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Originally published February 20, 2013 at 5:00 AM | Page modified February 20, 2013 at 4:11 PM

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Vessel returns, vodka no longer discouraged

After a two-year hiatus, downtown craft-cocktail powerhouse Vessel is back with a larger space and a less hard-core approach.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Oct. 15, 2006, was a turning point for the Seattle craft-cocktail movement. Vessel, a new downtown bar, opened its doors that evening. The city’s discerning drinkers didn’t know what hit them.

The place had an attitude. It didn’t care much for vodka and let it be known. It didn’t do Red Bull drinks and disdained Cosmos.

Instead, it pushed gin and whiskey, and concocted intriguingly boozy and bitter mixtures.

It helped turn many bar hoppers into cocktail geeks. It also scared off the stiletto-wearing “Sex and the City” wannabes who favored candy cocktails.

It was the most loved and hated bar. It was also one of Seattle’s most influential cocktail dens (alongside Zig Zag Cafe and Canon).

Despite its success, it closed in December 2010 after a lease dispute, leaving the downtown drinking classes empty.

But it has found a sleek new home on the corner of Seventh Avenue and Olive Way.

The cocktail scene evolved during Vessel’s two-year hiatus. The city is now littered with craft distilleries, and even dive bars can make a decent Old Fashioned now.

Nevertheless, Vessel has readily reclaimed its perch on the top shelf — though with a softening of its original hard-line stances.

It’s still a temple for cocktail worshippers, boasting “The Lab,” a separate kitchen space where bartenders chain saw sheets of ice and make bitters and foams.

Drinks arrive in some of the city’s prettiest vintage glassware. (You’ll cringe every time you hear a glass shatter.)

Though somewhat less inviting than the previous location (the lighting and acoustics can both be a bit much), the new industrial-chic space is larger, and seats at the bar are prime real estate.

The old Vessel cared for food as much as it did for vodka, while the new iteration offers a small, understated menu that features braised lamb french dip and a Niçoise salad with poached salmon.

As ever, Vessel, more than any other bar in Washington, is a showcase for the talent behind the counter.

Each bartender gets to feature his (they’re all men) own drink menu. The downside: you can’t get the same drink on your second visit unless you see the same bartender.

One night, I had a memorable rum Old Fashioned — caramel, nutty and buttery, cut with spice. Another time, I had the most original drink this year, a smoky, savory mescal concoction with celery juice and lime, sweetened with agave nectar with a kick of smoked sea salt.

The bar staff’s pedigree is top-notch — old hands who made their names at Rob Roy, Sun Liquor and other noted cocktail spots — so, regardless of who is behind the bar, you’re in good hands here.

The Details

Vessel, 624 Olive Way, offers happy hour weekdays (3-6 p.m.) with $6 Manhattan, $5 wine and $3 pilsner, and bar snacks ($3-$7). (206-623-3325 or www.vesselseattle.com).

Tan Vinh: 206-515-5656 or tvinh@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @tanvinhseattle

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