I have been asked this question countless times. My parents have asked, my boyfriend’s parents have asked, and strangers I just met as they sat at my bar have asked. I would like to answer this question for all to hear. To make a permanent record, on the Internet, of why I chose to sling booze rather than go to medical school. Why I chose late nights and irregular pay over a steady paycheck and nine-to-five hours.
To answer this question, we have to go back. Like, WAY back, to my early years as a self-conscious, but outgoing and social girl, at the tender age of 19. Right out of my first year of college, (I was studying Equestrian Science that year) I got a job working as the assistant to the head trainer at a pretty big horse training/breeding/selling facility. I gave little girls and big guys riding lessons and had anywhere from five to fifteen horses under my care at any given time. I loved this job, more than life itself. Then reality kicked in, and what was once my passion and my favorite hobby, was now my JOB. I quit the second I started hating it, fearing that my love of horses would be destroyed. So, what job is a young girl going to find, with no college degree and the job experience of a cowboy?
Me and my brother on our ponies in 1992
The answer is simple: Telemarketing. I sold Highlights for Children; you remember that magazine, with all the games like, find the five differences between these two pictures, and crossword puzzles with words no longer than five letters. Let me tell you something, I hated that job; yet, I was remarkably good at it, outselling the veterans of the telemarketing hall of fame. Despite my success, cold calling irritated parents about an outdated magazine was not what I saw myself doing for the rest of my life…or even for another day. So I quit.
And got myself a job as a hostess at Applebee’s! I was living big. In my mind this was the crème de la crème of hospitality. I knew nothing about food or cocktails, obviously. I worked my way from hostess, to server, to flattop grill cook. The Holy Grail though, was the bartender position. I was too young, but I could see my future in those bottles of Burnett’s vodka, those giant margaritas, and the 32-ounce long island iced teas. Unfortunately, like most young adults, with no clue what to do tomorrow much less for the rest of their lives, I quit…again. But not without having lined up another awesome job to later turn into a potential career choice.
I became a Barista. And holy shit, I loved this job. Even today, working at that coffee shop was the best job choice I’ve ever made. Z’s Divine Espresso is two small coffee shops located in my hometown of Lawrence, Kansas. Owned at the time by Mark Zwahl: a legend, good and bad, according to every member past and present of his staff. For Kansas, we were revolutionary. We were Certified Organic and Fair Trade. We did all of our own roasting, and we had a DRIVE-THROUGH! WHAAAAAAAAT?! We all loved each other and our customers, and for the most part, our customers loved us. I could write a novel about the shenanigans that went on during my seven-year career at Z’s, but that’s not what this is about. I will tell you that this job ushered me into the age of legally drinking, and not gently. It was more of a push, resulting in orange vomit (from too many tequila sunrises) and waking up with my favorite lesbian spooning me in her bed (she took great care of me). I could tell you about the false drawer front that we rigged to hide our vodka in the coffee shop counters, or the trips to the liquor store across the parking lot at eight in the morning so we could make special smoothies, or even the debut of drive-through theater, but I can’t give away all our secrets.
It was at Z’s Divine Espresso that I met Emily and Molly: two ladies who defied the laws of physics when it came to sleep and energy. Both worked as full time bartenders at the most popular dive bar in town, and both worked at the coffee shop. Often, these two would be at work until three or four in the morning only to come into work at the coffee shop around five. No sleep, probably still drunk, with a raging hangover awaiting them towards the end of the shift. They were my heroes. I longed to be just like them: they were pretty, hip, had cool handsome boyfriends, got to meet all the bands, and everyone loved them. I think they felt sorry for me, so they got me a job at this dive bar as the “trough girl”. The Replay Lounge trough girl has become somewhat of a legend in Lawrence, but first let me tell you a little bit about the Replay.
The Replay Lounge in Lawrence, KS
The Replay Lounge in Lawrence, Kansas is a small town institution. It opened in 1993 as a burger and beer bar and arcade. We were regulars at free Friday pinball. PBR was $1.25 on Thursdays. There was one Martini glass in the entire bar. And there was that one time we decided to pull out the dustiest, oldest bottle of Piña Colada mix anyone has ever seen, and bet someone a beer to try it. I think that guy is still alive. There is a small indoor bar, with a small stage and two restrooms. As an aside, the Replay existed within a black hole or alternate universe in which there was never a line for the women’s restroom, but always a line for the men’s. The outdoor bar was much bigger, with a big stage, and a large “dance floor” that was basically just concrete with no tables. The booths around the perimeter and the bar were warm in the winter with overhead heaters, so my friends could sit outside and smoke and not freeze. In the summer time, the outdoor bar would be so packed, that they started selling PBR tall boys out of an ice filled horse trough for $2.50. The trough was located by the stage and by the back door, so the “trough girl” not only sold beer, she also regulated the back door on busy nights. So imagine me, barely 21, selling beer out of a metal trough, getting yelled at by drunken folks trying to sneak in the back door. I wasn’t scary, at all. This job taught me to be tough and to assert myself. And I also fell in love with bartending (and bartenders) even more. From then on, my struggle was all about getting behind a bar…any bar for that matter.
