Is Anything New Anymore?

Five of the drinks world’s most innovative women explain what it means to be “original” in an ever-evolving landscape.

We’ve partnered with Bacardi Women in Leadership for a series dedicated to exploring the theme of “originality” with some of today’s most inspiring leaders. For more information and tickets, click here.

It’s easy to mistake novelty for originality, but—thanks in part to our rapidly diminishing degrees of separation—it’s also never been easier to sniff out and experience innovation in all forms. In healthcare, originality can mean creating new conduits for access as Hers has done for birth control and prescription skincare. In food, it can mean quietly tearing down the gendered system of exclusivity that surrounds it, as chef Niki Nakayama has done at L.A.’s modern kaiseki restaurant, n/naka.

Ironically, in cocktails, it’s partly the field’s constantly referenced relationship to the past that makes the craft of tending bar so intriguing. How can one innovate when nearly every drink must necessarily be built from a classic blueprint? Because most new drinks’ very DNA is based upon those Manhattans and Negronis and Daiquiris that came before, it can be difficult to suss out innovation. But within distinct boundaries, true creativity can be mined. And when done well—The Aviary’s flamboyant aestheticism, Ryan Chetiyawardana’s proposition for zero waste, the whiz-bang science approach at Existing Conditions—originality takes on a singular, philosophical meaning. From the vibrant petri dish of the cocktail renaissance have arisen entire spirit category reinventions, a decade-strong tiki revival and science-ing of all stripes. At this point, it seems cocktails have hit a saturation of innovation.

So, in a world where nothing seems new anymore, what does originality really look like in drinks, and how do we define it? As an unwitting reaction to so much baroque invention, innovation seems to be cropping up in ways much subtler than in years past. For example, at Nitecap in New York, Natasha David imposes boundaries upon her staff, asking that they find originality via the ingredients and materials already available within the bar’s four walls. In Chicago, Carley Gaskin founded her city’s first cocktail catering company. And in Toronto, Kelsey Ramage co-created Trash Tiki to challenge the idea that fantastical cocktails can’t be sustainable.

In wine, sometimes originality means reconsidering the back-end—literally upending or subverting the dominant business model for an unconventional, smaller and, necessarily, more considered approach. For Helen Johannesen, originality meant tucking her eponymous, diminutive wine store into the rear of a restaurant, like a secret bonus cellar. And for Krista Scruggs who farms her own land and makes natural wines near Burlington, Vermont, innovation means going with your gut and making yourself vulnerable, even when it’s scary or risky.

To get an idea of how originality is imprinting upon the drinks world, we surveyed a cross section of women at the top of their fields to see how they set themselves apart in a day and age where nothing seems new anymore.

Natasha David | Owner, Nitecap | New York

A fixture on New York’s cocktail scene for nearly a decade, Natasha David has built bar menus from coast to coast alongside her husband Jeremy Oertel for You & Me, their consultancy company. Best known as the unflappable leader behind Nitecap on the Lower East Side, David is constantly pushing for innovation from inside the bar.

“While I think innovation is important and creating new techniques is important, I like to challenge myself and my bartenders to come up with a drink with things that are on the back bar. I think it’s pretty boundary-pushing to stick to the back bar because you’re not relying on this cool thing with an automatic hook. Standing out with simplicity is much harder. Relying on the basics helps somebody to learn how to develop the more complex skills.

“Now, for us at Nitecap, originality and innovation means always trying to find ways to be sustainable. We don’t advertise it, but we use a ton of cordials made in-house with our waste juice. We turn the waste of the raspberry syrup into a fruit leather, which we use as a garnish. Pineapple pulp gets spiced and put it in a dehydrator. When we pickle we use the brine in drinks.

“When I first started working with Alex [Day] and Dave [Kaplan] the newest thing I learned was how to sous vide. I had never heard of it because it was only used in kitchens. When it started crossing over into bars it was completely revolutionary. It changed the way that syrups were being made. Suddenly raspberry syrup, whose flavors were always muted, became very bright flavors. It changed things for me a lot, knowing I didn’t always have to muddle fresh fruits to get those flavors.”

