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Breaking the ice: Simon Moorby hand-carves ice as a means of meditation and elevating the bar program at Hogwash Whiskey Den

January 13, 2019

It takes about two hours to break the ice.

But the process of freezing it – slowly, starting with water at a temperature near boiling, one deep hotel pan at a time – takes days.

The end result – hard-carved cubes of perfectly transparent ice – is worth it to Simon Moorby, who heads the bar program for the family of establishments that includes Hogwash Whiskey Den, Sante Restaurant and Charcuterie, and Inland Pacific Kitchen.

He doesn’t want to serve drinks with cloudy ice cubes.

“The goal,” he said, “is clear.”

Moorby was honored Tuesday by the Spokane Culinary Arts Guild as the region’s best bartender. His attention to detail – such as instituting and running the ice program at Hogwash – is one of the reasons he won.

“The entire Spokane Culinary Arts Guild team has been blown away again and again by his undeniable talent with crafting cocktails and his leadership skills,” said Erin Peterson, who runs – along with her husband, Rob – the organization of food bloggers, social media influencers, chefs and restaurant industry professionals.

“His knowledge of exceptional spirits, powerful creativity in combining unique flavors, making his own unique infusions and his deft hand in blending seemingly unrelated ingredients all contribute to how he earned this award,” Peterson said. “Most uniquely, his ability to create a solid bar program with a staff that deeply respects him due to not only his personal affability but also his high level of professionalism made him stand out amongst his peers.”

Customers appreciate his commitment to the art and craft of bartending. They notice his hand-carved, clear ice cubes in their old-fashioneds and Manhattans. They notice him, too – tattooed, bearded and often wearing plaid, a vest and flat cap or ball cap with the word “native” emblazoned across the crown.

Most don’t know that, a few years ago, Moorby’s craft almost killed him.

Whiskey was his preferred poison.

American lager was more prevalent.

“It got to the point where I couldn’t function without it,” Moorby said. “I would have to drink a six-pack just to function. I would have to drink my first beer with two hands because they shook so bad.”

Today, Moorby, Spokane bartender extraordinaire and member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, has nearly four years of sobriety under his belt. And he’s three years removed from homelessness.

“My alcoholism was to the point where I was going to drink myself to death or go to prison. Those were my options,” he said, “death or prison.”

The high price of hospitality

According to a recent study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the food service and hospitality industry has the highest rates of substance use disorders and the third-highest rates of heavy alcohol, following mining and construction.

American Indians, according to both SAMHSA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, experience some of the highest rates of substance use compared to other U.S. racial or ethnic groups.

And, also according to SAMHSA, homeless people are at greater risk of substance abuse as well as infectious and chronic diseases, poor mental health and being victims of violence. Their mortality rate is also higher.

“I was doomed to fail,” Moorby said. “It all stacked up against me.”

SAMHSA defines heavy drinking as drinking five or more drinks on the same occasion on each of five or more days in the past 30 days.

“I would maybe not drink five out of 30 days,” Moorby said. “My compulsion was nonstop. I couldn’t envision a future without it.”

He couldn’t really envision a future. “Physically, spiritually, I was bankrupt.”

Hospitality work – jobs that include servers, bartenders and cooks – is physically demanding, often fast-paced and generally low-paid. According to workforce data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the preliminary average of hourly earnings for all accommodations and food service employees for October 2018, the latest for which stats are available, was $15.21.

That often results in workers taking on extra shifts or overtime, which can add strain and anxiety. And alcohol – on site and readily accessible – can help take the edge off and give like-minded co-workers something to bond over.

“Naturally, food and beverage work is accompanied with easy access to alcohol. But with the addition of late-night hours, long shifts without meal breaks and dark rooms full of people drinking, it is no surprise the environment often nurtures addiction,” Brittany Bronson wrote in a 2017 op-ed in the New York Times titled “Why Waiters Drink. And Why It Matters.”

