Freda Horton has a complicated relationship with consistency. In many ways, the 53-year-old is hard-wired to embrace the new: She’s moved close to a dozen times; worked jobs as a mortgage broker, hairdresser, cosmetologist and mixologist; her thick, black ponytail was once a mohawk. She’s been divorced. And she won’t let you order the same drink twice, unless it’s one of her famous Martinis.
And yet, Horton is nothing if not predictable. For 13 years, she’s been behind the bar at Gossip Grill, one of Southern California’s two lesbian bars, greeting guests (and their dogs) by name, no matter what kind of a day she’s had. Aside from her Gossip family, there are several permanent fixtures in her life: She’s always loved bold Napa reds, always rocked lash extensions and acrylic nails, and always played the role of caretaker.
As the daughter of a military officer, her childhood could easily have been chaotic. Born in Seoul, South Korea, she spent her teenage years in Frankfurt, Germany, throwing back Bindings at local beer halls. In between, there were stints in Hawaii, Alabama and the Tennessee-Kentucky border. When the family moved from their cosmopolitan German city to a small, conservative town in Idaho, Horton’s life as a queer, interracial young adult was turned upside down. But through it all, it was her dad who instilled shreds of regularity by designating Sunday as their “date day”—a time for the two of them to indulge their love of books, art and good food, no matter what else the week had wrought.
“I think that’s where my love for being a bartender came from, because of all the different cuisines and palates that he introduced me to on those dates,” Horton says, perched on one of the wooden swings on Gossip’s outdoor patio. Behind her are the trappings of a legendary women’s bar: hand-painted “My Body My Choice” posters from a recent abortion rally, pink piñatas that read “Cunt,” rainbow everything, a disco ball.
Within San Diego’s queer community, Horton is something of a celebrity. She’s a champion mixologist, winning blue ribbons for her cucumber Martinis with blueberry vodka since her early days of bartending in Oregon. But to Gossip Grill patrons, Horton is known more for her warm spirit, her open-arm acceptance and her mama-bear generosity than for her creative cocktails. Horton has built generation-defying relationships with her customers; for some, she poured their first legal drink on a 21st birthday over a decade ago. She bonds with Gossip-goers, who bring her Thin Mints and gummies (but only the pink and red ones) and ask her to bartend their weddings. Sometimes Horton even gets spotted in airports, including in Salt Lake City in 2018. She was on her way back from saying her final goodbye to her dad, who had just died of liver cancer.
“I had to put on a different face and greet them,” she says. “My dad always said, ‘If you see someone without a smile, you’re obligated to give them yours.’ It’s OK to have your sadness, but at that moment I was obligated to pull back my tears and say, ‘Hi, so good to see you again. When are you coming home?’”
Two months later, Horton adds, the same customers were at the bar. “They said, ‘Do you remember us from the airport?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely. Welcome home.’”
At Gossip, Horton has seen a growing interest in Scotches and mezcals, which are two spirits she happens to love. “My dad smoked a pipe, so when I drink that smoky, grab-you-by-the-chest alcohol, it just triggers happy moments in my life,” she says. Later, when she whips me up a spicy mezcal Margarita, I can taste his influence.
As we continue to talk, Horton opens up about her family, her community, her bartending ethos and the one drink she won’t make you—even if you ask nicely.
You’ve been bartending for 32 years. What’s been your favorite thing about the job?
I still learn every day. And I’ve had great mentors like Moe [Girton, the owner of Gossip Grill]. And I’ve learned how to make my own bitters, how to make my own mixes, how to properly whip an egg white. You know what I mean? Just a lot of different things. I’ve learned about different palates and the different parts of your tongue and what you’re gonna taste, from sweet to sour to fire. And it’s still a learning process.
And in your 13 years at Gossip, what have you learned?
You have to be able to read people. Not everyone is going to walk in here having the best day of their life. But the thing is, if they’re coming in here after having a shitty day, I purposely take it upon me to make sure they are leaving with a smile on their face and their troubles are gone, like my dad taught me. [The problems] might not be completely gone, but while they’re here with me, they’re going to enjoy their time. They’re going to be able to let their hair down and feel comfortable and just let it go for a moment. I’m their escape. I’m OK with that.
You’ve lived a lot of lives. What other jobs have you had?
