This is the Barkeepers, a feature in which Eater meets the fine ladies and gentlemen behind the bar at some of the world's hottest cocktail parlors.
German, with chef/co-owner Claire Johnston. [Photo: Zibby Wilder/courtesy Jimgermanbar]
After more than 20 years behind the bar at some of Seattle's most iconic cocktail haunts (Il Bistro, Campagne, Place Pigalle), Jim German went east to open up his own place — but perhaps not where you'd expect. In 2007, the Jimgermanbar swung its doors open in Waitsburg, Washington (population 1,217), a town 1.12 square miles across and 20 miles northeast of Walla Walla's buzzing wine scene. It's an admittedly unlikely place for a European-inspired "taverna" with taxidermy on the walls, a menu written on brown craft paper, and classic cocktails made with fresh herbs on the bar.
But according to German, the small-town Americana vibe of Waitsburg matched what he'd always wanted for his own bar: a hidden, organic feeling. "For me, some of the best experiences I've ever had in dining or imbibing were just being in locations, all over the world, that have always been a little — they haven't been the most precious," German says. "They've been the funky little spots, neighborhood little places that are meant for everybody to show up. And that was important to me, especially here." German recently chatted with Eater about the '80s Seattle cocktail scene (cameo by Murray Stenson), his Euro-centric approach to service, and why early naysayers about Waitsburg drinkers were all wrong.
How did you first get into bartending?
I first got into bartending in Seattle a long time ago, in the early '80s, and it was just something that supported going to school. It was very convenient to my lifestyle, I guess. I'm also an artist, so that involves a lot of traveling, and it was a job that I could leave and come back [to]. It became a career later. I'm from Seattle, and mainly worked in the Pike Place Market when I was young. I worked at a ton of the classic places there, and that's really where the restaurant scene was in the '80s and early '90s.
What was the cocktail scene like in the early '80s?
It was rudimentary by today's standards. Sure, there were people that knew classic things like Old Fashioneds and Sidecars and Manhattans and Martinis, and the rest of it was Scotch. That was a huge fad in the '90s, people were just drinking Scotch all the way through entrees. Bartenders, frequently, if your waiter did not get their call order correctly, they would just reject the order. It didn't matter about the customer, it was just like, "No, you got that wrong. Get the call order right and come back and give me the order again." I mean, barmen were that brutal about it. [?] It was interesting. It was really coming out of the '70s school of — there were lots of bars that were still using blenders, stuff like that. It was just typical — the blended strawberry whatever. It was frightening.
At that time, how many bars or restaurants in Seattle were there that had a true craft cocktail program?
In the '80s, I would say it was maybe two or three, tops, that focused on old fashioned-style drinks that were made properly. And I was involved with a couple of those — Il Bistro and Campagne, Place Pigalle — [they] did very formal programs where things were done in a proper manner.
[Photo: Zibby Wilder/courtesy Jimgermanbar]
So how did you get into that craft scene?
I started at the Pike Place Market, where things sort of turned around and came out of that '70s, '80s-type vibe. In the Public Market, then Il Bistro... and then Campagne is where I was given the license to good things and the backbar to do good things, and also the pace to achieve them. There had to be a pace that would allow you some sort of time to be able to construct something. Craft cocktails and anything done with a bit more care, it takes a moment longer. At Campagne, really, we started looking around and looking backwards past the '70s and the '60s and really going into, "Okay, how were things done before?" And pulling out the Sazeracs and the French 75s.
[Now-legendary Seattle bartender] Murray [Stenson] was interested in this, of course. There were other bartenders, as well, that were naturally curious: We'd been tending bar long enough to be like, "Okay, this can't be everything." We wanted to flesh that out and people were starting out to go back and figure out historical drinks. And that was fun. That was a fun part of it, because at that time, people were not adding amaros and making proper Sazeracs and things, necessarily. It was really a fun period.
What was the bartending community like at that time?
