Northwest Portland's The Fireside, owned by Lincoln alums Wendy Hessel and Sue Erickson, is fixing to celebrate two years in business this March. So with that milestone approaching, we talked to Erickson about how she went from bartender to restaurant owner. She got her first bar manager gig in the late '90s, at The Log Cabin Saloon in the Wyoming resort town of Jackson. And has been bartending in Portland since 2005 at spots such as Balvo, 23Hoyt, Rocket, the Driftwood Room, Lincoln, Ping, and Grüner — all while earning her BFA in interior design.
The self-described "owner, bartender, bar manager, host, food runner, busser, business manager, and social media non-expert" reflects on her signature drinks, bringing the outdoors in (in terms of decor and concept), and why the most challenging part about creating a new cocktail is naming it.
Tell us about your program. How do you go about directing it and giving it its theme?
We wanted our restaurant to speak to who we are to some extent, and to define a bit of what makes Portland special. We came up, for better or worse, with the concept of "outdoor-inspired" because that's a common thread between the two of us, and also a time when you're apt to be celebrating food and drink. So, what does that mean for cocktails? It just means trying to capture certain feelings (Backyard Grillin' was born at a backyard BBQ at my house), flavors or moods of times spent enjoying friends, enjoying spirits, enjoying life. And all of that is hard to pinpoint, but also easy at the same time. It means it's festive, fun, creative, and evocative of the good times in life.
What's your biggest challenge as a bartender?
There are many challenges, and it depends on your involvement in the bar program. For me these days, it's finding time to be creative, fresh and new, and being able to develop the ideas swimming around my head. Or having time to see what else is going on out there in the cocktail universe. I have to split my time between running a business and being inspired by the rest of the bar community, and playing around with new products, flavors and combinations. So for me, finding the balance in all that is the hardest. But even beyond that it's naming the damn drink! That's the hardest part, honestly!
What's the hardest part of the job? The guests? Having to grin and bear it when you don't feel up to it? Hitting a creative dry spell?
All of the above! Honestly, having to grin and bear it when you don't feel up to it helps pull you out of that "not feeling up to it" mood. Having to interact with people, and be pleasant when you're not having the best of days helps you have a better day...eventually. It can be like therapy sometimes. Difficult people though, regardless of the profession you work in, are difficult people. We've all dealt with them — we've probably even been them once in our own lives. I think if you work in customer service of any kind you've got some story to tell. This industry teaches you tolerance, for sure, but it's also often rewarding on a personal level, and frequently. I truly believe a mandatory restaurant stint, rather than a military-based one, would better serve society. It teaches you so many valuable life lessons.
Creative dry spells happen for sure. That's a good time to spend more time reading new and old recipes, check out what other people are doing, look for new products, make some new products. Sometimes I have to not think about it for a minute to be able to get stoked about being creative. Ideas need time to spontaneously catch fire sometimes.
How'd you get your first break at running your own program, and what did you do to make it yours?
My second bartending gig, I had moved back to Jackson from San Francisco, and I got a job at a resort restaurant. I started as a server and eventually moved my way to bartender, and then bar manager. I had only been there a short time when the bar manager left, but I took over for her when she did. I helped introduce a live three-piece jazz ensemble that played there, and I made some "newfangled" infusions. Ha! This was 1999 in Jackson, Wyoming. People weren't doing that yet. I don't remember where I got that idea from, but it was cutting edge there.
There's a lot of talented bartenders in Portland, and a lot of them are women. Why do you think women sometimes aren't getting the recognition they should be getting? Is it that men are more aggressive when it comes to promoting themselves through contests or social media?
Whoa, you're touching on so many hot topics there! Not getting the recognition they should? Is that because there are more men bartenders than there are women, so they of course get proportionally more attention? Or is it proportional? I'm not sure. Are men more aggressive when it comes to promoting themselves? Or how do their promotions differ from their female counterparts? There are definitely always more men in competitions. Are men, as a generalized whole, more competitive? These are age-old societal questions! I don't know how to answer them, really. In my humble opinion, I would say that from what I've seen, men do tend to be more aggressive in promoting themselves generally speaking. So maybe they get more attention based on that? I'm terrible at self-promotion, so I guess I fit the stereotype. There are some great women bartenders in Portland, though, who get well-deserved recognition, and that is because they put themselves out there.
Do you think women are overlooked when it comes to awarding them the reins to a craft cocktail program?
I don't necessarily think so. Hopefully whoever is hiring is doing a good job in interviewing. I think if you have the experience, know how to present yourself and show a good work ethic that you have an equal chance most of the time. Sometimes it could be to your benefit that you're female because you'll stand out from the crowd of men.
Is this something we have inherited culturally?
Of course we've inherited some of these things culturally, same as we've inherited color preferences culturally, or certain mannerisms. Hopefully we strive to explore beyond these tendencies, and I think you see that's true more and more as we become a culture with an ever-curious and expanding palate. I think a lot of those stereotypes are lessening. Some of them will always hold true, and the reasons for that are great and varied.
Do you think it's harder for a woman to secure a good gig behind the bar at a joint with a craft cocktail focus?
I think there are definitely not as many women looking. I think there should be more women in the field for sure. I would hope that if a bar has a great cocktail program that they don't limit their playing field and discriminate by whether or not you have the same chromosomes. If so, you're just missing out. I think you have the best crew when there's a mix of the two — that way you appeal to more people. It's restaurant basics.
But I think initially it's easier maybe for men to get noticed and get in the game: put on a bow tie, maybe some suspenders, slick your hair back, wax poetic about your love of the Last Word cocktail, be overly serious ... bam! You're in! For women I think it's harder to "look the part," and it's not as second nature to come across as a know-it-all. These are huge generalizations for sure, but I think there's some truth there.
What advice to you have for bartenders just starting out?
Advice for anyone just starting out would be to first and foremost make sure you've got great customer service skills. Anyone can rattle off some random history facts, or talk about their love of this amaro or that whiskey, or perhaps shake your drink rather rhythmically. But few can truly take care of you and provide a (welcoming experience) that you eagerly come back to again and again — all while listening to you turn them on to your new favorite whiskey or amaro.
Also just learn the basics as far as ratios and drink categories. Learn a good sour ratio and you can make a ton of drinks: whiskey sour, gimlet, daiquiri, margarita, fizzes. Know your Manhattan, martini, old fashioned, sazerac. Get your basics down well, and then move onto other things from there. Look at what other people are doing in the community. Be aware of what's going on.
What do you think makes a perfect cocktail?
Perfect is a pretty big word! Perfect would mean different things on different days. It's perfect if it tastes balanced, fits your mood, makes your mouth happy and makes you want another.
Can you provide us with a recipe that people can make at home? On original one of which you're particularly proud?
For a home recipe, I'll keep it simple. We sold a ton of these. It's a pretty big crowd-pleaser.
The Dusty Trail
1 oz. rye whiskey
1 oz. Zwack Unicum
1 oz. fresh lemon juice
1 oz. stout syrup (recipe below)
Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake for about 10 seconds, until condensation forms on the outside of the tin. Strain into a coupe or martini glass. Zest a lemon rind over the top.
Stout Syrup (a simple syrup made using equal parts stout beer and sugar): Open a stout beer and let it sit at room temperature until flat. Combine with equal parts sugar over medium heat just until the sugar dissolves. Don't boil. Stout syrup will keep for several weeks in the fridge.