Carley Gaskin | Owner, Hospitality 201 | Chicago

Winner of USBG’s 2018 Most Imaginative Bartender competition sponsored by BOMBAY SAPPHIRE® Gin, Carley Gaskin started her career in Chicago at Bad Hunter, where she became deeply interested in sustainable drink-making, and pivoted to open her own cocktail catering company.

“A lot of new creations come from necessity. I’ve had the privilege of working at a lot of restaurants where chefs work alongside bartenders to create fluid concepts. I like to go to a kitchen and ask what they’re throwing away—to find a way to build a cocktail around sustainability. I own a cocktail catering company in Chicago, and we go through a lot of waste. We juice 200 liters of something and we’ve got over 200 lemon peels left over. So, we need to find a way to reuse things.

“We try to use citrus peels to make stocks. We dehydrate a lot, we do a lot of work with a company called The Roof Crop, which builds rooftops around Chicago and grows vegetables and flowers and herbs. We take the things they wouldn’t usually sell like ugly produce or browned basil for syrups and infusions. And it’s all locally sourced.”

Helen Johannesen | Owner, Helen’s; Partner, Jon & Vinny’s | Los Angeles

The long-time beverage director for Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo’s restaurant empire, New York-native Helen Johannesen defied convention and opened her eponymous wine shop nested within an all-day restaurant in West Hollywood.

“[It’s] too much pressure [to think about doing something new]. That’s like wishing to get nominated for a James Beard Award. The place I always start from is ‘What am I interested in? What do I think is cool?’

“I think sometimes [originality] happens on a subconscious level more so than through an active determination to create something fresh and new per se. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel. I just think about what’s inspiring me and what my staff is attaching to. I think it’s dangerous to go about curating or revitalizing or creating programs to set a new trend. That feels like a gray area.

“I spent six years running other peoples’ businesses and other peoples’ beverage programs, and even though I thought of them as my own, I didn’t own them. You should take ownership in the world for what you’re doing, but when you do that you align your identity with someone else’s vision. It’s different to say ‘this is my shop and it’s called Helen’s.’ No one’s going to define it for you, you have to define it for yourself. That requires a great level of humility. I couldn’t assume people would know what [Helen’s] was. The reality is that you have to create the world, you have to create the baby.”

Kelsey Ramage | Owner, Trash Tiki | Toronto

A professedly punk rock bartender, Kelsey Ramage co-founded the pop-up known as Trash Tiki as a thesis statement against waste in the cocktail industry.

“Innovation is probably at the forefront of what I think about whenever I’m creating something new. All of my drinks come from classics, and everything’s been done when it comes to creating a new spec. When I’m ideating, I start thinking about a story or an ethos, which often comes from ingredients. Where’s it from, how was it farmed?

“To me, innovation takes a little bit more insight into the future. Where novelty is of the moment—it’s a flash in the pan, or lasts the five to 30 minutes you have the cocktail in front of you—truly innovative drinks take some thinking toward ‘What will this be like in six months or a year, two years from now?’”

Krista Scruggs | Owner, ZAFA Wines | Burlington, VT

Winemaker Krista Scruggs dreams up some of the natural wine world’s most subversive blends, including apple-and-grape co-ferments that have drinkers reconsidering what American wine can look like.

“I try not to consider [innovation] when I’m making things. I believe in open-source. I believe we’re influenced by our surroundings. I rely on my instincts and what’s going on in my head and my heart. If I were to think about trying to be different, I would put a boundary on myself. If you put me in a line with everyone else, I’m still the only me. I’m not trying to mimic or emulate anyone else. I’m just trying to be me.

“It’s a vulnerable thing to do and I think most people are scared to do it. And when you’re out there being vulnerable and taking risks, people resonate with it. On one side of the coin, it’s beautiful and reaffirming, and on the other side, to be honest and transparent in the industry means people want to put you on a pedestal. I think there’s great expectation and criticism and judgment from people who are willing to be transparent or vulnerable. The cost is that I feel a lot of anxiety. I’m speaking on my sixth panel this year. I have anxiety attacks before all of them. Being vulnerable is not easy, but that’s being free. I get to be me. The worth outweighs the cost.”

Find out more about the Spirit Forward Women in Leadership program here.

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