Edible Drinks: Bar Belles

Photos by Michael Piazza

My love of whiskey cocktails came to me via my mother, and her mother before her. In fact, my yearly whiskey-based holiday punch is always served in my great-grandmother’s hand-painted punch bowl, so maybe the inspiration reaches back even further than that. Kirsten “Kitty” Amann and Misty Kalkofen’s new cocktail book, Drinking Like Ladies, uses classic cocktail recipes to delve into the history of women behind the bar. I asked Kitty and four other women bartenders in Boston to develop a holiday cocktail using a locally made spirit. The resulting recipes, and conversation, serve as further inspiration.

Edible Boston: We’re interested in learning more about your path to becoming a bartender in Boston, and what attracted you to this industry.

Kitty Amann: Like many, I came to this industry out of necessity, and stayed for the fast money and amazing, eclectic people I met: This community is creative, artistic, entrepreneurial and loves great food and wine. I’ve always written about cocktails—both freelance and through a blog. This culminated in the release of my book, Drinking Like Ladies, with Misty Kalkofen.

Gwen Hagerty: My first step in cocktailing was at a big bar in midtown Manhattan, but it’s a competitive, experience-driven market, so I moved back home to Boston and bluffed my way through until I could move on to more cocktail-driven bars. To this day, I wonder if this will be the day I’m found out for a fraud, but it hasn’t happened yet! I’m about to open Shore Leave, a new tiki bar in the South End, as the general manager.

Cairo Kironyo: I always knew that I wanted to be behind the bar. I loved watching the flare and the energy the bar team would bring every night. When I was finally put on the bar, I made a promise to myself that I would soak up any knowledge, tips and tricks along the way, which helped me grow tremendously as a bartender.

Bonnie Nag: I’m from Southern California and moved to Boston for school, where I worked at restaurants until I graduated. I have managed full-time, but missed the social interaction of bartending. At Trina’s Starlite Lounge, I’m lucky to do both.

Nika Orlovsky: I fell in love with the industry and its welcoming community because of the level of service provided by amazing woman bartenders like Ezra Starr and Josey Packard. My cocktail searches led me to The Baldwin Bar, where owner Ran Duan helped me to get my foot in the door of this industry. Through his, and others’, encouragement and training, I truly found my place.

Tell us about your cocktail. What goes into developing a cocktail, and what tips do you have for holiday entertaining with cocktails?

Gwen: I find a simple Old Fashioned so satisfying at this time of year, so for my Argilla Road cocktail, I started with Privateer Navy Yard Rum, which drinks like a whiskey. I experimented with different brands of vermouth and tweaked the ingredients until the balance felt right—nothing should dominate.

Nika: I personally prefer low-alcohol, sherry- or amaro-based stirred drinks. The Farmer’s Armagnac is light, slightly sweet and a bit savory—it would be a perfect accompaniment to oysters!

Bonnie: The neutral flavor of vodka is a perfect blank slate, so for The Apple Cart I started with an infusion of apple and vanilla. I cooked the apples to really bring out that baked pie flavor. From there, it’s about balance with simple syrup, lemon, herbaceousness and spice. It’s a perfect choice for cocktail hour.

Cairo: I bartend at Lolita Cocina & Tequila Bar in the Back Bay, and noticed that we always have delicious pork fat left over at the end of service. For my cocktail, Where’s the Bacon?, I wanted to use that ingredient to eliminate waste while creating flavor for a delicious winter cocktail. It’s a savory and festive drink, with sweet yet smoky flavors, and some lemon juice to balance it all out. It’s easy to drink—I know you will have more than one!

Kitty: My cocktail, The Mischievous Lady, was developed by Jemima McDonald of Earl’s Juke Joint [in Australia] to honor jazz musician Melba Liston, and is featured in my book. Developing a great drink is about balance, and I like a cocktail with three to five ingredients. In yoga we say, “trust the practice”—the idea that even simple movements have positive effects. The same is true for simple, accessible cocktails.

