Behind the Bar with Nadia Womble and Emily Morton
Behind the Bar: Sas Talks Shop with Bar Managers Nadia Womble and Emily Morton
Sas sat down with two of Vermont’s leading lady bar managers, Nadia Womble of Waterworks Food + Drink and Emily Morton of Deli 126, to dish about the industry, from the trends that are on their way in to the ones that can’t go away fast enough, to the kind of behind-the-bar culture they cultivate as women leaders in what can be a very dude-centric booze world. The interviews have been lightly edited and condensed.
What was your first taste of the restaurant or bar industry? How have you gotten from there to where you are now?
Nadia: When I was in high school I worked at a water park and I was a cabana server, so that was the first time i had a chance to wait on tables. It definitely got my foot in the door, because then when I went to apply at Pizzeria Verità I got a job. I started bussing there for 2-3 years before I finally started serving. That was my first peek into the fine dining industry, craft cocktails, and it was on a much smaller scale than what I’m working with now, but it was definitely where my roots are from.
[My transition to behind the bar] was gradual. I started serving, I was working there a lot and I was very close with the owners and they liked to take care of me like I like to take care of my staff moving forward. There was a lot of transition going on behind the bar, and they asked me if I would be interested in doing this. And I’d never bartended in my life but I was interested, and I said yes, if you’re willing to train me and to bring me on. And then I found a little passion for myself that I didn’t know existed.
Emily: In 2011 I moved back from Virginia and my sister was managing Mexicali in Williston, so I got a job serving there, and then started bartending there as well. It was very old school in some ways but new school in other ways. It was like margaritas with sour mix, but we were using Sauza and Hornitos and some of the 100% agave spirits, and we still made the sour mix from scratch, it wasn’t from a gun, and I could defend that bar program. I learned a lot about tequila, and working there is how I learned how to bartend, not from the liquids standpoint, but it was super high volume there, and I learned how to take orders without writing anything down, and how to 27 things at once, being able to schmooze a guest while also doing other things. Not necessarily a lot about the kind of bartending I’m doing now, but that’s where I learned how to be a good service person.
How does that contrast with where you’re at now?
Emily: While I was at Mexicali, I did a lot of “craft cocktail” bartending, on my own time, doing a lot of research. And when Waterworks opened I was super excited to have gotten the job there and I worked super hard. One of the bartenders there took me under his wing and was basically a drill sergeant and was like, this is how you do this kind of bartending, and learn it or get the eff out of here. Working really hard that first three months at Waterworks, I was like, this is what I want to do.
Everything is so dynamic in this industry, I’m always learning something, there’s always something new, there’s always something different you could be doing. So now, I’m doing Deli, and so much of that bar obviously is the curated cocktail list, but it’s also the curated experience of being there, and that was really inspired by that. Mexicali plus Waterworks equals Deli. Every cocktail has a 1920s spirit in it, with the exception of two. Every seat in the place is oriented in a certain way on purpose. We tried to be really purposeful and really curated with how we opened that bar. Because people come in and they feel at home and they feel like they’re having a good experience. The drinks are good, the music’s good, the place is good, and so therefore my experience is good.
I try to foster a team at Deli that’s super supportive, super creative, it’s really challenging to do that as the manager, because you’re parenting 12 adult people, which is really hard sometimes, but it’s really worth it in the end because our staff has really taken on that curated experience for themselves and that’s so heartwarming.
You had the privilege of opening a brand new bar, which most people can't say they've done. Can you walk us through what that’s like for you?
Emily: We literally walked into an empty room that was originally an office building. And we had to make it feel like a 1920s jazz lounge. But we didn’t want it overdone. We want little touches of things. And I think that really came through in the bar program. We have like 33 cocktails. It’s crazy. It’s a lot. Part of that is there’s something for everyone, and every time you come there’s something new, whether it’s actually new or you just didn’t notice it before, there’s always something that’s different.
