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.
Naima Williams has always had a dream of drinking a real Cuban Mojito on a real Cuban beach: Between the sun, a cigar and that cocktail, she imagines bliss. “I want that energy, that vibe,” she says. Perhaps unwittingly, Williams already exudes that energy and that vibe in her day-to-day. Her enthusiasm is palpable through the phone, a steady flow of positivity woven through her telling of growing up in Westchester and getting a start cocktail waitressing, in the VIP section of a nightclub doing bottle service. “All my friends were working at the country club,” she says. “I was more intrigued by bartending, where they were making money hand over fist.” So that’s what she gunned for.
Fast-forward 15 years and Williams is cocktail bartending in Harlem, aiming to make her mark in the new canon of classic cocktails. She’s won bartending competitions, fallen in love with Cognac and is currently studying up with Jim Meehan’s The Meehan Manual. “Dale DeGroff’s books are still classic though,” she says. Many of her drinks draw directly on the classics, like the Eden Jade, a Gimlet remix that deploys Star of Bombay gin, yuzu and Italicus, a floral aperitivo liqueur. “Cocktail ideas pop into my head during the oddest moments. The Eden Jade was inspired by an aromatherapy spa treatment,” she says.
Williams meditates regularly in preparation for bar shifts. “You never know what you’re going to get when you show up. No one sees the moving cogs of your brain… and you never know what they’re going through, either,” she says. All part of that good energy, good vibes thing she’s got going on.
By the Numbers
What do want to be when you grow up? Happy.
What books are essential to have behind the bar? The Flavor Bible, Liquid Intelligence, Three Ingredient Cocktails, Meehan’s Bartender Manual.
How would you describe your style of drink-making? In pursuit of creating the new classics.
If you could have three women, living or dead, come sit at your bar, who would they be? This is easy: Granny, Mom and Auntie. They are a hoot and steal the show.
What’s your favorite thing to educate drinkers about? I love doing blind tastings of the spirit they’re drinking. Often people drink what’s trending versus what they may actually enjoy.
In your opinion, what’s been the greatest change in drinking culture in the last decade? Bars are everywhere. I don’t foresee another Prohibition happening anytime soon.
What’s the next great frontier in cocktail culture? More tableside service.
What does leadership behind the bar mean to you? Leading by example is key, especially when new staff comes along. But more important than that is team synergy. That’s when bar magic is created.
Who are people in the industry you admire? Myself. I’d never thought in a million years I’d evolve as much I have as a bartender, or that it was something I could actually make a career of. There’s still more I’d like to explore within this industry; bartending is still just the beginning.
Tell us about your drink, the Eden Jade: Cocktail ideas pop into my head during the oddest moments. The Eden Jade was inspired by an aromatherapy spa treatment I received. I recall the rose and eucalyptus scent. It’s amazing how scent and taste are so tied to memory, and this treatment made me think of some recent spirits I’d tasted When that happens I write it down and put it a glass.
Best thing you ever drank: There was a Thai restaurant in New York once upon a time ago which is no longer. The drinks were insane. I recall going there for food and ending up having a liquid dinner. You couldn’t choose just one cocktail.
Worst thing you ever drank: Bacardi 151 straight out the bottle.
If you had to listen to one album on loop, for the rest of your life, what would it be? John Coltrane, A Love Supreme.
What’s the weirdest hobby you currently have or have had? Sneakers. It’s the one thing I can always make an excuse to buy.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago? #itsnevercomplicated.
Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted: I went through this whole phase of “molecular mixology.” Epic fail. But I can make caviar pearls.
What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not eating, drinking or drink-making? Traveling. I love seeing new places and faces.
Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten: I had three guys request an Angry Pirate shot. They insisted that I record it, too. They sniffed salt lines off the bar, took a shot of liquor and squeezed lime into their eyes. ARRRGH!
Your favorite bar, and why: LeCal Bar. It was the last bar I sipped at in Paris. Super talented team and the bartenders wear boxers. Gosh, they all had great legs.
Best meal you’ve ever had: Anything and everything ever made at home. My family can throw down. So can I.
What’s your go-to drink in a cocktail bar? Aviation.
Wine bar? The Prisoner.
In a dive bar? Cognac and tonic with a lemon.
Your preferred hangover recovery regime: Before I leave the bar: club soda with a few dashes of Ango and lime. Before bed: Advil or BC powder and coconut water. SLEEP it off. On the wake-up: milk thistle and ginger tea. Back to feeling like it never happened.
The one thing you wish would disappear from drink lists forever: I hate seeing Bartender 101 drinks listed as specialty cocktails. Example: “ May I have a Madras?!” It’s a vodka-cran and OJ. Beat it.
The last text message you sent: A Bitmoji of some sort. I usually let them speak for me.
Responses have been condensed and edited for clarity.