I started bartending in school in Oregon. And then right out of school I was a mortgage broker for Bank of America. That was horrible because, you gotta realize, in the early ’90s, women were still not respected in the banking [field]—or any real corporate industry, for that matter. So then I was a hairdresser and a cosmetologist because I like to make people feel good about themselves. I tried to do things that I love, and I like taking care of people. I always loved tending bar because it allows me to connect with people and get to know people. But I still have my cosmetology license today because I won’t pay full price for shampoo.
You still get a discount?
Yep, I get it at cost. I just go to the beauty supply. The Asian part of me will not let me pay full price for anything. That’s instilled in me by her. [Horton points to her mother, Kim, who’s sitting at the bar behind us, eating fish and chips.]
So your mom is from Korea and now she lives with you here. Can you tell me a little about her?
I brought her here last year from Idaho when she fell into a diabetic coma. She has dementia, so she needs supervision. In September, I’m going to take her to Korea to reconnect with our culture, because I want my mom to travel right now. She might not remember a whole lot, but however much time she has now, I want it to be filled with memories—whether they last for a few minutes or days or what have you.
Does your mom come with you to all your shifts now?
No, I’ve been with my partner for about 18 months, and she’s there in the mornings and when I work late. She gets up early and makes sure Mom has her little decaf coffee and breakfast. [My partner] has really been so amazing; I never have to ask her for anything. She’s a golf instructor and runs a bunch of golf courses, and she takes my mom out in the cart onto the course with her, gets her some fresh air. She loves that. My partner’s always asking if I want to go golfing and I’m like, No! I got titties and nails. I am not going golfing. I’ll drive the cart and have a cocktail. I’ll caddy for you. But I’m not gonna swing with my big boobs and fingernails.
Do you think your taste has been shaped by all of the places you’ve lived?
Everything I really know about beer is what my dad taught me in Germany. Each town has their town beer, and that’s what you drink. And you could tell who is from where by what they drank. I’ll always remember, [with] us being in Frankfurt, Binding was our local beer… I remember going to Oktoberfest and all the beer and the singing and just being young.
You reference your dad’s wisdom a lot. What did that relationship mean to you?
My father always taught me: You don’t judge anyone for what they look like on the outside. You judge them for their character and their integrity. He never really drank except for his Rum & Cokes, but when I told him how much I love tending bar, he goes, “Well, you’ve always been good with people. This is good for you.” He was always supportive of everything that I ever did. Even coming out, he’s like, “Oh honey, I already knew, I was just waiting for you to know.” He was like, “It doesn’t matter as long as you find someone with character and integrity that will love you the way you deserve.”
What’s your signature drink?
Martinis. I love the classics, too, like a Manhattan and an Old-Fashioned. But flavored Martinis are my specialty. When I was doing competitions and stuff, that’s what I would always enter. I have a group that just comes in to have my Espresso Martinis or my chocolate Martinis, especially on Sundays; they want a little dessert. They come for a chocolate Martini, and I make it pretty. I do a chocolate lacing and chocolate crumble on top.
That sounds delightful.
But then I have my 21-year-olds that come in wanting vodka-cranberries, and I’m like, “I’m not gonna make that for you.”
Really? You say that?
I do. I’m like, “Do you eat a cheeseburger every day?” And they say no. So I say, “Why would you drink a vodka-cranberry every day? Let’s not be basic.”
So then I’ll make a little something for them and they love it, and then when they come back and ask for it again, I say no. And I give them something new. And I’ll do that with them all night long. And then at the end of the night, I’m like, “Did you know you like gin? Did you know that you had a palate for whiskey, or a taste for tequila?” And it’s an awakening. So those young ones, give them all to me. ’Cause they’re gonna age with me, they’re gonna grow old with me, they’re gonna grow up with me.
You’re a legendary bartender, but not just because of your drinks.
I’m the fairy gaymother; I like being someone’s safe space. I’m just kind of [a] mom. I love what I do. I love the people that are around me. I like to make people feel welcome. And at Gossip, I have the luxury of watching people become these incredible, powerful women in front of my eyes. Maybe you come in as this shy, little, timid, scared-to-come-out girl. And now we’re doing marches together and fighting for equal rights together, and you’re not drinking vodka-cranberries anymore and you’re doing whiskeys and great tequilas, you know? That’s been the honor of being a part of this company.