Top Shelf: Five bartenders you should know
While you may have bartender besties at your go-to happy hour, some new restaurants have brought out fresh talent, and established bars quietly foster some of the best in the business. Expand your circle of friends to these bartenders and managers who are as good as the drinks they slide to the rail.
bar manager // olive & oak
When the much-lauded Olive & Oak opened earlier this year, it received high marks for its straightforward food and top-notch wine program, but the Webster Groves eatery excels at more than vittles and vino. The Libertine alum Chelsea Little manages the bar, working adeptly with seasonal, house-infused ingredients, uncommon spirits and imagination.
First cocktail experience “I was introduced to the scene working at The Libertine. Watching (bar manager) Ben Bauer, I was like, ‘Oh damn, this is amazing.’ I had just turned 21, and we would always go to Sanctuaria late night. My first cocktail there was a brandy Old-Fashioned. I realized that booze isn’t just there for you to get your buzz on, but is amazing when it’s balanced and well done.”
What she drinks at home “It’s not very classy, but I can knock back Miller Lite.”
What makes a good drink “Balance. I like there to be umami in cocktails – where the flavors are savory but also tart. You find the right ingredients that will sit well on the palate. My favorite drink on the menu right now is The Professor. It’s plum-infused rum with amaretto and absinthe, bitters and lemon juice.”
beverage supervisor // the preston
Hotel bars are not widely known for high-quality bar programs – no one is running to the Motel 6 for happy hour. Thanks to Element and Central Table veteran Sasha Alms, you won’t find sad-sack business travelers slamming bad vodka tonics at The Preston. Instead, Alms serves familiar and approachable cocktails alongside intriguing libations for the more adventurous drinker.
Favorite original cocktail “The Smokey and The Bandito on the menu now. It has smoked poblano peppers blended into tequila, Ancho Reyes (a chile liqueur), lime juice and agave with a smoked sea salt rim and caramelized lime wheel garnish. It’s unusual. I’m a fan of savory cocktails.”
Bottle of inspiration “The local spirits scene is inspiring. At Big O Ginger Liqueur, the family comes together to make every batch. They peel and chop ginger together.”
What it takes to be successful “Be a gracious host. I joke that I’m the host of my own party behind the bar. I’m going to take care of you, and you’ll have a good time. You could be at a place that serves stale popcorn and cheap beer and still everyone has a good time if you show them a good time.”
bar manager // planter's house
You could call it the house that Ted built, and you’d be right, but Planter’s House is staffed to the hilt with talented, creative and truly professional bartenders besides co-owners Ted and Jamie Kilgore. Among them is Kate Kinsey, whom Jamie has called “a quiet storm.” Kinsey’s refined palate and knack for catching on got her second place in a national cocktail competition at the Tales of the Cocktail conference in New Orleans this year.
Cocktail she’s most proud of “I like drinks that are more creative and use ingredients or flavors that are out of the norm. I did a drink on the menu last year where I infused añejo tequila with pickling spices called Are You Pickle-ish. It also had a nectarine shrub, Calvados, Gran Classico and lemon juice.”
Growing tastes “I’ve always been interested in new flavors or things that aren’t readily available. I started gardening 15 or 20 years ago because I would hear about herbs or vegetables but couldn’t find them anywhere, so I decided to grow them myself.”
What it takes to be successful “You have to have empathy for the guest that goes beyond asking how they’re doing. It’s about making the experience about them, not about you. You have to have awareness of your surroundings and multitask. It helps to like people.”
bar manager // público
Slinging drinks at a James Beard Foundation Award semifinalist restaurant could make a barman the king of Pretentious-ville, but not Nick Digiovanni. After cutting his teeth at Eclipse’s rooftop bar, he brought a serious sense of balance and knowledge of the fundamentals to Público. But his secret ingredient is fun, offering a laid-back menu that keeps thirsty cocktalians coming back for more.
Favorite spirit right now “Foursquare Rum out of Barbados. They don’t add sugar or caramel color post-distillation, so the depth of flavor is purely from aging. The 9-year is one of my favorites. It ages for three years in a bourbon barrel and six in a port cask. I drink it neat as a sipper.”
Don’t be a know-it-all “Spirits knowledge is super important. You need to be able to not only relay that information, but relay it in terms a guest can grasp. We have a depth of knowledge – you may not mean for it to come across as pretentious, but it can.”
Bottom line “Be fun. That’s why people want to sit at the bar. (Or) maybe it’s someone who wanted a table, but we’re booked so they’re already bummed. Make the experience that much better.”
bar manager // taste
At an institution like Taste, expectations are high. Now at the helm of this boozy ship is David Greteman, who, after working under former bar manager Kyle Mathis for two years, transitioned into his current role this year. With a penchant for perfection and equal love for a bitter aperitif and a sweet tiki tipple, Greteman uses familiar and obscure ingredients that intrigue and inspire.
Bottle of inspiration “I like everything St. George Spirits does. They’re doing their own bitter contratto-like aperitif called Bruto Americano. It has a Campari vibe, but way more bitter with an earthiness like Zucca or Cynar. It’s very complex, so it’s not blowing your mouth out with bitterness. I drink it over ice with club soda.”
If he couldn’t tend bar“I’d try to focus on shoemaking. I did an apprenticeship in Hungary under a master and certified shoemaker. I’d love to sit in a workshop and sew shoes all day. There are levels you achieve in shoemaking. Right now, I’m a level three, and my teacher was like a level 27 or something. It’s the craziest thing when you put on a pair of shoes you made yourself.”
What he’s learned “I’ve learned to be patient. I’m obsessed with details, so when the shit hits the fan and I’m facing down 15 tickets, I’m like, ‘The world is over.’ Kyle was really great at instilling that it will all work out and reach an equilibrium.”
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