Lee Watson’s been drinking mostly water this whole quarantine. It’s a way to look after his health, what with a global, nightlife-gutting pandemic going on. On top of that, he’s got a son, a year and a half old. That’s a light in his life that dares to outshine even the moth-drawing glow of The Spirits Library.
He considers both to be his greatest accomplishments, which is a fair claim to make. The Spirits Library was one of the last joints I visited before lockdown hit, warm and welcoming and Gatsby-esque. The mental image of the bar fishes up memories of the joy of gathering, of friends, of sipping on an Old Fashioned while partaking in the life-giving energies of the Metro Manila bar scene.
But once the city’s nightlife kicks back in the gear, you can bet he’ll be popping a bottle open to celebrate, and he’s encouraging others to do the same, whether you’re going out or have a reasonable amount of friends over. As a way to adapt to a situation that is challenging the way bars do business, Watson is kind of turning The Spirits Library into a retail refuge, where people can order drinks and professional bartender tools to step up the game of their at-home libations.
I spoke to Watson about the origins of The Spirits Library, and reminisce a little bit about grabbing an alcoholic night cap in a pre-COVID world.
Q: How did you first get into drinks?
A: I kinda started at hanging out at bars a lot. I always tell the story of a friend of mine in Italy. [He was] the owner of a little Irish pub that I used to hang out at a lot. During one of my visits, I asked him the story of how the bar came to be, and he said “Well”—y’know, in this thick Italian accent of course—“y’know what, every single day, I’d be hanging out at a bar. Only difference now is that I’m at the other side.” And I just felt like the way he said it was so poetic. For me it kinda resonated, it clicked. At that point in my life I was doing a little soul-searching. My background was math, was numbers, business, economics. But I just wasn’t happy, and kind of lost. I had always told myself, “Someday after I make a lot of money in my career, I’ll open a bar.” And at a certain point I had a paradigm shift and said, “[Instead of] doing it someday after I make a lot of money in my career, why don’t I just make the bar business my career?”
Q: Totally, yeah. Why make it the retirement plan when you can make it your main plan!
A: Everything fell into place. I went back to school for an HRM program in Le Cordon Bleu. I worked a series of management jobs.
Q: Can you take me through your general bar education? How’d you get into the other side of the liquor counter and being the one serving drinks? Did you have a mentor?
A: I definitely had lots of people that I would call mentors. I was always peeking over the bar and asking. It starts out like that, then of course I had a start with a small home bar where you start experimenting. Then I went to school. School was more management. Like all the bartending skill was largely self-taught. That, and just from absorbing it from places I used to hang out and people that I’m friends with. There were some courses that I took. BarSmarts for example was one of them.
Where I was in the US, Portland Oregon, if you were behind the bar, you had to have this kind of encyclopedic knowledge of drinks and cocktails. You just had to. It was kind of the bare minimum requirement. And so, just by being in the industry there, and that being the standard, I kinda had to… a lot of it was just me geeking out, me talking with friends, me reading books, me pokin’ around online.
Q: After cutting your teeth like that, how did The Spirits Library come to be?
A: It was a long path to get to The Spirits Library. In Portland, I had a series of management jobs there. Was in school, busser, bar back, bartender, head bartender, bar manager, general manager… I kinda worked my way up the ranks that way. And then when I moved to the Philippines, I got a job at Solaire. I was in charge of setting up all the bars in the property simultaneously, which I’d done before. But this was like everything I’d ever done, times ten, at the same time. Solaire led me to consulting at Antonio’s, Antonio’s led to a big consulting gig at another hotel, Discovery Primea. I worked at other properties like Discovery Shores. I left Solaire to do consulting for a period of time… and then after a year of consulting, I did ABV, which was my first bar as an owner. Since then I’ve always had two or three bars which I had an ownership stake in and certain varying degrees of manager responsibilities, plus several consulting gigs simultaneously. I’d kinda been doing that the past five years or so.
Q: So when you moved to the Philippines, at the time, what were your impressions of the Metro Manila bar scene, compared to Portland Oregon?
