Recipe for success: 3 career mixologists explain how to make it to the top of this exciting field
Want to shake it up in hospitality? Mixologists, or those skilled at making cocktails and other drinks, get to do just that for a living. What distinguishes those who work from bar to bar, apart from others who are sought after as brand ambassadors and media personalities is a magical brew of skills and personality traits.
Read on for career tips and insights from three of today’s star beverage masters.
CHARLOTTE VOISEY, DIRECTOR OF BRAND ADVOCACY AND PORTFOLIO MIXOLOGIST AT WILLIAM GRANT & SONS, NYC
HC: How did you start your career as a mixologist?
CV: I’ve only ever worked in hospitality and wouldn’t have it any other way. After university, I worked with a wonderful restaurant group managing bars in Spain and Argentina before returning home to London to open and manage a cocktail bar called Apartment 195. I was fortunate to earn a big bartending award early on – competitions can do wonders for young bartenders looking to rise. Now I can use those skills I honed early on in ways that are extremely useful to brands like Hendrick’s Gin and Milagro Tequila.
HC: What attracted you to the profession?
CV: I always loved the pace and passion of this industry. It’s no surprise this industry if full of inspirational, fun people with amazing personalities, which makes work all the more enjoyable. With cocktails specifically, I got drawn to both the creative expression and the instant gratification of serving someone a drink they loved at firs sip – you can see it in their eyes and it’s a special thing.
HC: How important is formal study and degrees to up-and-comers?
CV: Incredibly, still, learning remains very much a mentor/apprentice situation. Mixology is best learned on the job, observing the best, and putting in the practice hours.
HC: Which mixology programs are top notch?
CV: One that stands out is the BAR 5-Day program held once annually in New York City. Another option is to join an excellent bar team at a good bar. Here at William Grant & Sons, we offer many trade activations throughout the year, where aspiring mixologists can come and learn tricks of the trade from our brand ambassadors and distillers.
HC: How important is it to be media-savvy and to compete at industry events?
CV: Being a reliable, interesting and specialized resource for the media very much helps gain exposure for my team and the incredible spirits we work with. Sharing recipes is always a great idea, and I’ve found that competitions keep you on your toes and drive creativity.
HC: What inspires your drink concoctions?
CV: Food, design, places, and travel, new products, other people’s drinks and special occasions all spark ideas for new flavor combinations.
HC: What’s trending in the field now?
CV: It depends where in the world we are. Mezcal and whiskey remain very trendy in cocktails – even Scotches from Speyside with that strong fruit characteristic, like Glenfiddich, lend delicious flavor qualities to cocktails. People seem to be drinking better, understanding well-crafted cocktails more and trusting their bartender to riff off of the classics, which themselves influence a new generation of drinks.
KENT WESTMORELAND, HEAD MIXOLOGIST AT THE COCKTAIL BAR AT WINDSOR COURT NEW ORLEANS
HC: Is mixology a field to consider for career-changers?
KW: It’s my quasi-retirement career. In 2011, I decided to end my career information technology and become a bartender. I was in a position where I could take a smaller income to do something I enjoy.
HC: How did you acquire the skills and knowledge?
KW: I took a six month bartending class, where I learned the basics of making cocktails. It was a foundation.
HC: Are mixology programs worth their salt?
KW: You can only get out of any program what you put it to it. A great program is BarSmarts, sponsored by liquor company, Pernod-Ricard. It’s available online and Advanced, with additional live education and written/practical testing tutorial.
HC: Where or how did you get your start and rise in the field?
KW: My first job was Banquet Bartender at a large hotel, which is the only job worse than cleaning up after elephants. I continued studying cocktails on my own, and joined the local chapter of the United States Bartender’s Guild. I volunteered at the Museum of American Cocktail, entered competitions and networked. I was asked to interview at craft bar in a Renaissance Hotel with more experienced and highly skilled bartenders. My own skills were enhanced by working with them. Later, I was hired by the Windsor Court Hotel (Forbes Four Star). My pattern was the same – I studied, I learned. Six months later, I was promoted to Head Mixologist.
HC: Any big breaks which raised your profile?
KW: In 2015, New Orleans Magazine selected me as Mixologist of the Year. In a city filled with excellent bartenders, that is quite an honor.
HC: What’s the best form of study?
KW: Whatever works for the individual. Apprenticeships are great. Some of the best bars in the world like Cure, Employees Only, and Anvil offer them. Learning from the best in the business can only be very, very good.
HC: How about the soft skills? What are they?
KW: The ability to multi-task is important because there is almost no time when you have no less than six tasks to complete. The ability to remain calm under pressure is key, too. Most importantly, know your basic cocktail formulas. If someone gives you a list of ingredients, you should be able to get lose without the recipe.
HC: What is one of your signature drinks and how was it inspired?
KW: A lot of my inspiration comes from movies, books, music, history and subjects that interest me Our menu previously featured a series of cocktails based on the film Casablanca. Next year, it will feature a series based on Breakfast at Tiffany’s (film and book). Currently, we have six cocktails based on the 1970’s. The break out hit is the “Hotel California.” It consists of Hendrick’s gin, rose water, fresh rasberries, lemon juice, sugar and sparkling rose. Various lyrics of the song inspired the ingredients.
MARIENA MERCER, CHEF MIXOLOGIST AT THE COSMOPOLITAN OF LAS VEGAS
HC: You initially studied chemistry in college. What shifted you towards spirits?
MM: While in school, I was hostessing at a Steakhouse in Las Vegas. It opened my eyes to hospitality and the wine & spirits world and I became fascinated with both.
HC: How did you learn the trade?
MM: I flew out to Tequila in Jalisco, Mexico to study different distilleries. I fell in love with the spirit of Mexico. Back in the states, I was hired to consult at different Tequila bars and forged my unique style of mixology through my love for spirits, flavor and culinary.
HC: What is your role at The Cosmopolitan?
MM: I’ve been here for over six years and currently create for 15 different outlets, as well as oversee the Beverage production kitchen, where all of my syrups, infusions, purees, and garnishes are produced.
HC: What strengths are advantageous in this work?
MM: The two biggest assets in the mixology world are personality and passion. You can’t learn either, but both will propel you in to a world of success. I’m in the school of self-taught, and that’s attributed to my curious approach to life. I’m fascinated by alchemy and history, with an insatiable need to know how things work. I collect knowledge and technique through a visceral approach, so I’m always intrinsically me and not overly influenced by other’s opinions or trends.
HC: What drives your passion for your work?
MM: I love flavor and building flavor and have always had a penchant for the bizarre and esoteric in life. I love discovering new flavor combinations and techniques.
HC: How about the human connection? Is this a vital trait to possess?
MM: At the end of the day, we make drinks and connect with people. Never forget that. Humility and kindness will not go unnoticed.
HC: How do you stay motivated?
MM: Don’t be afraid to be different. Many of my drinks are inspired by memories or personal moments that I want to capture in an experience.
HC: What’s trending in mixology now?
MM: There is such an attention to classic cocktails and respecting the foundation and history of our industry. While I love classics, it’s also exciting to see the amazing creations of daring modern bartenders. My favorite trend is using culinary-inspired ingredients to inject big flavors in to cocktails. Oh, and Sherry, I love Sherry in everything.