There was an old guard from before, they were almost elders at that point, they were around in the '50s and the '60s in Seattle. And they would come down to, I don't know, test us, or watch us or something. We were creating some sort of mark with good drinks, the early '90s were a real catalyst. For me, anyway.
I would say there were a handful of people, really. One, who is no longer with us, was Richard Young, who was also tending bar with Murray at Il Bistro. They were encyclopedic about whiskies and bourbon and also getting it right with hospitality, and everything else connected to it. We weren't just geeking out on cocktails — it was everything. Like the proper way to make an espresso. They were fanatics.
There was also a professional level that came up at that point. At Campagne, you just went out of your way to make sure everything was perfect for people, and it made a big difference, to work in a business where there was this one standard, it was as good as it could be. But I think the core may have been not that many. There weren't a ton of the neighborhood bars at the time that were doing much more than beer, shots, burgers. That's obviously changed so much, in a good way. But at the time, I remember a half a dozen places.
Was it always your goal to open up your own place?
It was not always; it became my goal probably around 2000, in Seattle. [...] I started looking around in Seattle before we moved out here, I was looking for a change and was ready to become more of an entrepreneur. So, after exhausting several locations in Seattle — just bad business partners or locations that would've been way too expensive — I was ready for a change anyway. So then I took the job out here and a whole other vision came to me. I started seeing this place, ironically — in Seattle, I kept looking for places with little back areas I could make darkened spots, and that was important to me. I'm Euro-centric enough to like that ability for people to at least have access to outside, to trees. I think it's a really beautiful way to spend an evening or an afternoon. I didn't want to just have a grotto bar.
How did you stumble upon Waitsburg?
I came out to Walla Walla with my fiancé at the time, Claire Johnston, who's now the cook here, and we found this beautiful building out in Waitsburg. I wanted to do something in Walla Walla, and the more I crunched the numbers, there was obviously a market out here. I worked in Walla Walla for two years as a bar manager, and for a small community, there were a lot of professionals, a lot of people in the wine industry who had been around in other places, there were several colleges — a couple community colleges and a couple universities — with a plethora of teachers, professors, lots of students.
It all of a sudden made sense to make a little destination place and it was much easier to build it at home. So, that's what we did. By default, it just made more sense to do it in this little town. And I always liked the idea of going and finding a place that's a little out of the way. It makes it kind of special. I always have these delusions of southern Spain in my head — these little places, small, dusty little bars that serve really cold Fino sherry, almonds, and were a little romantic and less involved with a churning tourist industry. I just wanted to make something kind of hidden. I'd been tending bar for a long time, at that point, as well. And so it just hit all the right notes. We have a beautiful little garden space in the back, so it was European to me. There was a place here to go out back and have a drink in the garden, and be covered in this canopy of trees and flowers, vines and whatnot.
[Photos: Zibby Wilder, Facebook]
The town supported that aspect of my romantic idea of a bar. And then [there's] the great juxtaposition of having something that seems so urbane to people, and is inherently so American. The Americana is strong here: All the farmers in the area, they grew up with bars that served classic cocktails. So they were really appreciative to have a place in town they could go get a proper drink, and bring their parents down to have a gin gimlet. That surprised me, but not too much, most people, once they receive hospitality, they like it. So, there wasn't so much of a cultural divide as people were making it out to be when we first started. They'd go, "No one will drive out there for a drink, and people out there are not going to support you." It was just the opposite. People love to take a beautiful country drive after tasting wine all day, and the people who were out here, they loved having a place they could go and have a nice drink that wasn't a tavern. It just plays into our favor here.
Tell me more about your clientele. What's the percentage of locals versus people passing through?
I wouldn't have an idea about the percentages. Sometimes it's hilarious how many people from Portland or Seattle we'll have in here on a busy night, and quite often, they know each other and find each other here. But I would say it's 50-50, just to be true to the people of Walla Walla who really support us. It's a real split. And ironically, I have probably one of the best clienteles, the most wonderful people that I've ever experienced over 30 years of bartending.
Any favorite regulars?
