This story is published in partnership with Bacardi’s Spirit Forward Women in Leadership series, an annual summit dedicated to championing the spirits trade community and accelerating the advancement of women. For more information, and to find out how you can attend the program’s five-city tour, click here.
Carla Rivera’s first job bartending was slinging wine and beer at a Hooter’s, which then burned down one Christmas Eve. True story. After the fire, she was transferred to another outlet where they served liquor, and the rest is history.
In actuality, it was many years before Rivera felt she could be taken seriously as a bartender. A trained dancer and choreographer with a degree in theater, Rivera later began producing shows at a nightclub where she waited tables. “They didn’t want me to bartend, so they stuck me in the service bar in the back,” she says. “And that’s where I learned how to make everything.”
Soon after completing her degree, she started working in bars and restaurants with craft cocktail programs in Tampa. At the time, the city recently had become one of the USBG’s founding chapters and was burgeoning on the national scene. “I worked at almost every bar in Tampa, but I hit a glass ceiling there,” she says. “It was a boys’ club.”
It was in Miami that she found a community that could appreciate her ambition. She bartended at the Broken Shaker, the Kimpton and Hakkasan before becoming the Director of Cocktail Development for South Florida at Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits. Currently enamored with low-ABV cocktails, Rivera maintains a flavor of her former career as an actor. “I like to squash the idea of what a craft cocktail has to be,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be 15 ingredients. It’s about everything else—the technique, the way you move. Did you entertain? That’s what keeps you creative.”
By the numbers
Current occupation: Director of Cocktail Development for South Florida, Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits.
What do want to be when you grow up? Retired. So I can be a writer, a stuntwoman, a wife, a queen.
What books are essential to have behind the bar? The Flavor Bible for obvious reasons; when I get stuck on an idea I go to this one first. I refer to Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s Bar Book often for his spot-on approach to syrups. Meehan’s books.
How would you describe your style of drink-making? These days I am playing with low-ABV cocktails, since I am not drinking full-proof spirits.
If you could have three women (people?), living or dead, come sit at your bar, who would they be? Frida Kahlo, Meryl Streep, Betty White.
What’s your favorite thing to educate drinkers about? Anything they want to know that I can skillfully answer.
In your opinion, what’s been the greatest change in drinking culture in the last decade? That people now know more and care about what makes a quality cocktail.
You’re spending one final night drinking anywhere in the world, where is it and what are you drinking: Vintage Champagne somewhere in France.
Tell us about your drink: I discovered this jackfruit shrub and the name “A Bird in the Shrub Is Worth Two in the Bush” came up as a joke while I was testing it… It’s slightly botanical with a light nuttiness from the sherry that gets lift from the jackfruit shrub. It’s velvety, yet refreshing.
How do you define leadership behind the bar? A leader behind the bar wants to see her or his coworkers succeed. Accountability, compassion and patience are a few key words that come to mind as well.
Which industry leaders do you admire most? There are too many to list. However, any person who is making it possible for strong, intelligent and independent women to be respected and treated equally in this industry and any other—those are the ones I admire most.
Best thing you ever drank: Many years back, I had a variation of a French 75 at Luke in New Orleans. It was served in a big Cognac snifter, had egg whites, was glorious and nothing like the classic.
What’s the weirdest hobby you currently have or have had? I used to collect the Absolut Vodka advertisements back in the day. I tacked them to my wall, and eventually they took the shape of the bottle.
What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not eating, drinking or drink-making? I love yoga… I love to travel and indulge in unfamiliar cultures [while] taking pictures of it all. My first creative love in life was photography.
Your favorite bar, and why: I find favorites limiting, but here in Miami, every time I go to Sweet Liberty I feel welcomed.
Best meal you’ve ever had: I’m not sure it’s happened yet. I’ve had some stellar meals at José Andrés spots this year (Meat in Vegas was fire) and an epic meal in Mexico City at Pujol, but I don’t know if either will be the best I’ve ever had.
What’s your go-to drink in a cocktail bar? I take in all the factors: Have I eaten? Will I be eating? Is it going to be a late night? Do I need to pace myself? The go-to could range from an Americano or spritz to a gin and soda to a Daiquiri.
Wine bar? Rosé, sherry, lambrusco, Champagne…
In a dive bar? Beer.
The last text message you sent: Ha you wish… Not happening.
Responses have been condensed and edited for clarity.
Find out more about the Spirit Forward Women in Leadership program here.