Star Seattle Bartender: Nik Virrey, Naka

Seven questions for Seattle shaker Nik Virrey

By Seattle Mag


November 4, 2015

This article originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of Seattle Magazine.

I’m going out on a tipsy limb, but I think we have the best bartenders in the world. Seattle has an abundance of bartending superheroes who are convivial, courteous (mostly!) and, most important, creators of delicious cocktails. We asked a few of our favorites about what drinks they’re serving up, where they go to unwind and what they’re sipping for inspiration.

Nik Virrey
Bar Manager, Naka

I remember the first time meeting Nik Virrey, it was a cocktail competition at the sadly-departed Vessel, where his energy, overall joyfulness behind the bar, and cocktail chops were on display as he blurred behind the bar. He hasn’t slowed down yet, recently opening and designing the cocktail program at the new Naka. We managed to pin him down to gab about Naka, his coffee background, and the local scene.

1. You run the bar at the recently opened restaurant Naka. What type of cocktail menu should folks expect when they come in?

Expect the menu to be fun. Brandon Paul Weaver, my best boy and creative arm, and myself used an old acronym we employ when building new programs whether it be coffee or spirits: A.A.C. Assessing Assumptions Creatively. It’s a pretty excellent mental experiment to loosen fixed perspectives and see new possibilities. We both landed on making a few ubiquitous drinks to the highest grade. The choices were the Gin & Tonic and The Cosmopolitan. Spending the time to source the highest quality ingredients for our house tonic, to pair with our specific gin from Copperworks Distilling, was a field day for us. #GeekFunMagic. Then we carbonate the entire beverage. It’s kinda my favorite. AND! The Cosmo. Oleo Saccharum-based house citrus vodka, Starvation Alley cranberry juice, Pierre Ferrand Curacao . . .it’s so damn tasty. Then you have The Gospel! Comprised of mezcal, bamboo charcoal, Ancho Reyes, Scrappy’s Firewater Tincture, and egg white. It is a beautiful little thing. Served with smoking cedar chips. It’s a solid opening menu with so much room to grow organically.

 2. Before Naka, you spent time honing your skills at Liberty, one of Seattle’s cornerstone cocktail spots. How did that help you?

Immensely. Liberty is home for me. I can’t properly place the words to express what I learned and gained from my years there. Advantageous education aside, the network access allowed was the greatest gift. So many impressive and inspirational professionals that walked into the bar was empowering. It was my entry to the Industry on so many levels, the competitive aspect mostly. While behind that bar I participated in so many awesome competitions, taking the title in a few national ones in order to establish myself on the larger board of bartenders. Plus, so much family gained! Not to mention the excellent work by the Washington Chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild. #MadRespect.

3. I know you also have a strong background in coffee – can you give us a little of that history, too?

True. It all began with the lovely Green Machine, Starbucks, 12 years ago. After my move to Seattle, I joined Zoka Coffee Roasters and really elevated my knowledge through the chain to hone my craft. Over the years, I became the youngest Director of Education in the city and groomed my team to strive forward. Being brought on to Slate Coffee Roasters was the best opportunity I’ve had in the coffee scene. The ability to carve a program from scratch with Brandon (BPW) was fun, and a learning beyond measure. That time in my career was focused on flavor and palate training, and married well with my present actions of all things spirits.

4. Does your coffee background ever influence your cocktail making?

Absolutely. It’s a perspective shift more than a grouping of details. I take all things in the context of distinct flavor regions. What is “‘sweet?” “Salty?” “Savory?” How do they work together? What is complimentary? Adjacent? Coffee understanding is woven into my approach to cocktails and spirits knowledge.

5. As of this writing, I believe you’d made the semi-finals of the Most Imaginative Bartender competition. What kinds of cocktail imaginativeness have you been experimenting with lately?

I did! Real excited about making the semi-finals twice in row up against such respected bartenders in the city (all good friends!). I used a ginger-infused kumquat syrup with a saline/citric acid solution all on top of a smoked-sea -salt and matcha ice sphere, with the additions of sea bean and lotus root as garnishes pierced through a stewed kumquat.

6. You seem, from what I can tell, very into bringing together local bartenders and learning from and teaching others. Do you think we have a strong bartender community in Seattle?

 The camaraderie and fellowship in the Seattle bartender scene is the biggest pull to stay up and rep the city for our Industry. It is definitely a family feel. And, to the question, absolutely. The strength of the scene is solid. From events and simple crew hangs, to threads and threads of online conversations trying to decide on the proper classic recipe or what damn ice machine is a waste of money. It’s all love in our liquid game!

7. When you’re not making cocktails, but going out to drink them, where do you like to go, and what’s your regular drink?

Again, Liberty is my home. My best friends are always behind the stick and know what I yearn for. If it is not agave, mescal, or tequila, it is a pour of rye whiskey and cider back. We call it the Ryder. It’s just tasty. Another would be a Snackuiri, a bite-size daiquiri.

As far as the others, I love Barrio, Smith, Canon, Rumba, Witness, Unicorn. Zig Zag, Percy’s & Co, Herb & Bitter, Rob Roy, Cap’n Blacks, there are so many! And I have more or less the same thing everywhere I go, so it is really the people and the environment I’m after. It’s always about the people. Because, remember, there are only 2 rules in the drinking game: If you like it, you’re right! If you don’t, you’re right!

Up Next: Seven questions with Bridget Maloney