This quest was hard. No one wanted me behind their bar. I had no experience, and lets be real, I wasn’t model-attractive, so I couldn’t cash that in for a job. I worked as a server, taking any opportunity to touch a bottle and make a drink. I even barbacked after serving shifts, off the clock, for free, often until four or five in the morning. Occasionally, the bartender would let me work the well, pouring Jack & Coke’s and beers. By the time I was 28, after almost 10 years in the service industry, I was tired of serving and I was sick of not getting promoted to bartender when I knew I deserved it. So I did the next logical thing, and exaggerated my resume a tiny bit. According to my new work experience, I had been bartending for approximately two years. I got a job immediately, as a BARTENDER!!! It doesn’t hurt that my good friend Katy, whom I had worked with at Z’s Divine Espresso, was now an incredible crafter of cocktails at a restaurant called 715 and got me the gig as the lunch bartender. It was here that I made my first real cocktail: a Sazerac. I made it wrong. I put it on ice, which, being the only thing I did wrong is really not too bad. But I look back and I am mortified. I wish I could talk to that guy who ordered it and make him one now. I worked at 715 from May of 2012 until I moved to Seattle that October. I loved that job so much that I pushed my move back by two months. At this moment, I’d like to give a shout-out to the folks that jump-started my bartending career: Katy Wade, Margie Hogue, Katrina Weiss, Matt Hyde and Justin Clarke.
Then came my epic move to Seattle. I got an interview the day after I arrived and was hired the day after that at Local 360: a restaurant formed around the bounty that the Pacific Northwest has to offer-almost every ingredient was produced within 360 miles. This included the bar. With the exception of Tequila, Campari, and some vermouth, everything stocked at the bar came from a local craft distillery or brewery. Now, this bar program was not highly respected by industry folks due to the lack of tried and true old bar essentials, lack of scotch, and young bourbon; however, for this job introduced me to so many amazing craft distillers that to this day are some of my best friends. I gained a massive amount of respect for and knowledge from these people. It was in Seattle that I realized that I could make a living making drinks. I loved my job and going to work was never something I dreaded as a bartender…so I committed. Intensely. I threw myself into the industry, joining the United States Bartenders Guild and the local Washington chapter. I attended tastings and events, getting to know my mentors, my peers, and some of the best in the business. It was an exciting day the first time one of my cocktails made the menu.
The Snapdragon at Local 360
1 ounce Old Overholt Rye Whiskey
¾ ounce St. Germain
½ ounce Campari
2 dashes Rosemary Tincture
2 dashes Regan’s Orange Bitters
Stir, strain into cocktail glass or flute
Top with dry sparkling wine
Garnish with a fresh sprig of rosemary
In a small mason jar, add equal parts rosemary leaves and Everclear or high proof vodka. Let sit for 48 to 72 hours. Strain and put in a small dropper bottle.
Then I was diagnosed with Cancer. I couldn’t be the ass-kicking quick-as-lightning bartender I once was, so I had to leave Local 360. I spent the next six months recovering, unemployed, worrying about money, wondering why the hell I wasn’t in a field that offered health benefits and paid medical leave. Then, one of the many friends I had made in the industry set me up with an interview at Oliver’s Twist; a neighborhood bar with a list of accolades nine miles long. I interviewed…and I got the job. Somehow. And thank goodness. Oliver’s Twist taught me more about bartending in a year than I had learned in the previous five. My doubts about my chosen industry and lack of benefits disappeared like a bottle of Fernet at a hipster bar. Having a cocktail named Best New Cocktail by Seattle Met’s AJ Rathbun certainly helped, and from that moment on, I wanted to be the best bartender working at the best bar and making the best cocktails, and not just in Seattle.
