Drinking isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Utah.
In fact, the state comes in dead-last for per-capita alcohol consumption, probably because its strict liquor laws are dictated by state legislation that’s primarily comprised of the teetotaling Mormon population. But despite the challenging laws (some establishments require a food order with an alcoholic drink, for example), the masters at craft cocktail bar Water Witch have managed to make a name for themselves. A trailblazer for Salt Lake City’s burgeoning booze scene, Water Witch has acted as a catalyst in the rapidly-growing community of local bars and restaurants.
Bartenders Sean Neves, Matt Pfohl and Scott Gardner met in 2012 when they were invited to teach a class about cocktails. They discussed owning and tending a bar together, but, like many small business owners, didn’t have the immediate funds to make it happen. Over the course of four long years, they planned their opening and took gigs that buoyed their status as community leaders in the craft cocktail industry. Neves was the bartender of the now-closed Wild Grape Bistro, Pfohl was the beverage manager of Pallet and Gardner became the head mixologist at Finca. By the time Water Witch opened in December 2016, it won local praise and soon attracted high-profile guests who were in town for the annual Sundance Film Festival.
Knocking on three years, Water Witch is situated in the up-and-coming Central Ninth neighborhood of Salt Lake City, which is experiencing a large influx of tech professionals and self-starters from California (who are locally referred to as the “Silicon Slopes”). The snug space is designed with three soft pine bar tops beneath bespoke light boxes and a 14-foot reproduction of a 19th-century seascape of the Great Salt Lake, the bar’s “spiritual center.” The name Water Witch supposedly salutes the sailboat of Brigham Young—the second president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Salt Lake City’s founder—which shuttled his hidden spirits across the Great Salt Lake.
There isn’t a cocktail menu at Water Witch. Instead, a blackboard lists rotating specials, and expert bartenders are on hand to tailor drinks to one’s preference. “We tend to target very simple flavor profiles, so people get it,” Gardner says. The only available menu lists wine, good beer, golden cider and “foofy snacks,” or Spanish coastal tapas brought together by nearby businesses like European-style Caputo’s Market and Beltex Meats. “We are very lucky to have some awesome people in this community that sell some really awesome stuff.” he says.
From a Parisian bistro to a Lebanese locale, each of these cultural hotspots offers delightful destination dining and drinking to Salt Lakers. “We [at Water Witch] tend to be super A.D.D. with what we love, so instead of focusing on one region of the world, we feel that the entire world has something delicious to offer,” Gardner says. “So, why not celebrate culture!”
Every week, Water Witch presents an updated jícara cocktail. Although the cocktail recipe changes, the vessel—a dried half-gourd, or jícara—does not. It’s an ode to the distinct agriculture, care, craftsmanship and years of tradition that shape Mexico. They follow the same approach to the weekly Daiquiri by spotlighting various spirits, either local, national or international.
“When we opened, we never said we were anything specific, so it gives us free rein to do whatever we want,” Gardner says. “Everybody is here [culture, religion, gender, orientation] so we want everything here.” In addition, Water Witch hosts select “spiritual” gatherings on-site, like extensive tequila and mezcal education programs that compare the agave spirits side-by-side and demonstrate how to utilize them in cocktails.
Today, Salt Lakers are looking past the esoteric liquor laws (like the legal maximum pour, measured at 1.5 ounces of primary spirit) and into the artistry and passion poured into craft cocktails. Because of the new spirited bars, speakeasies and restaurants popping up, there is more to Salt Lake City than the headquarters of the Mormon Church.