Opening a fresh program, I really wanted to focus on those 1920s spirits, fortified wines, ports, sherries, some of the older style rums, some of the older style whiskeys. Gin’s come a long way so finding a 1920s gin, no one wants to use that. It’s awful. But still trying to get that feel without being like no, I’m not giving you that crap. So that was huge, to be able to say, this is what I want, and I want to use fresh juice, I want to use good ice, I want to use good tools, and I want to set the bar up as efficiently as possible. Because that’s my MO. Efficiency and speed while not compromising the actual liquid you’re making and the experience you’re providing, that’s the only way to survive this type of bartending. And to have that work out, there’s a little glow of pride, like yes! It worked! And people like it.
I would say it’s been an overwhelming success and really strongly incorporated into the community, how do you feel?
Emily: We’re industry people, me and Jake, we’ve chosen this as our career, our friends are industry people. We wanted a place where industry people could feel safe and comfortable.
That’s why we do specials, like on Sunday $5 Fernet shots, cheap wine pours, and then we have a huge temperence cocktail list because if you’re not drinking, or if you’re recovering, as so many of the people in our industry are, you can still come and enjoy yourself and have a great drink and not feel alienated. The little old ladies who come in and don’t understand why we don’t have chardonnay, and we’re like, “we’re trying to do something a little different,” and they can still feel comfortable and we can still find them something they like. And to be able to have that inclusion on both sides is really cool.
Nadia, Waterworks does hundreds of covers. Can you walk us through what that it's like for you to manage a bar that size?
Nadia: There’s a lot of moving parts to this restaurant. I worked with Sam who was very confident with me, and a very tight bar staff, they’re all phenomenal bartenders. I had a really solid support team to kind of grow into the industry. Even now, managing, there’s never a dull moment. So I just kind of try to stay calm and use the resources I have available. I depend a lot on my staff. I depend a lot on management to keep this program growing and moving in a direction that’s fun and profitable and just a great space to be in.
How many people do you guys seat on a weekend night?
Nadia: I think on average it’s probably around 150-200 covers. There’s nights where we’ve brought in over 400 covers. We work really hard to find those drinks and get them out to the tables as fast as possible. Everyone that works here is talented beyond -- more than they know. I’m impressed with everybody that works here on a daily basis.
It's still early in 2019--any predictions for bar trends we might see this year?
Emily: I think back to simple. We’re taking it back a notch. Vermont kinda missed it a little bit but we got really crazy with, like, edible smoke and crazy syrups made from who even knows what. Some of that’s like, yes, let’s do that, it’s cool, but people are coming back from the showmanship. We’re all doing some cool things, but I do think everyone’s kinda reigning it in a little and back to that, if you use a fresh ingredient, and you use it right, and it’s balanced, it’s just as good as something you’ve put hours and money into. I like the daiquiri principle, a good frickin’ daiquiri will change your world, you know.
I made a temperance cocktail the other day, with pineapple, sage, mint, lime, very garden-fresh, and I was like, hm, this needs a little something, and I put olive juice in it, which, like, olive juice and pineapple?! But it was so good, it got that umami up that you have to get from a weird spirit, and it’s simple and it’s easy and it’s creative and everyone is kinda like, oh, ok, cool. We don’t have to make some crazy thing. Back to simple.
I also think people are back to drinking to be social, and not to get drunk. People go out for a drink, and they’re going to spend the money on something a little more expensive, or they’re going to really research and pick something with the exact thing they want and not be like “just give me a margarita.” And I think that’s a trend, too. Drinking for the experience and not to get drunk.
Nadia: I totally agree with that. We always have people looking for mocktails. [We’re] coming up with a non-alcoholic beverage menu for people who want to imbibe, want to have a fancy cocktail, but they don’t necessarily want to have alcohol included. We try to find a way to make a cocktail that’s approachable to people that they want to order without putting all these weird liqueurs in them. Not weird, but, you know, it’s our job to create something that they’re going to want to drink, that they’re going to enjoy, they’re going to want to spend money on and not shy away from.