A: It was very young. I’m half Filipino, I grew up here. I was coming back to Manila as kinda someone coming home. I hadn’t been here in ten years (in 2012), the city was kinda new and exciting for me. ‘Cause I’d been in Portland fifteen years before that, and so Manila was in some ways coming home, but in some ways something new and exciting, ‘cause Manila had changed a lot. I believe that was the year Blind Pig opened. It was around the time, maybe plus or minus a year. In my opinion, that was kind of the first, very serious speakeasy-style cocktail bar in Manila. And I really feel like that they were the first ones, ground zero, that started it for everyone else.
Coming from a market in the US, Portland has a big foodie scene, and with a big foodie scene you have a well-developed bar scene. Having an advanced bar culture is kinda nice in a lot of ways ‘cause the standards are so high. You can go anywhere and get a good drink. But at the same time, people get a little jaded sometimes. Like everyone’s seen everything before, the bartenders are kind of done with it and bored, and kind of annoyed, and so are the guests sometimes too. You come here and it’s still kinda young and exciting. Everyone’s a sponge, they wanna learn from the bartenders and the guests.
I kinda got here at the right time. I think my success was just the result of timing, dumb luck, me getting here at the time that I did.
Q: To me The Spirits Library sort of captures that excitement that comes with a bar scene being young. I remember, when I first visited The Spirits Library, I was so enamoured by the look of it, and how high the shelves were, and how so full of bottles everything was, and how old school, I guess, everything looked. What were you trying to do with The Spirits Library when you were setting it up?
A: I borrowed a lot of elements from the bars I’d been involved in in the past. Like if you know me, and you know some of the bars that I was involved in—some are around, some have closed, ABV, we had Belle and Dragon, Mandalay, Bitters, more recently Kampai, Nokal, etcetera—I borrowed a lot of elements from those places. ABV, there was that sense of wonder where you walked through the elevator. You might be eating a burger in Lazy Bastard, and then you ask to go to the bathroom, then you go through the elevator. And then you didn’t even know there was a bar there! There’s that sense of kind of amazement when you’re walking and seeing and expecting one thing and then you open something up. From the street, it’s meant to be a little nondescript. There’s no signage up front. We meant to make it look like an old antique shop.
Beyond that, it’s also just a lot of elements of what I like. I collect rare bottles, I collect rare bar books. I like rummaging through antique shops and finding antique glassware. A step beyond that, functionally, the space is kinda meant to be a center for basically my own base, my headquarters for a lot of the stuff I do, like consulting for example. And the main bar is also set up with trainings in mind. Nicely seat a lot of people around that bar, get people behind that bar, hang and screen and get a digital projector, it’s kind of all set up for presentations.
Not only that, it’s kind of like a one-stop shop for all things beverage and bar-related, y’know? I got a very complete set of spirits, I got bar tools, I got the knowledge right up here, I got a team of guys that can help me with trainings and consulting. It’s kinda all in one roof. It really is a beast in a lot of different ways. A lot of different things going on.
Q: Do you have a favorite drink or a favorite cocktail?
A: That’s like asking me who my favorite child is. [laughs] I frequently say it depends on the time of the day and the day of the week. ‘Cause y’know sometimes a scotch is great with breakfast. [laughs] Because of what I do, I like a lot of things. I do tend to lean towards whiskies. I go through stages. Whatever’s my default drink at a given period of time. Right now I’m big on highballs. A nice, blended whisky, or sometimes a single malt scotch. Soda water, twist of lemon, something like that.
Q: What were the drinks that you were leaning on the most during quarantine, during lockdown? Having a drink amid all the craziness.
A: Lots of water. [laughs] I haven’t had a drink since March 12. I had a half glass of wine like a couple weeks ago but… I actually haven’t had a drink. I have not actually gone an extended period of time without a drink since high school, so it’s time to do a little cleanse, y’know? No drinkin’, no smokin’, no nothin’. Maybe a more appropriate question would be, what would be my first drink when quarantine’s over. [laughs]
Q: —And the bar scene starts resurrecting.