Bronson also cited the SAMHSA report, noting substance use disorder affects nearly 17 percent of its workers. “That percentage is especially jarring when you consider that the restaurant industry is the second-largest private-sector employer,” she wrote.

‘I can’t go back to that’

Moorby, who turned 40 in August, will celebrate four years of sobriety April 14.

“If I was in the middle of it or shortly removed from it, there’d be a lot of chaos.” But now, he said, “I’m ready to talk about it.”

Moorby got his start in the hospitality industry in 1999 when he found out he was going to be a father. “That’s when I decided it was time to get a job,” he said. He was 20.

He was raised on and near the Colville Indian Reservation, moving to Spokane when he was 12. In 1996, he graduated from alternative high school and took classes at Spokane Falls Community College. In his first job in the industry, he washed dishes at the Satellite Diner in downtown Spokane, working from 9 to 5 – that is, 9 p.m. to 5 a.m.

“It was there I got really introduced to late nights, where social drinking would last until 7 a.m. – post-shift,” Moorby said. “Maintaining that lifestyle with a newborn at home really caused conflict in my home life.”

What followed was a series of short-lived stints – as a carpenter in Seattle, as a server at a spot on North Division Street back in Spokane and a pub downtown, as a bartender at a sports bar in Airway Heights.

“That didn’t last either,” Moorby said. “I continued to drink. I burned a lot of bridges.”

By 2003, he was “basically a full-blown alcoholic. Everything sort of came to a head at that point. There was a family intervention. I came home from drinking after work and the whole family was there.”

That moment, he said, led to his first attempt at in-patient treatment followed by a period of “on and off” homelessness that lasted about 13 years. “I’ve been in in-patient twice. I’ve done out-patient five times. I didn’t remain sober, and I had a hard time holding a job or a residence. I got denied a lot.”

It’s difficult, Moorby said, to find a place to live when your “employment history is shoddy at best.”

He couch-surfed or stayed with friends or family. Sometimes, he would rent a room from other hospitality workers, people who shared his lifestyle. “It’s always tumultuous living with other alcoholics,” he said. “It never ends well.”

During some of his darkest times, he would sleep on a particular park bench in Peaceful Valley. And, during his most recent bout of homelessness, in late 2015, he was sleeping under a tarp in an open boat in a backyard on the lower South Hill.

At that time, he was working at Sante Restaurant and Charcuterie, one of Spokane’s best chef-driven restaurants. Chef and owner Jeremy Hansen had hired him back on a provisional basis. Moorby was back where he started – in the dish pit – earning his way back into the business and regaining trust.

“It was a gamble,” Moorby said.

He had reached his rock bottom: a vehicle collision on New Year’s Day 2015. He was blacking out, he said. His organs were shutting down.

Court-ordered treatment helped him get clean. It would be about a year before he could find a landlord willing to rent to him. He was nine months sober when he found a studio downtown. “It was an act of kindness on his part.”

Before that, he said, “I was too unstable. I had slowly lost hope.

“I can’t go back to that.”

After eight months of washing dishes, Hansen promoted Moorby to oversee the bar program at his new Hogwash Whiskey Den and Inland Pacific Kitchen, both located in downtown’s old Washington Cracker Co. building. He’s surrounded by alcohol every shift. But he said he isn’t tempted to return to his old way of life.

“Through sober support and the sober community, I was able to find a solution that works for me. Because of that, the compulsion is gone.”

Now, he said, “I enjoy the time – or I make the time – for myself to focus on one singular task and really kind of appreciate it and where I am today. I’m grateful to do it. If I lose my gratitude, then I don’t have anything at all.”

‘So far, so good’

One of those singular tasks is hand-carving ice cubes for the cocktails he no longer drinks.

It’s a three-day endeavor to freeze a hotel pan of hot water, which Moorby takes to more than 200 degrees, or “close to boil. I want it hot, hot, hot.”

The next step in his ice-making process is to let that hot water sit at room temperature to let gasses escape. After an hour or two, he transfers the 12-by-20-inch pan to the freezer. It’s about 6 inches deep. And the water is still “very warm” when it goes into the freezer.