Okay, I know there are plenty of cocktail trends out there that we'd like to see go away. What fads or drinks would you be happy to never see or make again?
Emily: I don’t like showy bartenders. I’m really ready for people to take themselves a little less seriously. And some of it’s cool, like some people do crazy flair and you think, maybe I could incorporate that into being more efficient behind my bar, but the whole showy, in your face, I’m like, guys, we’re making drinks for a living. We’re doing a really good job at it, but calm down. I’m proud of what I do but I’m not super showy about it. It’s not a spectacle. It’s a drink. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings by that. But if we all take ourselves a little less seriously we’ll all be a little happier.
Nadia: I definitely hear people order Mai Tais and they’re expecting a sugar bomb, like what they had at that water park ten years ago, I want cocktails to go away from this sugary sweet thing and I think cocktails should be innovative across the board. They should be made with good ingredients, they should be made with fresh juices, and fresh syrups.
I kind of shy away from anything flavored because I shouldn’t need to buy a flavored vodka, like a cucumber flavored vodka, I can just put fresh cucumber in the drink. And that makes a better tasting drink in my opinion. And the world of spirits is so large, to do a spirit with a spice or a special flavor profile, I think that’s awesome to be able to do. I think cocktails should be crafted in a way that give it a little heart. No cutting corners.
What is the way you get to be the most creative in your job?
Nadia: Being the bar manager here has allowed me to have a little bit more say in what kind of cocktails go on the menu but also what kind of spirits we carry, the events that we do. So it’s nice to have the freedom and the creativity to be part of things we normally wouldn’t be a part of. I also have a really large program so when I feel a creative itch to make something new I have so much to work with, and I know a lot of people don’t really have that opportunity, to have shelves of mezcal, and shelves of whiskey and gin, and amaro, that’s something really special and it really adds to my creative profile. Sometimes it’s overwhelming.
It’s also really nice to foster the creativity of other bartenders, especially some of the younger bartenders that we have, because they see us making drinks and they’re like, you made this drink that’s on the menu and it sells really well and I want to do that, too. It’s really nice to be a mentor to some of those bartenders who work here and who’ve never created a drink before and I can teach them what I’ve learned in the past and foster their creativity as well which is something that is really special to me.
How does being a woman give you an advantage in your industry?
Emily: Women, in history and throughout all occupations, always have to balance being taken seriously, balancing sex appeal, because sometimes it helps us and is our advantage, sometimes we feel like it’s to our disadvantage, sometimes we feel that it’s being taken advantage [of], so balancing sex appeal, balancing wanting to be taken seriously, and working really hard.
Also being the most honest sex about, like, I just don’t feel good today. And I think we as women in any industry but especially in our industry, have the opportunity to be honest. When people sit down, and they come up like, and how are you today? and sometimes you have to be like, I’m good, but I’m not great, I got a flat tire on my way here and I’m reminded why I should have paid closer attention when I was 15 and my dad taught me how to change a tire and I kinda didn’t listen, and I’m kinda feeling bad about myself because I’m a 30 year old woman who should probably know how to do this. And it’s funny, that honesty, some people are refreshed by it a little bit.
Similarly, opposite end, when a woman does something really great, frickin’ tell her she’s doing a good job! I don’t feel like we tell each other enough. Like, you’re fuckin’ killin’ it.
Emily, you’re fuckin’ killin’ it.
Nadia: I don’t know if it’s me being a woman, or me being a black woman, I just think that my perspective is different. And I try very hard to use it to my advantage. I think that I connect not only with my employees but also with other management staff in a way that lets me know when things are going on that may have gotten missed previously. I think it’s also an advantage to being a woman that people come in and see, oh, you’re the one that’s in charge here. I’ve had someone say, that’s amazing that someone who looks like you has a position like this. And that’s really empowering.
