Mountaineering Club, a buzzworthy bar with incredible views atop the Graduate Seattle hotel, recently welcomed new bar lead Ricky Agustin. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Kent, Wash., native ended a seven-year stint in New York City and returned to the Pacific Northwest. He’s now wowing patrons with his talents and creativity at this University District haven that offers some of the best panoramas in town.
You’ve just returned from NYC; how did your skills develop there, and what inspired you most at work?
You might find this a little hard to believe, but when I moved to the city as some arrogant kid in my very early 20s, I thought I was hot s*it. I had just been recruited to work at Pegu Club, I’d sold all my stuff and took a 12-day road trip from Seattle to NYC. And I definitely believed it — until my first day of training. The head bartender at the time, Kenta Goto (Bar Goto, Bar Goto Niban) was incredibly patient and incredibly rigorous. “Slow down and pour to tension,” he’d say. “You’re fast, but we’re gonna get you New York fast,” “stop flaring so much.” So I learned to slow down to get faster and more precise.
The bar was a monster and could fit around 200 people, and 80 percent of the drinks that evening were made at the service station. Kenta had this exercise that came to be known as “bartender drownproofing,” where none of the senior bartenders could help you make drinks until: 1. the ticket rail was full; and 2. the ribbon of drink tickets streaming from the printer touched the floor. So you’d do your best, prioritizing your orders and executing your rounds, but eventually the volume would catch up to you. You’d be all sweaty and stressed-out and three giant bartenders you’d only read about in magazines would swoop in behind you and straight-up dominate those drink tickets.
The other side of the coin was what happened when the room was quiet, empty and flooded with daylight. Audrey Saunders (owner of the Pegu Club) would hold these bar meetings to tune recipes where there would be long rows of tasting glasses that stretched the length of the bar. But here’s the thing: Every one of these many glasses held the same cocktail. Each row was a different brand of gin, and from left to right, it was a slightly different proportion. The bartenders would taste and discuss, fill our notebooks on what brands had the strongest flavor affinities to which citrus and which modifiers, and then we’d set up the bar, change into our uniforms and get to work. There’s maybe a handful of people who got to see that side of it.
How would you describe the scene, vibe and bar program at Mountaineering Club?
I have zero idea what we’re doing right, but we’re attracting some of the best patrons we could possibly ask for. Maybe it’s that we run DJs most nights and our guests have excellent taste in things, in addition to food and drink. Perhaps it’s that we’re hosting fresh pasta pop-ups out of the corner of the bar. It could be that on sunny days, we’ve thrown glamping-level picnic parties on the patio and projected movies onto the side of our building. There’s something for everyone here, and that extends to the drink menu, too.
There was this specific period of time in the food and beverage industry, where we collectively felt everything was precious and had to be named after an obscure literary reference. I think we all agree we’re tired of that, and on these menus, we’re taking a step out from our roles as bartenders, simply being honest about what we like and returning to those to refine and heighten those core ideas. It seems to be working, people seem to be connecting with it.
How are you incorporating and honoring your Filipino heritage in your cocktails at the MC?
In the cocktails? I’m not so sure I’ll be spending that token this coming season. Maybe a little bit here, a little bit there, but you won’t be seeing Ube this or Pandan that. In a big-picture sense, where I’m really incorporating and honoring my Filipino heritage day-to-day is how I run the team. In the past, the bar team was run kitchen brigade-style — very militaristic. Centered on the individual. It’s quite effective in a lot of contexts, but for this specific house, there was a lot of opportunity to allow our very talented bartenders to breathe creatively.
So, I give away a lot of my authority by empowering my staff to make decisions in my absence. Each day, we’re checking in to make sure our actions and decisions are in line with our shared values, and every day I’m finding that the way my bartenders solve issues is pretty darn close to my own intent. I’m not looking for sweeping changes overnight, just small incremental progress in the right direction. I’ve heard it said, “You steer an aircraft carrier three degrees at a time.”
It makes writing a menu super easy too; we just came off a pitch meeting in which the bartenders bring new work to be considered for the season, and after rounds of collaboration, they pretty much know the general structure that my recipes follow. So, it makes recipe edits a hell of a lot easier when we have a shared vocabulary. I can be like, “this needs a hard dash of long pepper tincture,” and we’ll all know that it entails steeping long pepper pods in Everclear for two weeks. I may have just given it away: maybe I’ll be spending a token or two.
What are a couple of your favorite drink items currently on the menu?
That’s easy —The Whidbey Island Iced Tea. It’s a spin on a Long Island. I love it on so many levels. It’s so good, but you can only have, like, one of them, cause they will get you hammered in the fanciest way possible. It totally falls into the realm of High Camp — at least according to Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay on the exaggerated, absurd and extravagant style.
Here’s how the party starts: We take a big ol’ beer keg and fill it with chilled vodka, gin, rum, tequila, triple sec, citric acid and a bit of salt and sugar. Then we violently charge the keg under many atmospheres of CO2 and then run the carbonated booze through a draft line into the bar, where we dispense the carbonated booze on tap into the tallest glass that ever existed in this bar. Then instead of topping it off with cola, like a regular Long Island Iced Tea, we bleed in a deep violet-hued slug of this intensely juicy and floral Whidbey Island Blackberry Liqueur. Don’t tell anyone, but it happens to be the highest-awarded spirit ever produced in North America, and if word gets out, I won’t be able to get it. The whole thing is topped with a heap of wild seasonal berries, foraged from nearby mountains.