In the early ‘aughties she was part owner of a nightclub off Hollywood Blvd at a time when the red ropes were clicking, and the Cristal was flowing. She returned to bartending in 2009 working at Hollywood cocktail bars including Three Clubs and Grandpa Johnson’s.
She's currently consulting, bartending and creating cocktail menus at Catch One a multi-faceted entertainment establishment in the heart of Los Angeles. The space opened as a Dancehall Super Club in the 1940s.
When did that Eureka moment happen when you realized your mission is to be a bartender?I think it was when I realized that I love going to work. There is no better feeling than when you are in the weeds, and the whole bar team is grooving like a well-oiled machine. And I am in awe of ‘Bartender Claire’. She’s always cheerful, she can find all kinds of things to talk about with people she’s never met before. She’s so confident and outgoing, the life of the party!
Out from behind the bar I can be a lot quieter and even shy in some situations. I enjoy the outlet bartending gives and how it enables the extroverted side of myself. Beyoncé talks about her struggles with stage fright and how she created an alter ego whom she calls Sasha Fierce. She becomes Sasha in order to perform. Bartender Claire is my Sasha Fierce and I just adore her.
What are the TOP 5 skills every bartender should have?1. An understanding of hospitality is the number one skill in my book. People go to bartenders; they don’t go to bars. The experience they have with you determines whether they will come back.
2. When you work at a bar, particularly one that has programming, you are the most effective form of marketing and promotion. Talking to your customers about upcoming events, be it an upcoming band that will be playing, or a weekly Tiki night, is invaluable to your bar. Especially if you are trying to build regulars. Social media is useful, but nothing beats a personal invitation. A great bartender knows this and will make an effort to inform themselves on upcoming features and events.
3. Every Bartender should know the old and modern classics. More people are drinking Old Fashioneds, Negronis, Manhattans and Daiquiris in recent years, and that trend his very much here to stay. But more importantly once you have the techniques and ratios of the classics down, you can begin tweaking and creating your own original cocktails.
4. Which leads me to the next essential skill set – your arsenal of unique libations. It’s a wonderful thing when a customer knows exactly what they want, but most people don’t always know what and it’s your job to guide them. Then the next time you get the “Surprise me” request, rather than dread, you’ll feel joy. It’s time to showcase your creation.
5. Finally, maintaining your composure is really important. Every bartender will hit overwhelming moments. Whether it’s a frustrating or rude customer that upsets you or you find yourself in the weeds when you weren’t expecting it.
I see a lot of bartenders that try to power through and just get more and more flustered. It’s best to walk away for a few minutes, if you can, and shake it off. When you return you’ll be more focused and it’s a better experience for everyone. As a bartender, you must be the one in control.
Which cocktail is the biggest pain in the ass to make, pardon our French?I’ve been bartending for a couple of decades at this point, and even now I don’t love to make layered shots – I’m looking at you B-52! At the time these were most popular, bar tools were scarce. When someone would order a B-52 or a Slippery Nipple you would have to hunt around the bar to find a spoon. Then, if you don’t get the pour right over the spoon it’ll all mix together and there is no saving it. I rarely get asked for them these days, thank goodness!
And which cocktail is served in your version of heaven?For me, a cocktail is not just a cocktail it’s an experience. My idea of heaven is walking into the now-passed Brown Derby, and ordering their signature cocktail The Brown Derby made just the way it was back in Old Hollywood, maybe Cary Grant is sitting next to me, sipping on a Manhattan. I like to think that all good drinking holes also go to heaven.
Which drink or cocktail would you say is way underrated? (And a tricky follow-up: Which one is the most overrated?)I think a lot of the retro cocktails are underrated, but for me the Cosmopolitan has gotten a particularly bad wrap. There was a huge backlash towards Vodka-cranberry, or Cape Codder depending where you’re from, as the modern cocktail movement grew. At the height of its popularity there were a lot of bad Cosmos going over the bar that were very heavy in cranberry and triple sec and had no lime in them at all, which messed with the balance of the cocktail.
I’m beginning to see a resurgence of this classic lately which pleases me. I must admit, I can’t wait for the fat-washing of Spirits to pass. Fat washing is a process of infusing alcohol with a fatty or oily substance. When I lift a cocktail to drink it, the aroma of bacon or cheese is just not what I want. The exception to this would be at an event like Cochon 555 or Pig and Punch in New Orleans.
These are charity events whereby culinary experts are challenged to use every part of the pig in the most creative ways. I love bacon as much as the next person – as Vincent Vega would say, “Bacon tastes goooood!” I admire the skill and technique it takes a bartender to fat wash, but at the same, keep your bacon out of my drink!
You come home, slide into something comfortable, and throw yourself on the couch. What's in your glass?It depends, on an average night I will pour a little neat Mezcal and crack an Ace Pineapple Cider or Q Grapefruit as a chaser. But if it’s been a particularly strenuous evening, I’ll make a nice Old Fashioned to take the edge off.