As far as specific advantages, I’m maybe still seeking those out, but I do realize that I’m in a very special position and I think maybe I advocate for myself a little bit more because of that, because I am a woman that is in a position that normally isn’t occupied by a female, and I’ve given myself a little bit more credit and I feel more empowered and stronger to move forward with ideas or to stop things that I don’t think are necessarily right or efficient. I feel more confident.
I think that’s such a beautiful way of shifting the lenses, to think how you’re viewed as a woman, as a black woman, as something that’s put upon you but it’s also how you view out of that lens, it’s also so empowering. It’s beautiful to see how the lens can go both ways. We don’t often talk about that.
Nadia: That’s why it’s really awesome to be interviewed, it can be spoken about. This role is helping me grow, it’s helping me mature, and it’s helping me see a lot of things that are wrong in the industry in general and things that we need to work on so that we’re all working with equality in the workspace. There’s a whole separate dichotomy between men and women, between guests and employees. It’s like I got a new glasses prescription.
What would you like to see culturally shift in the booze world? Why?
Nadia: I think it’s really cool shifting how we look at how booze is being manufactured and how it affects the communities, the people that work in those industries. I went to the Patron villa two summers ago and I was like, oh, it’s just this expensive tequila, but then I got to see this organic process where they employ 50% of the people in the town where the facility is located, they work very very closely with the mescaleros that grow and harvest their agave, they have programs for the people that work in the facility to go to college. Every hour they stop production so the people on the bottling line can stretch so that they’re healthy. That’s really awesome to see. So maybe not changes in the actual product, but I think it would be really cool to focus on the ways we’re taking care of all the people that put their hands into putting this bottle in our hands. Like, who’s going out and picking all the botanicals for this gin? Where are they coming from? Is it sustainable? A lot of these big companies produce alcohol in such a mass amount that a lot of these issues get lost.
What’s your favorite way to use Stonecutter?
Nadia: I go back and forth between liking the gin or the whiskey more. I taste the gin, and it’s so floral, and it has the waves of flavor coming through, and then I taste the whiskey and oh! This is some of the better whiskey I’ve ever tasted. Which is honestI’m a classic girl, you know, gimlets, collins, old fashioneds, manhattans, those are my go-to because those are all drinks that really highlight the spirit that’s in it. Obviously it’s great to mix and match and do something crazy, but a manhattan with the whiskey is just delicious. Or an old-fashioned where you’re adding just a liiiiittle bit extra, a little bit of sugar, a little bit of bitters, that’s delicious, it still highlights the spirit, you can still taste the spirit but you’ve got yourself a nice cocktail. So, I mean, tried and true.
Or neat, quite honestly. I’ve been steering away from cocktails when I go out to drink and I just drink neat spirits and a beer.
When people ask me the same thing, they’re like, what do you like to do with this when you’re home, and I’m like, I’m a lazy bartender.
Nadia: I’ve been making drinks all night. I stopped making drinks at my house like two years ago. For me, neat is the best way.
Yeah, I’m with you, I’m probably going to do that tonight.
Nadia’s Cocktail: Lover's Quarrel
1.5 oz. Stonecutter Single Barrel Gin
.75 oz. Orleans 'Bitter' Aperitif Cider
.75 oz. hibiscus syrup
.75 oz. fresh lemon
1 egg white
4 drops Hibiscus Extract, as garnish
Emily’s Cocktail: Witchy Woman
2 oz Stonecutter Heritage Cask Whiskey
.5 oz Bodegas Fino Sherry
.5 oz Liquoure Strega
1 barspoon Luxardo Maraschino
5 dashes Bitterman's Tiki Bitters
2 dashes Angostura Bitters
Stir, strain into a Coupe or Nick & Nora, express a lemon twist on top, but discard it. Garnish with one olive on a pick submerged in the cocktail.