Three competitors in, an ebullient Emily Baker stepped up to the bar at last summer’s Northwest Spirits and Mixology Show as the newbiest of newbie bartenders. A bit nervous, she worked to create her Mexican Circus Tiger for our panel of judges – some of the finest spirits folks in the country – regaling us with the tale behind the drink’s name. Only a few months into her bartending career, she was competing against four other mixers from Portland to Vegas, but it only took one sip of her cocktail to know that we had the winner in front of us. “Baker, Baker, Drink Maker” had made her competition-sweeping debut.
From graphic design to drink slinging, the budding bartender began her tin-shaking at Portland’s renowned, craft-cocktail-heavy Beaker & Flask before moving on to B&F’s next door neighbor, the fabulously rum-centric Rum Club. Next week, she’ll continue her winning streak as she helps to manage the opening of Riffle NW, a “catch-inspired” restaurant located in the city’s Pearl District, where owners Ken and Jennifer Norris have assembled a crack team including Beverage Director David Shenaut and Chef de Cuisine Joseph Cefalu.
Despite the city’s anticipation for the new restaurant, Baker, effervescent and always down-to-earth, isn’t the least bit nervous about her new role…
Q: How did you wind up behind the bar?
A: I was a corporate graphic designer for Nike, and it was just not working for me. I was at a meeting once, and I looked around at the room of people, and even though they took really good care of me, I realized it just wasn’t what I wanted to be. The day I did that, I called my Dad, who’s a chef, who said he had never been more proud of me than that day.
After that, I was a barista for a bit, which is what I did in college – my only other skill, really. One day, I had a few drinks at Beaker and Flask and talked my way into a job. Did a stage, won over the kitchen staff, which is what my father told me I really had to do. I started as a food runner, and then moved to hosting, and during my weekend shifts, I noticed that people would stay longer if I offered them a post-dinner drink, so I got really good at the cocktail menu. David Shenaut was the bartender at the time, so we’d coordinate on the drinks he wanted to make, and the drinks I was pitching. One day, he was really busy, and he asked me to shake a tin for him. He was impressed with my shake [laugh] and asked if I would be interested in training as a bartender. Of course, I said yes.
So I started coming in to watch and learn, and then come behind the bar to practice. And then somehow, someway, I weaseled my way behind the bar, and all of a sudden, I’m a bartender at one of the best cocktail bars in the city.
Mike Shea was building Rum Club at the time, and he would come over to have a drink, saw what I was like behind the bar, and offered me a shift. Early on, he had to go in for appendix surgery, and I saw that things needed to be done, so I did them. And when he returned to work, I was promoted to bar manager.
Q: Any aspects of bartending that have been difficult? Drinks you’re not a big fan of?
A: Tiki drinks are really hard for me. I personally don’t have much of a sweet tooth so it’s hard for me to remember cocktails that I wouldn’t drink myself. Cocktail drinks in general are difficult for me – I love them, I appreciate them – but I’m a beer girl. I think the easiest drink for me to make is anything with tequila. It was the first spirit I fell in love with. Back in 2010, at the first Portland Cocktail Week, Dave suggested I go to a lecture with Ron Cooper, owner of Del Maguey. It was the first time I realized that someone could really love something food/drink-based. I didn’t get it. I was a vodka soda or Coors Light girl. I was so inspired by that. So I went to Mexico for three weeks and learned more about it. Whether good or bad, I’ll always prefer working with agave spirits.
I still have yet to make a Long Island Iced Tea.
Q: What do you love about being behind the bar?
A: The people. I talk a lot, and I’m very social. It was a void that I didn’t know I had to be filled. When I was sitting in a cubicle, I didn’t know. But I have to talk, I want to know about people, I want to know about their day. When I ask, I mean it. I like remember names and what they drink. I really love when someone takes a taste of a cocktail, and they’re like, “Yep! That’s it.” It’s that little eyebrow raise. I live for that.
It’s a creative outlet. I’ve been creative forever, and cocktails, for me, are about creativity. It’s fun, it’s instant gratification.
Q: What’s your signature cocktail?
A: It’s probably the ‘Mexican Circus Tiger.’ [laugh]
I had only been bartending for two or three shifts when the [Northwest Spirits and Mixology Show] competition came up. I had just came back from Mexico, and while I was there, I met this guy who was missing the end of his finger. He had been drunk at a Mexican circus, and wanted to get close to a couple of tigers in cages. He went up to one, and was able to pet it, but when he moved to the second, it bit the tip of his finger off. Instead of going to the doctor, he just poured tequila on it. And he told me this story while we were drinking palomas, so it’s a bit of a riff on a paloma. Grapefruit and lime and mezcal, because it’s delicious.
It was the first drink I had ever made up. And of course, winning that competition gave me that initial boost of confidence, you know. It helped me think, I do belong behind the bar at Beaker, I do belong behind the bar at Rum Club, and I can handle opening a new bar.
Q: Tell me about Riffle. What’s it like to be working with David again?
A: Well, Dave is Shenaut-be-won, and I’m the padawan. It’s never been a secret that he’s taught me 99% of everything I’ve learned. I’m really appreciative and grateful that he took the time to give me a new career – I’m not sure he realizes that’s really what he did. So I was excited to work at Riffle before I knew how awesome Riffle really was. I have so much more to learn, and the team that he’s assembled, which includes [former Teardrop Lounge bartender] Ricky Gomez – how can I not want to work with those people? I’m really appreciative that I was offered the position. It wasn’t handed to me on a silver platter, I still had to prove myself to Ken and Jen, I still had to be up to snuff with everyone else at the bar. Luckily, they saw past the hurdle that I frequently encounter – the lack of time I’ve spent behind the bar – and recognized that I do have the skill, the talent, the hard work that really plays into being in bar management. Dave’s the idea guy, Ricky’s the creative guy, and I do the business stuff. But I like that.
Riffle is everything I could hope for and more. It’s catch-inspired seafood. Taking the best ingredients, building a very open and honest kitchen. They’re giving a lot of credence to the bar, which I think is awesome. It’s seafood, and there’s a lot of ice involved, so we’ll have an ice program, which I think will be one of the best in the city. Their philosophy is that there isn’t a front of the house and a back of the house – everybody’s on the same team. Everybody’s learning. I’m excited to be behind a bar where I can really throw myself into it. I have a lot to learn. Pairings, new ingredients. It’s going to be white spirits focused, which is new for me, but it’s going to be amazing.
Riffle NW makes its grand debut on May 15, with a handful of preview dinners prior to opening its doors.
Curious about the Northwest Spirits and Mixology Show? Join in for two days of spirits tasting and showcasing when it returns to Bend, Oregon this summer on June 23 and 24.