to see nearly two decades' worth of cocktail trends on the menu all at once (the anniversary selections will be available throughout the year--but will cost you $10 outside of the birthday party), he's mostly looking forward to having that many years' worth of faces all together in the same room. "The skill level of some of the guys who have worked for me is phenomenal," he says. "A lot of these bartenders for the first time were really bartenders--not actors or students."
Robbins feels some pride in the level of sophistication that Seattle's cocktail culture has reached, in both taste and experience. "When we opened a lot of people had never had a martini," he says. "We had more people getting sick from over-drinking back then – they didn’t understand how powerful the alcohol was. It was actually really scary as a proprietor."
Now, of course, Tini Bigs has moved on along with the rest of the city, serving more martinis that are actually martinis and putting a new focus on food and cocktail pairings. Any night of the week the menu makes its appeals to modern cocktail snobbery in concoctions like The Yesler, with Woodford Reserve, Grand Marnier, falernum and Aztec chocolate bitters; or the Na Zadrowie: ZU Bison Grass Vodka, dry vermouth, sweet vermouth, St. Germaine, fresh lime juice lupsong suopsong and Earl Grey tincture.
But if there's still that little part of you that wants to be transported back to the time when you drank your first big-girl cocktail, in all its sugary, electric-Kool-Aid glory, and then drank two more of them way too fast - now's your chance.
Tini Bigs, 100 Denny Way, 206.284.0931, tinibigs.com