Lookbook: Liz Pearce, Owner & Operator at Chicago’s The Drifter

The Drifter's Liz Pearce shares her favorite bars, where in the world she’d spend her final night drinking and the strangest drink request she's ever gotten.

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.

“It was inevitable that I’d work in bars,” says Liz Pearce. The Fargo, N.D., native spent many years working in “rough, seedy dives” where it was gospel that men worked behind the bar and women worked on the floor. “I begged and bullied and finally got a shot bartending the weddings,” she says. “The rest was history.” She loved it—the casual rapport with regulars, the ebb and flow of the student crowd, the ability to yell at rowdy patrons if she felt it was warranted. “We were like a little family,” she says.

After a few restaurant stints in Minneapolis, Pearce eventually landed at Aviary in Chicago—a far cry from the dives of Fargo—where she got her real education, beyond barroom banter. “I was hungry,” she says. “I would go to work at Aviary, come home at 3 a.m. and read about Scotch, and the next day I’d come home and read about rum.” The opportunity at The Drifter came at an unexpected moment when she was planning to make another move to the Bay Area; when that opportunity fell through, she stayed on in Chicago.

Pearce’s husband works as a chef, so she’ll often borrow flavors from culinary experiments they’re working on at home or have experienced at restaurants. “There’s a lot of trading tips. We talk about food and beverage non-stop,” she says. A lover of extremes, Pearce favors stirred and intense or high acid. “There’s a lot more to cocktails than cool new ingredients though,” she says. She owes her agility and speed to nights at the Fargo dives. “When I go back, it’s the same people in the same chairs drinking the same drinks. Sometimes they’ll even ask if I can fill in on a shift.” And usually, she will.

Current occupation: Owner/Operator, The Drifter.

What do want to be when you grow up? Retired. Ha! I’d like to help animals in some fashion.

How would you describe your style of drink-making? Food-flavor-driven, nostalgic/cheeky.

If you could have three women, living or dead, come sit at your bar, who would they be? Michelle Obama, because we’re meant to be best friends—she just doesn’t know it yet; Daenerys Targaryen; and my mom, because she likes whatever I make her and she tips me well.

What’s your favorite thing to educate drinkers about? Wine.

In your opinion, what’s been the greatest change in drinking culture in the last decade? Lighter drinks and more adventurous flavors.

What’s the next great frontier in cocktail culture? Cocktails that are made in a sustainable manner, with up-cycled kitchen scraps, reusable straws, etc. At least I hope.

You’re spending one final night drinking anywhere in the world, where is it and what are you drinking? Fargo, ND, drinking a Lizzy Blaster. Because that shit will get you all crunked up. You probably wouldn’t even notice the end of the world or whatever this question implies. Or: floating down the Vang Vieng in Laos.

How do you define leadership behind the bar? I think that involves a lot of things. I like to work cleanly, quietly and efficiently, but I try to set a good example service-wise as well. It’s important to act as you want your staff to act, but also help them with drinks, help them to learn how to talk about the products they’re selling.

Which industry leaders do you admire most? Pam Wiznitzer is awesome. She’s a tough cookie and truly an Energizer bunny. Jacyara de Oliveira is my girl in Chicago; she has such a way of talking to people and making sure that real life is never eclipsed by work life. Kate Gerwin, a total gangster. Charles Joly, of course—[he’s the] epitome of class, and really an all-around great dude. Brandon Phillips, a guy I came up with in the ranks at Drawing Room—his drinks are so innovative and unique, plus he’s just such a peach.

Tell us about your drink: The Unnamed Cocktail #55 is what I would drink if I were popping around to a bunch of spots. This drink is refreshing and has a minty quality. It’s not overly sweet, and you can participate in drinking, but you’re not going to get hammered.

Best thing you ever drank: A lobster Champagne Cocktail from Jason Cevallos at The Office. It was so weird and so perfect, I teared up.

Worst thing you ever drank: Probably one of my own cocktails. I was inspired by a friend’s cocktail and tried to re-work it with carrot and cocoa; it was disgusting.

If you had to listen to one album on loop, for the rest of your life, what would it be? Abbey Road, for sure. Or maybe Led Zeppelin II.

What’s the weirdest hobby you currently have or have had? Dog snuggling. Or cleaning. Do those count as hobbies?

What do you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago? How to negotiate a contract. I’m still learning, but man, things would’ve been a lot easier.

Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted: I mostly mess with food items, and I’ll wonder, Should I put tahini in a cocktail? And then I try it, and I think, Wait, no, I shouldn’t do that.

What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not eating, drinking or drink-making? Hang out with my boys at home (three dogs and a husband), cook some killer food and watch cartoons.

Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten: “A drink that tastes like farmhouse beer.”

Your favorite bar, and why: In the world, I’d say maybe 69 Colebrooke Row. In Chicago, Pops for Champagne, because I like those bubbles A LOT. Or maybe Five Star. It’s a little dive with great bar food.

Best meal you’ve ever had: Grace. Or Fat Rice. Abe Conlon is killing it.

What’s your go-to drink in a cocktail bar? A Chareau Daiquiri. I call it a Char-aquiri, but that hasn’t caught on.

Wine bar? Dry riesling or BUBBLESSSSS!

In a dive bar? Beer. Or Campari-soda.

The one thing you wish would disappear from drink lists forever: The Blood and Sand.

The last text message you sent: “okie dokie”

Responses have been condensed and edited for clarity.

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

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