Cairo: I love to use a gorgeous tray as part of my display when entertaining for the holidays. Display your beautiful antique coupes, and small bowls for garnishes, with candles and small sprigs of rosemary and cranberries too.

Gwen: My biggest tip for holiday entertaining is keep it simple! For example, my recipe could be pre-batched for easier service at home. Spend the time with your guests, not at the bar!

Kitty: Batch your cares away! For any party, making your drink in volume is a must.

Nika: Agreed—enjoy your holiday too! I also encourage you to pre-batch the ingredients for my cocktail, so you just need to chill, stir and pour.

More women than ever are exploring the art of cocktail making, especially with spirits that were considered more masculine in style, like whiskey. Does having a woman behind the bar encourage female patrons to try new things?

Bonnie: This is the era of the whiskey woman. And I see men sipping on more delicate cocktails, so taste is becoming less about gender and more about individual palates. Our guests are very adventurous and ready to try things without the rigidity of gender norms.

Gwen: When it comes to whiskey, I’m very comfortable encouraging my ladies out into the fray!

Cairo: I have been seeing more women behind the bar, which is amazing! I love how social media has brought attention to the women responsible for these stunning and delicious cocktails you see online. Having a woman behind the bar can feel more inviting to all guests, and can encourage female patrons to try cocktails they normally would steer away from.

Nika: As a patron, my best experiences were with exceptional female bartenders. I feel like it is a great personal success that the community I love is circling back and excited to talk with me about what I now know. All guests can order a certain liquor out of habit, when the style of cocktail could be made with a variety of spirits, so truly listening makes my guests feel more comfortable ordering new things.

Kitty: People have ridiculous narratives in their minds and I’ve heard them all—only men drink red wine, women don’t like bitter flavors. A good bartender will always meet the guest where they are and coax him or her away from preconceived notions. That’s just good service! Representation matters. Seeing a fellow female try a strong spirit can definitely inspire women to go there, too.

How are women bartenders helping to evolve the bar scene in Boston?

Bonnie: There are so many inspiring female bartenders who are opening doors and creating balance in our community. As a place for people to socialize and connect, our industry is at the forefront of making guests feel safe, comfortable and happy.

Gwen: Women bartenders help to evolve the scene by simply being there, and getting the respect they deserve in our community. But we need more women in leadership roles, on and off the bar. Because there are so many more male bartenders and managers, we need to look a little harder and champion for less-represented segments of our community.

Kitty: I can tell you from researching my book that women have been evolving the art of the cocktail since Boston opened its first ordinaries and taverns four centuries ago. Women have been involved in this industry since the jump—they just happen to have been written out of the history. So while women are doing remarkable things to evolve the industry, it’s also accurate to say that women are simply doing exactly what they’ve always done behind the bar.

Nika: Constant and continued exposure is the biggest gateway to further growth in our industry. Being a woman behind the bar certainly has its struggles, but I think that makes us the strongest voices to clearly advocate and stand up for those who have an even harder fight in society. The more welcoming we are, the more well-rounded, safe and accepting our wonderful cocktail community will become.

Cairo: When it comes to women of color behind the bar, I rarely see it. I would love to see a more diverse bar staff emerge in the Boston area.

Gwen: Everyone deserves to enter a space, see folks they identify with and feel at home.

This story appeared in the Winter 2019 issue.

Together with her husband, TJ, Hadley Douglas is the owner of The Urban Grape, a groundbreaking and popular wine, craft beer and spirits store in Boston’s South End, and the author of Drink Progressively, A Bold New Way to Pair Wine with Food. The official “voice” of The Urban Grape, Hadley translates wine speak to UG’s customers in a clear, fun and vibrant way through her popular newsletters, blog and social media accounts. And while she may have written a book about wine, Hadley never says no to a good cocktail.