How Does One Learn to Build a Better Bar, Especially a Cocktail Bar in Cleveland? 

The Spotted Owl's Will Hollingsworth went to New York to find out

We know how chefs learn. They go to culinary school to learn the fundamentals. Or don't. Either way, young cooks start out as grunts, working their way up from the bottom rung, with steps along the way like prep cook, line cook, sous chef and, hopefully, executive chef. The best are passionate sponges, eager to work for free in top kitchens around the globe just for the experience.

But how do bartenders learn? It sure as hell isn't by calling 1-800-BARTEND.

That was the question Will Hollingsworth found himself pondering when he realized that the bar he'd spent years planning and opening was not the bar he found himself operating. The Spotted Owl, on paper, was to be a neighborhood bar. The Spotted Owl, in reality, had become a cocktail bar.

"At no point in all my planning did I intend to open a cocktail bar," Hollingsworth explains. "But when we opened people spoke immediately and very loudly that they wanted a contemporary cocktail bar."

In place of an easy mix of beer, wine and cocktails, the drinks that Spotted Owl customers were ordering almost exclusively came from the small menu of contemporary cocktails Hollingsworth had concocted. Largely self-trained, Hollingsworth suddenly felt, well, inadequate.

"If we're now going to be a cocktail bar, then we're going to be the best cocktail bar in the city," Hollingsworth said of his Tremont gem. And to accomplish that, he knew he had some work to do. "I needed to go see it done at the highest possible level. I wanted to calibrate my instruments."

To do that, he wanted to secure a stage at a top New York bar. While long a common practice in the culinary world, stages only recently have become a fixture in the upper echelons of the mixology profession. Hollingsworth reached out to friend and former Cleveland bartender Nathan Burdette who, as brand ambassador for Remy Cointreau, calls on accounts from California to the East Coast.

"We all know about staging as bartenders because the community is so tight," Burdette explains via phone from San Francisco. "There are people doing crazy things all over, from Houston to Seattle to New York, so staging is the best way to assimilate all that into your brain so that when you open your own place you're not just pulling from what you've learned."

Using social media, Burdette played matchmaker, saying little more than "Hey, there's this great guy from Cleveland eager to learn." The response was immediate and extraordinary; Hollingsworth pretty much had the pick of the litter. He cherry-picked the Dead Rabbit, a 2-year-old bar in Lower Manhattan that earned the title World's Best New Cocktail Bar.

"I felt like I was a pitcher on a farm league team and I got asked to go to spring training with the Yankees," Hollingsworth said when the guys from Dead Rabbit agreed to take him in.

That's not hyperbole. For a taste of the paradigm-shifting mixology taking place at Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry's Dead Rabbit, consider the cocktail menu. More graphic novel than bill of fare, the hardbound volume tells the fictional story of Lewis Morris Pease, a Protestant minister who comes to New York in the mid-1800s, through cocktails, art and prose. In all there are 64 original cocktails, broken up by four seasons of Pease's time spent in Five Points.

In charge of Hollingsworth's edification at the Dead Rabbit was Jillian Vose. Over the course of 12 years in the business, Vose has worked her way up from food runner to server to bartender at a dive bar to bartender at a great bar to head bartender at the "best bar in the world."

Of her bar's stage program, she says via phone from New York, "It's strictly for people we know. Or the friend of a friend. Or if you're super-enthusiastic about it like Will." The value goes both ways, she adds. "It's sometimes good for our staff to think about things more when you're teaching other people."

Vose tailored Hollingsworth's program to suit his particular needs; as an owner rather than employed bartender, she thought, he'd benefit from a wider picture. While there, he spent a day with the prep guy, who does nothing but makes juices, syrups, tinctures, infusions and garnishes. The bar explained its proprietary system of labeling, storing and rotating product. Time was spent working alongside the barbacks, whose job it is to set up the incredibly elaborate mise en place. And finally, Hollingsworth worked with some of the best bartenders on the planet, including Vose, who teaches that "for every motion behind the bar, you have to ask yourself what is the point? Every drink is a puzzle, every round is a puzzle. Our goal is to be as fluid and efficient as possible."

Hollingsworth returned home with a better-equipped toolbox — any one of those new tools a potential game-changer, he says. "It might have been the simplest goddamn thing in the world, but it was efficient, beautiful, elegant. There was technical, practical, cultural stuff, like what it means to be a part of that professional class of bartenders. You don't get better through concepts, through branding and marketing, through gimmicks and promotions. You get better only through doing the work.

"It was scary, but I didn't feel inadequate," he adds. "And I came back thinking we're playing the same game; I belong here."

And thanks to Hollingsworth's time spent in New York, the entire Cleveland cocktail scene stands to benefit, argues Burdette.

"For Clevelanders it means opening the doors to new trends, because Will is looking outside the box for new products, looking to see what else is going on," he says. "He's bringing that back to us, which in turn will help elevate the craft in Cleveland even higher."


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