What are the five essential ingredients every booze lover should have in their home bar?Bitters. Every home bar should have Angostura Bitters and Peychaud Bitters at the very least. Orange Bitters would be my next priority. They’re used in a lot of classic cocktails that I love. Once you have those basics, the fun begins in exploring the multitude of bitters that have exploded onto the market in recent years. I particularly like Tobacco Bitters and Mole Bitters. Mixers Mixers have also come a long way in the last few years.
Whereas traditional sodas are designed to drink alone as a non-alcoholic beverage, premium mixers are designed to complement Spirits rather than over-power them. I’ve mentioned Q Mixers a couple times already, and with good reason. It’s rare that a mixer is sweetened with organic agave nectar rather than high fructose corn syrup. So you get a much drier palate.
There’s an old bartender saying you can always add sweetness but you can’t take it away when you are building a cocktail. Q is also far more carbonated than other mixers and I do love bubbles! Ice Ice is often a forgotten character when people are making cocktails. But fresh, quality ice can really change the dynamic of the drink and designing drinks at home.
Size of the cube is key – the larger the cube, the slower it melts which means less dilution in the drink as it melts. There is a great selection of silicone ice cube trays, at the minimum I would suggest large Whiskey cubes and long tall spears, these are the industry standard for highballs.
And if you’re really interested in learning about ice, check out a guy named Camper English, of Alcademics. He knows everything. Modifiers The wonderful thing about modifiers is that you don’t need much in a cocktail to make a dramatic shift from ordinary to fantastic. When you are using ½ oz at a time the bottle will last for quite some time. Over time you can put together quite the collection.
I would start out with a couple of Liqueurs, amari, and syrups and build from there. Organic Mixology is good for Liqueurs; Cocktail & Sons, from New Orleans, makes great component syrups. Garnishes to really experience an at home experience that is on par with a bar cocktail you can’t ignore the garnish. It’s always good to have fresh citrus on hand.
Edible flowers in a cocktail just make me happy. When it comes to garnishes like olives and cherries, again, quality is key. I avoid Maraschino cherries, so many dangerous chemicals in them. Dirty Sue has just come out with Whiskey soaked cherries that are just divine.
Which booze is the most versatile?For me it’s Liqueurs, especially those that play well with all Spirits. I particularly like Pomp & Whimsy for this reason, it’s gin-based liqueur infused with 16 oils and botanicals. Depending on which Spirit you match it with different flavor notes become dominant which is fun. I also love updating the retro cocktails of the 8os and 90s. I’ll use Pomp & Whimsy or OM Meyer Lemon Ginger as a substitute for triple sec.
Is there a favorite life hack you learned at your job?Breath fresheners are the best. Mints and Gum are full of sugar, plus I rarely have them on hand when I need them. Parsley and mint leaves work great, or a wedge of lemon or lime. I’m always holding onto my garnishes too much after a garlicky meal.
What are your passions outside the world of Spirits?In the other side of my world, I am a fine art photographer. I take photos that are reminiscent of the 1920s & 1930s era. Fascination of that time bleeds into my bar life and my love of classic and prohibition cocktails.
What would you be doing if you weren't a bartender?I would be working in event planning. I really enjoy the creativity and logistics of throwing a great party.
Tell us what's your favorite tool of the trade and why.I love a good bar spoon and like to work with multiple spoons at hand. With the environmentally conscious trend away from straws, straw tasting seems wasteful so I’ll use a bar spoon.
With highballs I like to pour the mixer down the spoon handle and I always stir my highballs before they are served. There’s no point taking the thought over ingredients if the two aren’t mixed sufficiently. However, I do steer away from the bar spoons with a fork on the other end, that’s just an accident waiting to happen!
Fast-forward five years. Where do you see yourself?We’re living in strange times and imagining what the hospitality world will look like in 5 years is a lot more hazy than it would have been 6 months ago. But I would like to own a cocktail bar. I’ve been a nightclub owner in the past, which is very intense and I don’t wish to repeat that. I think a welcoming, fun bar would be really cool.
A Genie tells you to pick someone to fix a drink for; dead or alive, real or fictional. Who would it be?Working in Hollywood and Los Angeles in general, there are times when you serve a celebrity, actor or musician. One of my greatest experiences in this realm was with Jack White.
Given that it was a record release event for his band I only made him a couple of Jack and Cokes, he was a pleasure to serve and in lieu of cash, tipped me a baseball card that turned out to be very valuable – Thanks Jack!
He lives in Nashville and, given the opportunity, I would love to take him on a journey of Tennessee Whiskey cocktails, with some Gentleman Jack and Uncle Nearest. I think he’d get a kick out of it.