For two years now, Michelle Ruocco has been running the bar at The Bent Brick, which has one of the most creatively challenging drink programs in the city: All of the spirits are domestic. That means if you're looking for something that spotlights your favorite imported amaro, you're not going to get it.
Still, Ruocco uses her expertise to improvise on drinks that come close to what you're craving, by making her own liqueurs, vermouths and cordials.
She says she's probably best known for a pair of what she calls her "chain letter" cocktails (meaning her regulars tell their friends, who in turn tell their friends). The first is a flat-gassed tap Old Fashioned (which runs you a mere $5 during happy hour). The other is The Bearded Lady, a salt-and-peppered mix of bourbon and strawberry shrub.
Recently, she shared with us her experiences behind the bar, women's roles in the craft cocktail scene and why some of her Instagram followers assume that she's a man.
Tell us about your program. How do you go about directing it and giving it its theme?
The theme for The Bent Brick's bar program has existed before me and will continue to exist after I leave. It is a completely domestic bar program. That means no imports whatsoever. No Campari, no Chartreuse, no French or Italian vermouth. You get it. It's a real humdinger! Homemade is the name of the game here. I make my own sweet vermouth and amari. I try to make domestic substitutions familiar, but not too similar to their international counterparts, because I'm hoping to introduce guests to ingredients they never knew existed.
What's the biggest challenge as a bartender?
The biggest challenge is keeping everybody (guests, co-workers, bosses, peers) happy while still staying true to yourself and your personal style. Until you own your own place, you are working for someone else and it's very important that they support and understand the direction you want the bar program to go.
What's the hardest part of the job?
The hardest part of my job is avoiding overuse of popular ingredients and doing enough research to make sure I'm not doing something that's already been done to death. It makes it easier not having international spirits, but you still need to stay ahead of the game. My biggest fear is having someone say they've had a similar drink elsewhere, and mine was not as good. Although rejection and failure happens, it's nice to avoid.
How did you get your first break at running your own program, and what did you do to make it yours?
I'm an extremely territorial and outspoken person. In my eyes, ever since I began bartending, when I am the one behind the bar, I'm running my own show. No matter whose drinks I'm making, it's my show. I have trained every bartender that has worked with me to be this way as well. It evokes a certain confidence and guests like to have their drinks made by a confident bartender.
To more directly answer the question, The Bent Brick is the first bar program that has been all mine. I was hired on as the bar manager. It took me about a month to get used to the domestic concept and fully embrace it. Once I did, my first plan of action was to get rid of all of the cocktails that remained from the bar manager before me and completely re-write the cocktail list.
It's kind of a controlling way to go about things, but since the menu changes seasonally, it wasn't too big of a deal. When return guests would ask for their old favorites, I'd say, "Why don't you try this?" I've kept a lot of regulars that way. I know what type of drink experience they are looking for, and I deliver.
I also began to make more infusions and fortifications. Instead of ordering a sweet vermouth from the U.S. that I wasn't completely happy with, I taught myself how to make vermouth. I did the same with amari, liqueurs, and cordials. We have a lovely garden outside of The Bent Brick, so in spring and summer there are plenty of fruits and vegetables to work with. There is also an elderberry bush right outside that I hit up twice a year, once for the flowers and later for the berries.
Shrubs are also a huge part of my bar program. There are just so many options, and they are so versatile. I make enough to have at least three different flavors to offer at any given time.
What do you think makes a perfect cocktail?
Balance, texture, and presentation. The perfect cocktail will take you on a journey. After you smell, sip, and swallow, you should still be detecting flavors and experiencing the drink.
Anna Josephson, the general manager at The Bent Brick, is very honest about cocktail tasting and I always know it's back to the drawing board when I'm told that my drink "tastes like cocktail." That means that it's not interesting. It's one-note. Sure it has the components it should have and it's not repulsive, but there is nothing special about it that makes you want to go back for another sip. The perfect cocktail makes you want to go back time and time again. It's a love affair.
There are a lot of talented bartenders in Portland, and a lot of them are women, but we don't often hear about them. Do you think that women are often overlooked, or do you think they're getting the recognition they deserve?
I think women are getting recognition. I think it's a different type of recognition. My Instagram feed @bigmixshake is very ambiguous and I only post pictures of cocktails. I have had numerous followers call me "man," "bro" and "sir." I don't find it flattering or offensive. I just feel that if these people are into what I'm doing, I must be doing something right.
Plenty of women enter and win contests — although, just like any other type of contest, you never know what politics are at play. It's almost kind of a bummer to me that contests like Speed Rack exist. It's a competition for women created by women, but I feel it would be more fun if men could compete, too.
In my opinion, if we are highlighting women bartenders as a minority in the industry, that's exactly how we will be seen. It's not a professional sport, we are not concerned about upper body mass or one more or one less rib.
Do you think women are overlooked when it comes to rewarding them the reins to a craft cocktail program?
No. If you go into a place and possess all of the qualities they are looking for, whether you are a man or woman will not matter. If you interview well and they tell you to come back for a stage, which is like a "tryout," it's all on you and your abilities as a bartender, not as a man or woman.
Once you have proven your knowledge, technique and leadership ability, whether you are a man or a woman simply doesn't matter. I was in the running for this job alongside some very talented people (one of which was a man). They gave the job to the person who was the most qualified and fit in best with the existing staff.
Every person who is up for this type of job must have the credentials and recommendations necessary. Beyond that, it's pure personality, knowledge, and showmanship.
Do you think we've yet gotten past the old trope that women like sweeter drinks while men prefer whiskey neat?
America is still a bit of a cultural enigma to me. I'm a woman of petite stature and sometimes when I go to a bar, I will ask questions just to see if I'm immediately categorized and steered toward a lighter drink or if the bartender listens to what I'm saying. It's surprisingly about 50-50. This experience has molded the way I go about doing my job.
Personally, I love making a pink drink that will knock your socks off. The Bearded Lady is one of those creations. It's both masculine and feminine (hence the name). With two ounces of bourbon, strawberry shrub, angostura, salt, and black pepper liqueur, it's a pink drink that wins the heart of every man at the bar, and it's a stiff whiskey drink that the ladies order one after the next.
Everything is a matter of personal taste and if someone wants a Lemon Drop, whether it's a man or a woman, I will make them the best Lemon Drop they've ever had.
What advice do you have for bartenders (men or women) just starting out?
Find someone you respect and admire and learn everything you can from them. I have learned a lot through trial and error, books, and failure, but nothing compares to what another person can teach you. It provides a different perspective.
And don't let anybody break your spirit. If you want to be a badass bartender, you will be. Just be ready to do the work.
The Bent Brick's Old Fascist
Makes 1 serving
One bar spoon simple syrup
½ ounce Underground (herbal spirit from UT)
2 ounces Buffalo Trace bourbon
3 dashes Reagan's Orange Bitters
5 dashes homemade Cinnamon Raisin Bitters (see below)
Combine ingredients in a mixing glass with ice. Stir, strain over a large cube in a highball glass. Garnish with a twist of orange peel expressed over the drink.
Cinnamon Raisin Bitters
In a quart mason jar, add 8 cinnamon sticks, 1/2 cup raisins, 1/8 teaspoon dried gentian root. Fill jar with Old Mill Gold Rum and let sit 2 months, shaking once daily. Use as needed and continue to replace rum.