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, click here.
The day that Earlecia Richelle first tasted a Last Word, she decided she wanted to start making cocktails. She had just moved back to the States from London, where she received a masters in fashion and culture, and she was working at the New York Palace, whose bar had just changed the menu to focus on the classics. She was so excited she started studying up that day. “I was so captivated by the sensory experience of a cocktail,” she says, “but the history was attractive, too—how cocktails reflect fashions of the time, wars, how people move into and out of different regions.”
Naturally, Richelle’s approach to making drinks is through the lens of aesthetics. While in grad school, she got into Afrofuturism and began considering how to take such high concepts and infuse them into everyday life in a visually interesting way. After working at the Palace, she bartended at a couple of Italian restaurants, became the head bartender at Babbalucci and eventually landed at the Nylo Hotel as bar director. It’s there that she was able to enact her vision for high-concept menus. “I did cocktail lists on everything from films to the flower market,” she says. “It’s about making the story and the sensory pieces come together. It’s about more than balance and spirits.”
Today, Richelle is more focused than ever on becoming more deeply involved in the spirits world, which she endearingly describes as an industry of misfits. “We’re a tribe,” she says. “People who make this a career come from the same tribe [of those] who are living outside of the box, outside of status quo. We’re living for ourselves rather than everyone else.”
Current occupation: Grey Goose Ambassador.
What do want to be when you grow up? A mother.
What books are essential to have behind the bar? I’m a cocktail bibliophile, so this is a hard one. Let’s say Death and Co., Modern Classic Cocktails, The Flavor Bible, The Ideal Bartender and Liquid Intelligence.
How would you describe your style of drink-making? Expressive.
If you could have three women, living or dead, come sit at your bar, who would they be? Michelle Obama, Josephine Baker and Julia Child.
What’s your favorite thing to educate drinkers about? The history of vodka and its impact on cocktail culture.
In your opinion, what’s been the greatest change in drinking culture in the last decade? Social media.
What’s the next great frontier in cocktail culture? Local distilleries, experiential cocktails and the rise of smaller cocktail markets.
You’re spending one final night drinking anywhere in the world, where is it and what are you drinking? In Japan at Ben Fiddich, drinking anything Hiroyasu Kayama creates for me.
Which industry leaders do you admire most? I admire Duane Fernandez Jr. for his genuine love of people. He paid for my United States Bartenders’ Guild membership back when I couldn’t afford it. I admire Colin Asare-Appiah for his otherworldliness and sheer brilliance. He not only took me under his wing, but adopted me into his family. I admire Pamela Wiznitzer for her ability to fully commit and balance multiple projects gracefully and efficiently. While I could go on for days, I can’t speak about industry leaders that I admire and not mention Juan Coronado, Ms. Franky Marshall, Jackie Summers, Lynette Marrero, Brittany Littrell, Tiffanie Barriere, Lynn M House, Camille Ralph Vidal and Giuseppe González. All these people represent true leadership to me because they unapologetically create more spaces for inclusion and diversity within our industry.
How do you define leadership in the industry? When I first started my role as an ambassador, my mentor Colin Asare-Appiah gave me the best advice, which has become the foundation of how I see leadership. He said, “Work on elevating others, and you will always be successful.” Leaders serve. For me, leadership is about serving the underrepresented and helping to create spaces that value diversity and inclusivity within our industry.
Tell us about your cocktail: The Golden Lady was inspired by a similar cocktail a dear friend called for while in the mood for a Vesper. With a few tweaks, I tailored it to be my new go-to Martini. It’s a play on the Vesper sans gin.
Best thing you ever drank: My dad’s sorrel, a traditional Panamanian drink made out of dried hibiscus leaves, ginger root and allspice.
Worst thing you ever drank: An imbalanced cocktail made with a balsamic vinegar shrub. It tasted like salad dressing, and I don’t really like salads.
If you had to listen to one album on loop, for the rest of your life, what would it be? Lauryn Hill’s X Factor.
What’s the weirdest hobby you currently have or have had? Hula-hooping.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago? When you don’t know what to do, get still. The answer will come. (A lesson from Oprah.)
Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted: Creating a lynching tree out of currants to garnish my cocktail, Strange Fruit. Ironically, it turned out to be one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever made.
What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not eating, drinking or drink-making? Anything I can do from my bed.
Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten: Gendered cocktails. I still have not figured out what a “girly” cocktail is in all these years.
Your favorite bar, and why: Baccarat—have you seen the place?!
Best meal you’ve ever had: Daddy’s home cooking.
What’s your go-to drink in a cocktail bar? Grey Goose Fifty-Fifty with an olive and a twist.
Wine bar? Crémant.
In a dive bar? Vodka-tonic.
Your preferred hangover recovery regime: A can of Coca-Cola and an Advil before bed, loads of sleep and a hydrating face mask.
The one thing you wish would disappear from drink lists forever: The “token” vodka cocktail.
The last text message you sent: ????????
Responses have been condensed and edited for clarity.