A: Yeah. In that case, I’d probably just find a nice whisky in my office. I have a few really, really nice bottles buried in there. I don’t like having the fancy bottles [at the bar] ‘cause I don’t want it to feel intimidating. I put all the expensive bottles in the upstairs room. I call it the detention room—“detention” because it’s where the bad boys and the bad girls spend bad amounts of money. It’s also a cigar room and a room for partners to hang out. So, it’ll probably be a really nice whisky. I’ll probably be with just some of the partners and regulars of The Spirits Library, I’ll round up a few people, share a nice bottle and have a drink!
Although right now, I kinda wanna start selling my bottles. I wanna encourage people to start drinking again. [laughs] That’s one thing we’re doing right now. I’m preparing a retail price list for our bottles so we can start selling at retail prices. Obviously the price you pay for a bottle at the bar is more than you pay at the liquor store. I have a lot of bottles that no one else has. Every time I leave the country, I bring bottles back with me. Every time I go to Duty Free, I pick up a bottle of something special and hard to find. You contact me and I’ll say “Hey, what do you like?” I can make a few recommendations.
I know in the near future we’ll be able to operate again. But even if that happens, [people] will still not be comfortable going out. A lot of people still wanna stay home. A lot of people would rather just get together with a few friends in their condo or in their homes and drink among friends, rather than go out somewhere public. A lot of people will still feel that way for a while, in the next few months. To me, I just have to accept that, and retail is a great way to kind of keep the business going. It was actually something that I always wanted to do with The Spirits Library. People can come in during the day, let’s say pick out a bottle to take home with them, or bring to, I don’t know, a dinner party or something.
You may also like:
We obviously have one of the largest selections of any bar in town, and having all those bottles available for retail is obviously a big thing. In addition to the bottles—the bar tools, the books—we have pretty much everything bar-related that people need. The shakers, the mixers, the strainers, the jiggers. I have several different options from several different brands. Not only can you buy a bottle from me, but I can give you the tools to make a whisky sour, I can even sell you the mixers to do it. Hell, I’ll even have one of my bartenders deliver it and show you how to make the whiskey sour, which is something I think that differentiates us from some of the more traditional online: we'll show you how to do it so you can make the next drink yourself. We’ve actually done it a few times already, kinda just as a gesture for some people who made some larger orders from us.
Q: What do you miss the most about a pre-COVID bar scene?
A: Hanging out with people. [laughs] I’m a sociable person! I like hanging out, I like talking to people, I like meeting new people. That’s what I miss about it. Some people are not going to be too worried about it—they’ll go out the first day we open, and there’ll be other people that won’t, kinda wanna take it easy a few months before they feel comfortable to go out again. But that’s what I miss.
Q: I think people, including myself, are trying to fill that void with like, e-numans, where they hold like Zoom calls and everybody has a drink on their side of the screen? But even then it’s just not the same as going to a physical bar.
A: We’re in this digital age where so much happens online. Whether it’ll be a Zoom meeting we’re having now, or social media, Twitter, Facebook, whatever—we live in such a digital world, but there’s something that can’t quite replace… toasting, or meeting someone new, or pouring your heart out because you just broke up with your significant other, y’know? There’s nothing that will quite replace that. That’s why I think, to some degree, you’ll always have bars.
Q: How’s fatherhood treating you?
A: My son was born around the time construction started for The Spirits Library. So all the demands of building the bar were compounded with the demands of a newborn child. It's challenging juggling family time, with the long hours and late nights of the bar business. Frequently the only solution is to get no sleep. However, I remember I actually used to enjoy waking up in the middle of the night to change his diapers, because it was one of the few opportunities I would get to spend time alone with my son. In my early years in the bar business, I used to joke that "sleep is overrated." I guess that still holds true today as a father!
In the end, I think the most significant effect fatherhood had on me was a change in motivation. Before, I would work hard for my own personal fulfillment. I used to think I had worked hard, and achieved a certain level of success. Now I work even harder for my son. And feeling successful pales in comparison to the feeling I get when my son smiles at me, or gives me a mischievous grin. I think he gets that from me.