Charley Bates: Seattle Met’s Best New Cocktail in Seattle
¾ ounce Blanco Tequila
¾ ounce Vida Mezcal
¾ ounce Benedictine
¾ ounce Fresh Lemon Juice
2 dashes Scrappy’s Cardamom Bitters
Shake all ingredients, strain into Collins glass. Top with Ginger Beer
Garnish with large mint bouquet
Then there was Speed Rack: an all female speed cocktail bartending competition founded to support women in a male-dominated field and to benefit breast cancer research. Founded by New York legends Ivy Mix and Lynnette Marrero, Speed Rack opened the door to new opportunities and introduced me to so many new friends and mentors. Right after competing in Speed Rack-and getting my ass kicked by the incredible Mindy Kucan-I was offered a gig at Tavern Law/Needle & Thread, a bar named in GQ Magazine’s Top 25 Best Bars in America.
Competing at Speed Rack
Tavern Law and the vault door leading to Needle & Thread
While at Tavern Law, I entered the Bombay Sapphire Most Imaginative Bartender regional competition. I watched my peers create stunning, intricate, and extremely nuanced concoctions. I created a drink inspired by cuisine, with lemon, honey, and a lavender-basil-cucumber and marcona almond pesto. I crafted gold-flake gin “caviar”: little beads that are filled with liquid. With this entry, I made top six in the Pacific Northwest. Two weeks later I was at Hotel 1000 with the other five qualifying bartenders, making this drink for 150 guests and four big-shot judges. I didn’t win, but the competitive bartending bug bit me…hard. Like, maybe it got infected and now I have a scar.
Competing for Bombay Sapphire Most Imaginative Bartender
The Beekeeper: Simplified
1 ½ ounces Bombay Sapphire
¾ ounce Honey Syrup
¾ ounce Fresh Lemon Juice
2 dashes Scrappy’s Lavender Bitters
(1) ¼” Cucumber Wheel
4 Basil Leaves
Muddle the basil and cucumber in a shaker tin. Add the gin, honey, lemon and lavender bitters. Shake. Double strain into a coupe. Garnish with lavender and/or basil leaf.
I’d like to take a break from talking about me for a minute. My mom plays an important role in this story. Back when I was eight years old, my mom suffered a traumatic brain injury while riding her horse Sergeant. After two weeks in a coma and a year in rehabilitation, today she is kicking ass and taking names. Two years ago, she decided to retire, sell everything, and move to her dream location in Northern California. She lives among the redwood trees and she’s the happiest she’s ever been; however, she bought a house and discovered that it needed much more work than she initially expected. I felt an uncontrollable need to be near my mom, to help her through this transition that while making her happy, was also incredibly challenging due to her head injury. So when I was offered an incredible job in Ashland, Oregon, just two hours away from her, I jumped at the chance. It was hard leaving a city that had boosted my career and given me so many incredible opportunities, but the thought of pioneering a drink culture in a small town lagging about ten years behind the trends was intriguing and exciting to say the least. So I packed up my dog, my cat, and my boyfriend, and we moved.
My awesome mom enjoying her first marshmallow latte.
Ashland is the home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Before moving here, I had no clue of the magnitude and level of mania surrounding this festival. Actors and actresses leave Broadway to join this theater group. Crewmembers from all over come for six months at a time to work these shows. So, for six to nine months out of the year, Ashland turns into a mega-tourism hot spot. Ashland is five hours north of San Francisco, and eight hours south of Seattle, with Portland on the way, so it’s a small town sandwiched between three hard hitting culinary and cocktail cities. Despite this, the Ashland food and cocktail scene is about ten years behind the trends. I took the bar manager position at Alchemy Restaurant & Bar located in the historic Winchester Inn. I took the job with the intention of pioneering a cocktail revolution. I’m almost one year in, and so far I think it’s working. Since moving south, I made Bacardi Legacy Top 10 with my Miss Jessup’s Upright Liniment; and I was one of 32 bartenders selected Nationwide for Heaven Hill’s Bartender of the Year with my William S. Burroughs. I competed in San Francisco and made Top 4.
Crafting cocktails for Heaven Hill’s Bartender of the Year
The William S. Burroughs
1.25 ounces Elijah Craig 12 year Bourbon
0.75 ounces Cardamaro
0.75 ounces Espresso-Infused Dolin Rouge
0.25 ounces Rothman & Winter Orchard Apricot
Combine all ingredients in mixing glass, stir, strain into a coupe.
Garnish with a dried apricot.
Espresso-Infused Dolin Rouge
1/2 Cup Whole Espresso Beans
1 750 mL bottle of Dolin Rouge
Let sit in a cool place for 6 hours.
Strain and serve.
The Winchester Inn
We’re now undergoing a massive remodel, building a new kitchen, guest suite, and a new bar. So if you’re ever in Ashland, Oregon, come by, grab a room, see a play, and definitely come sit at my bar!