The Barrel Thief: The Society’s Seattle home
As owner and manager of The Barrel Thief in Seattle, Christopher Gronbeck combines his passion for whisky with education and art in what he describes as an ever-evolving space for inquisitive whisky enthusiasts
WORDS: RICHARD GOSLAN
How did the concept for Barrel Thief come about?
I have a degree in solar energy engineering from Stanford University, and have been working in renewable energy and green building design for 30 years...consulting, teaching, and developing solar energy software applications. I still do that work, part-time. I got really into wine and tea a couple of decades ago, appreciating that they’ve both been enjoyed in so many cultures for thousands of years, and that they weave together people and the land. That led me to open a wine bar / café in 2012, which transitioned into a wine and whisky bar in 2013.
I wouldn’t say I was a whisky fanatic when I opened The Barrel Thief – I really just enjoyed drinking it – but it didn’t take long. I’ve brought my love of teaching to The Barrel Thief, and see it as a place of learning and discovery. We teach classes, host tastings, pour flights, run an education-oriented whisky meet-up, offer whisky passports with rewards, and focus on a wine and whisky selection that opens people’s eyes and exposes them to new things. I always want whisky to have an element of surprise.
ABOVE: Christopher Gronbeck reflects with a Society ‘stop and think’ dram
“Whiskey is one of the jewels of human culture ... the best thing that ever happened to a kernel of grain”
Where does your passion for whisky come from?
Whiskey is one of the jewels of human culture...the best thing that ever happened to a kernel of grain. I love that it ties people together: not just friends gathering to share a dram, but the connection between the farmers, the brewers, the distillers, and the lucky folks who raise a glass to their lips.
Yes, there’s industrial whisky, and plenty of vapid spirit out there, but there’s so much beautiful whisky that’s artfully crafted, expressive, mysterious. I want a whisky that makes me stop what I’m doing and think. And I want to share and enjoy that whisky with friends.
How would you describe the design and layout of the bar?
The Barrel Thief is a living thing. It started as a bright café with abundant windows, and it’s slowly evolved into a more cosy space as it’s become a whisky bar and restaurant.
It’s always changing...I’ve repainted, added an outside patio, replaced a wall of windows with accordion doors that open to the outside, installed barrel stave art and custom metalworking, built a new kitchen, changed up the lighting, constructed an arched brick and iron whisky vault, and, of course, have built the bar itself – it’s a curved design, surfaced with end-grain mesquite blocks from trees sustainably harvested in New Mexico.
I’m lucky to rent some storage space in the basement of our building, and have a wood shop and welding studio downstairs, so I can fabricate things both functional and decorative. The Barrel Thief is far from done, and will always evolve, just like the whisky we all enjoy.
“The Barrel Thief is a living thing. It started as a bright café with abundant windows, and it’s slowly evolved into a more cosy space as it’s become a whisky bar and restaurant. It’s always changing...”
What about your whisky collection at the bar?
We have about 500 whiskies, and our focus is on spirits that are off the beaten path. Small producers, single casks, cask finishes, cask strength, independent bottlers. You can see why we’re fans of the Society! Scotch is our largest whisky category, with 200 expressions, but I’m a big fan of single malts from around the world, and I love a well-crafted brandy, rum or Mezcal as well.
Our whisky selection is always changing, mostly because so many of the bottles we adore are small production or single casks. It’s a lot to keep on top of, but customers appreciate that every time they come in, there’s something new.
How many SMWS bottlings do you generally have at any one time?
Right now we have two to three dozen, but we’ll be building up our collection after being closed during the pandemic. We also offer SMWS tasting flights, which is a fantastic way to introduce people to the diversity of Society expressions.
What does being an SMWS partner bar mean to you?
It means being a part of a community of people who really love whisky. And being in the company of people who appreciate the nuance and elusiveness of a single cask. It means coming together for SMWS Outturn events, which draw new customers to the bar, and which introduce our customers to the Society as potential members. It means being a part of something bigger.
What kind of reaction do you get to the SMWS bottlings?
That varies so much! When it’s people’s first time trying a Society whisky, some instantly appreciate what they have in front of them, and know that it’s something special. Others are less familiar with the concept of single casks, and it’s something completely new for them – something eye-opening. For people who like to drink the same whisky every day, the Society offerings aren’t for them, but our customers tend to be inquisitive and daring.
What would you say makes The Barrel Thief a special place for whisky lovers?
Like many of the other fantastic SMWS partner bars, we’re a community. You can certainly come and get something nice to drink, but you can also meet other whisky enthusiasts, attend our classes and tastings, join our Seattle Whiskey Collective meet-up, come to a Society Outturn event, or start your own whisky passport and eventually get your name on the wall in our Whisky Passport Hall of Fame.
The Barrel Thief is a place for people who love whisky, who love diversity, and who love life. It puts a smile on my face every time someone comes in and tries something new and walks out with just a little more appreciation of the beauty in the world.
“The Society could not have a better partner than Christopher or a better partner bar than The Barrel Thief. It’s such a warm, comfortable, welcoming atmosphere and the work that Christopher does to keep the decor fresh and unique – including the ornate metalwork that he has crafted by himself – is amazing. It has been an absolute pleasure and an honour getting to know and work with Christopher over the past few years. I can’t imagine hosting the Society events anywhere else!”
Bryan McCoy, Seattle Member Ambassador