Oh, my gosh. The regulars. We have progressive people with creative ideas, and there's a liberal nature to the clientele here that I really like. And the people who are local in terms of the more rural local, they accept that. It's not like we had to change our own personas to experience this here. We're obviously left of center politically, and I think the hospitality kind of trumps that. And because of that, it's not political, per se. It's a place for everybody — I used to call it the Switzerland of bars — where you can let all that stuff slide away. And be in a place that's uniformly made to make you forget or make you enjoy or celebrate your life. But the mortal coil of your daily struggles just melt away. So, it's worked that way for sure.
Were the locals skeptical at first?
Early reaction was total skeptical, especially after I opened the door. People kind of get used to what they want, what they think should be at a certain place, and I didn't hit any of those notes, unfortunately, for folks who just really wanted a tavern. And ironically I call this a "taverna," in my mind's eye, it's more like a European taverna, not a restaurant. And so, they at first were like, "What, it's alien all this stuff, from all over the world." A bar full of fresh herbs and strange tinctures and bitters and flavors — it didn't fit the local concept.
However, they figured out they didn't have to have a strange thing: I've always had a great German pilsner on draft, a rotating IPA, there's always been something else. You can obviously get a shot of anything. It wasn't that strange once you kind of saw through all the taxidermy and artwork and stuff like that. So, they either go to just reject it outright, and it was too expensive, or they've come in to enjoy it. We, again, get a lot of local people.
But at first, you're right: I wasn't serving burgers, I wasn't serving pizza, there are things that Americans eat that are kind of a bellwether, especially in rural areas. I understand why people lean towards traditional Americana foods. I just didn't want to provide that, it's not my dream. So again, I just feel like you kill them with kindness, and that's a sincere kindness, I'm not just saying that as a lever. [?] You get the clientele you deserve, I think, and people that come in here, they really get it.
So, let's say I'm a guest who has no idea what amaro or Fernet or any of that stuff is. How do you present your menu to them, to someone who was no idea what to expect?
Well, I think my enthusiasm for this stuff helps. All these classic — especially Italian — bitters and aperitifs are in and of themselves so fascinating to me that I introduce them from their historical places quite often coming out of the 19th century, and how these things were used traditionally in Europe. And how we've transitioned them, or usurped their early nature to be really great with spirits and cocktails. And so we can get into, "What's your palate like?" A lot of people haven't analyzed their own tastes — I make them think about, "Do you really like bitter? Do you like a sour bitter? Or do you like a sweet and sour, what is it?" I try to analyze really what they like.
I give them tastes of things all the time, just so we can be on the same plane. Campari is something that seems so simple to the cocktail community, but for some people, it's extremely bitter. I see it as sweet. But it does have a bitter component to it that you have to recognize, especially for a palate that has not been drinking a lot of this sort of thing. [?] It's kind of like building their range on their palate.
Have you ever had to throw anyone out of your bar?
Oh, yeah. Unfortunately, yeah. And I try and do it as graciously as possible and to not embarrass the people. They're already in a place where they're being socially inconvenient for other people, and so whatever brought them there is probably bad enough. And to embarrass them on top of that, it's not right. So I try to let people out with as little fanfare as possible. But yeah, it's not quite like Belltown in the old days, where it became potentially odd and potentially violent. I don't get that sort of thing anymore, at all.
Sometimes I just have to explain to somebody not to curse very loud repeatedly — I just have my own bellwethers, my own little red herrings that you can't handle — and the idea behind it is, no one person has the right to destroy somebody else's experience, and that's where my point of view is coming from. So they have to respect that other people. I really love the fact that my place is accommodating all sorts of people and it's not just a one-note spot where it's all one kind of grouping or kind of people.
So finally, what's your must-have barkeeper tool?
The best tool I have is just a nonjudgmental acceptance that people are going out to experience a good time, and to be treated with respect. And I think the best tool is really a nonjudgmental hospitality, to accommodate and really try to put yourself in somebody else's position.