When he’s ready to carve the cubes, Moorby lets the pan sit at room temperature again, this time for about a half hour, to make it easier to release the block of ice. This also makes carving easier. “If you cut it when it’s too cold,” Moorby said, “it’ll flake off, like shale.”

He doesn’t want flakes. He wants substantial clear cubes that fill but still fit into a tumbler. To get there, he carefully chips away at the thin cloudy layer that’s formed at the bottom of the block, which Moorby inverts onto on a fresh towel on the bar top. He works the impurities off with an ice pick. The practice “feels good,” he said. “I don’t know why more people don’t do it.”

His hand-carved clear ice cubes elevate the look of a cocktail and reduce the surface area of the ice. “If there’s too many nooks and crannies in your ice, it’s going to over-dilute your drink,” Moorby said.

It’s not only for aesthetics, he said. “There’s science.”

Preparing the ice cubes – each one, individually – gives Moorby time to focus, reflect, relax. He finds the repeated motions – and the end result – satisfying. Therapeutic, really.

“It takes a clear focus. You have to envision each cut before you make it. You have to pay attention to the ice; it’ll guide your next strike. It really is a meditative process. It gives me time to reflect on where I’m at. That meditative space did not come easy. I’ve had to learn to forgive myself.”

If he’s stressed or anxious, he said, the ice doesn’t turn out as nice. Today is “a pretty good day. So, so far so good.”

Moorby learned about ice carving from his former co-worker, Andrew Bohrer, hailed as one of Seattle’s best bartenders. They worked together about 10 years ago at Naga Lounge in Bellevue.

“This by no means takes any sort of brute force,” Moorby said. “I don’t think there’s a lot of skill here. Finesse is the key. I kind of let the ice dictate where I cut.”

He’s seen other bartenders use electric saws to cut ice. But he prefers to work with an ice pick and long serrated knife. After chipping away the cloudy layer, he knifes the block into columns about the width of a rocks glass. He cuts cubes from those columns.

Moorby aims to carve ice cubes twice a week.

He also aims to run every other day, mostly along the Centennial Trail, sometimes up Tower Mountain or in the Dishman Hills. He got back out there in 2016, after sobering up – running first 5 miles, then 7, then 10 or 12.

He uses running “to get out of my head.” At first, “it was to keep my body busy. It’s escalated to more of a lifestyle. I started training as hard as I drank. I’ve learned discipline.”

Still, even as an avid runner, a marathon seemed “unreachable. I thought I’d never get to that point.”

But he did. Moorby ran two marathons in 2018. He’s registered for another this year.

“I got out of my own way,” he said. “Not without help, though. It’s really easy to think you can tackle (alcoholism) on your own. But that mentality almost killed me on several occasions. Trying to manage my symptoms was just another symptom of the disease.

“My message is: if (people) know they have a problem and they are ready to do something about it, there is help available. And, to the friends and loved ones of people who know they have a problem, to be vocal about it because it is a deadly disease. It causes a lot of needless suffering.”

He is, he said, still working on building relationships with his children, now 16 and 19, nearly the same age he was when he landed his job at the Satellite.

He refers to his right arm as his “industry arm,” where he displays tattoos related to the business. One depicts an eagle feather. It is, he said, “a constant reminder to keep myself connected to all my relations – my loved ones, my friends, my guests – to be a positive presence, no longer destructive. This is sort of my spiritual understanding.”

He also sports a tattoo of a skull in a bottle.

“It’s self-descriptive. As much as I like working with spirits, I need a reminder of how destructive they are for me. It’s good to keep that memory close,” he said. “I’m excited for the future. I can get my life back. Sky’s really the limit. I don’t necessarily like that cliché. But I’m excited to be part of the progressive food and drink scene in Spokane – and take it to new heights. This is the life I’ve dreamed about. It’s not perfect. But I have a purpose. I wake up every day, and I have hope.”

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