The Ritual of the Shift Drink: Seattle’s Rob Roy

The hallowed ritual of the shift drink may take a different form at every bar, but it inevitably serves the same purpose: letting the staff exhale at the end of service. The end of the night at Seattle's Rob Roy is half labor-intensive cocktails, half shots and beers.

It’s 1:30 a.m., time for the “quiet last call” at Rob Roy, though nothing happening in this room can technically be described as quiet. Couples still occupy the row of leather-backed bar stools; the large group up front is having a discussion so animated that several people are standing up in front of their chairs. In the night’s waning moments, the logical choice is the uncomplicated one, but nearly every customer wants something off the three-page cocktail list, even though they’ll have maybe 15 minutes to polish it off.

At the bar, bartender Kathleen Manley works the “personality well,” the position front and center where half the job is engaging with customers. Meanwhile, Derek Moree—on since three that afternoon—has been bunkered down in the second well, unable to converse, or even look up as he deals with the tide of incoming tickets and endless parade of ice chunks, shaping them into blocks with the dull blade of a giant knife.

In 2009, owner and bartender Anu Elford took over Rob Roy from local nightlife maven Linda Derschang. She ditched the DJs but kept the ‘60s glam bachelor pad aesthetic—walls of stacked flagstones or tufted black leather, mod light fixtures, a mounted boar’s head with a cocktail umbrella tucked behind its ear—and added clever house creations right as Seattle was finding its voice in the national craft cocktail conversation. If you ask Elford, though, Rob Roy is more about impeccably executed classics: “We’re not trying to out-innovate anyone,” she says. But that’s a humble assessment of a cocktail list that contains concoctions like the Saffron Sandalwood Sour or a punch made with actual gunpowder, both firmly enshrined as local classics.

Rob Roy’s location in the bullseye of the Belltown nightlife district means other bartenders inevitably gather here when they’re done for the night, seeking a shift drink and some easy conversation before state law drops the curtain on all alcohol consumption at 2 a.m.

When Moree is done cleaning his station, he joins tonight’s crew in their usual spot at the end of the bar, where the remainder of Rob Roy’s on-duty staff can still be a part of the conversation. The rest of the room might want cocktails, but this group has beers in their hands and shot glasses in front of them. “It’s simplicity,” says Moree of his drink of choice: a bottle of Rainier (“classy cheap beer”) and a shot of rye. Plunking down a Martinez someone accidentally double-ordered in the POS, Elford explains any cocktails making their way to the staff: “Most of our shift drinks are drinks we order wrong.”

Rob Roy’s black leather midcentury-style couches, shelves artfully arranged with books and a turntable and other vintage audio equipment make for the kind of room that still looks good when the lights go up at 1:50 a.m. Washington’s strict 2 a.m. liquor ban means the people most in need of a shift drink have to make do with water, maybe a Mexican Coke. But that’s okay, says Elford. All night long they’ve focused on other people. With doors locked, “we have the luxury of bitching about our day a little bit, and having a conversation about our own lives.” These are the moments when her staff truly gets to know one another, commiserating about the guy who refused to leave, or the one who accidentally-on-purpose brushed his hand across someone’s butt. You don’t need a drink in your hand to relax and connect.

Though all the customers who were in here enjoying their final cocktails an hour earlier might argue that it helps.

Anu Elford, Derek Moree and Kathleen Manley talk last-call cocktails, Laphroaig & Cokes and the beautiful simplicity of shots of Woodford.

Derek Moree, Bartender

Shift Drink: Rainier and a shot of rye

On being a shift drink gathering spot: “It’s pretty normal for friends or bartenders or industry people to end up here toward the end of the night. It’s nice to see them, serve them a couple rounds, then finish up my shift and go on the other side of the bar.”

Kathleen Manley, Bartender

Shift Drink: “I’ll order a beer with a pour of something, but I won’t shoot it.”

On last call cocktails: “I’ve worked at places where you’re supposed to just cut off cocktails at a certain time. I don’t mind making people fancy cocktails at quarter ‘til, as long as they know they only have a few minutes to drink them. If you’re an experienced bartender you obviously know your limitations—I’ll tell someone, I can’t make you an egg white drink now because you won’t have time to drink it. You’re managing the guest’s experience for their enjoyment.”

On why she doesn’t drink on the job: “It seems like it would be fun, but if eight people are ordering—I want a vodka soda, a vodka tonic, a vodka tonic with a splash of cranberry, a gin and tonic and a gin and soda with lemon—and you have to keep that straight? You have to be very sober.”

On camaraderie: “Staff who aren’t working will still come in to Rob Roy; genuinely, it’s one of my favorite places to drink.”

Anu Elford, Owner

Shift Drinks: Martini; Scotch and Coke

On covert shift drinks: “We always have Mexican Coke bottles; sometimes I’ll put a little Laphraoig in it and I’ll drink it out of the bottle.”

On closing time: “The last 20 minutes of the night can pose some challenges. Especially because most of us have worked 12-hour shifts already; it’s that last hour where you have to perk up and move really fast and make sure people do get their last call drink in time to actually drink it.”

On shift drinks of yore: “When I first started bartending, I would say, we would sit down and geek out about cocktails—wait, that’s an absolute lie. We would just take shots of Woodford.”

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Allecia Vermillion is a Portland native living in Seattle, where she is the food and drink editor of Seattle Met magazine by day and a respectably prolific beer and wine drinker by night.