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.
“Old man drinks,” as Rhachel Shaw calls them, were the LA bartender’s introduction to the wide world of cocktails. “My dad drank Tom Collinses and Gimlets. And I had my fair share of Midori Sours,” she says. But it was at Bar Keeper, the legendary barware and bitters shop in Silverlake, where she got an education in craft spirits and all the paraphernalia to go along with them. She put it all into practice when, one evening, while hanging out in the doorway of a neighborhood bar, she met Christine England, the only female bartender on the opening crew of Seven Grand (one of Downtown LA’s first major cocktail programs). “I volunteered for an event and she gave me a job.”
Since then, Shaw has worked at Malo, Caña and Harvard & Stone in Los Angeles, as well as Rye, Local Edition, Tradition and Alamo Drafthouse in San Francisco. And though she’s worked in some of the West Coast’s most lauded cocktail establishments, she’s still more interested in the social atmosphere bars provide. “We should just have bars,” she says of the cocktail bar phenomenon. “If you make a great drink, that’s great. But I don’t go to bars to hear about your crazy jam-orgeat weirdness. I go because I want to sit in a nice place with nice people.”
Now firmly rooted back in LA, she’s managing Westbound in the Arts District, a bar that takes its sleek railway car inspiration from the bygone La Grande Station, upon whose original location it’s built. Her own sage-, chamomile- and Bacardi 8-infused Harvey Girl cocktail—named for the women who worked at Harvey’s restaurants along the Santa Fe Rail line in the 19th century—is a nod to that lost history.
Bar Manager, Westbound.
What do want to be when you grow up?
Whatever strikes me as awesome at the moment.
What books are essential to have behind the bar?
I really think that the only books you should see behind the bar are a farmer’s almanac, the last version of Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide (they don’t publish it anymore) and a book of dirty limericks.
If you could have three women, living or dead, come sit at your bar, who would they be?
Dolly Parton, Amy Sedaris and Dorothy Parker.
What’s your favorite thing to educate drinkers about?
An amazing new movie, where to get the best thin-cut pastrami in LA and [which] bars to go check out on their next trip.
In your opinion, what’s been the greatest change in drinking culture in the last decade?
People have started revering what they drink as much as what they eat. I think this will continue, but I think that environment will become a big factor again. Bars aren’t just about the drinks—they’re about how a place makes you feel.
What’s the next great frontier in cocktail culture?
Not so fancy… [and] lower-ABV drinks.
Tell us about your drink, the Harvey Girl:
Harvey’s restaurants started along the Santa Fe Rail line as a stop for weary travelers during the late 1800s. Fred Harvey only hired single women to work as servers. While it sounds gross by today’s standards, it was often the only chance for young women of the time to leave home and start a new, independent life for themselves, which I think is pretty rad. The sage and chamomile is reminiscent of the vegetation that you would see going West. It’s a cool, tall, and refreshing. Just what you’d want after a long train ride.
How do you define leadership behind the bar?
Setting a good example by working hard and treating those you serve and work with well.
Which industry leaders do you admire most?
I’ve got many on this list but I’ll just name three: Yael Vengroff has always been a source of admiration. Her drinks, her humor, her work ethic are all a source of wonder. Jessamine McLellan is an amazing lady to look to, particularly for her knowledge of spirits. Jeffrey Morgenthaler is a grumpy old man, but he’s no bullshit. I like no bullshit. I like grumpy old men. So there you go.
Best thing you ever drank:
I went home for my high school reunion and went out with a friend from school. I ordered us two gin Gimlets. The bartender comes back a few minutes later and hands us two drinks. Then she says, “We’re out of Rose’s, so I made these with Mountain Dew.” I’m not so sure I [loved it], but I did like that the bartender improvised.
First time you ever got drunk:
Freshman year of high school, with my church group, on two-liter Sun Country Wine Coolers.
If you had to listen to one album on loop, for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Nillsson Smillson by Harry Nillsson.
What’s the weirdest hobby you currently have or have had?
I am the Queen of Unfinished Projects and the Lady of Taking New Classes. I tried the trapeze for a while. I’m currently very into playing pinball, but I don’t consider that weird.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago?
That the person most standing in your way is you.
Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted:
Egg Nog with goat cheese.
What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not eating, drinking or drink-making?
See above. Pinball. Lots and lots of pinball.
Your favorite bar, and why:
My favorite bar right now is the same one as when I lived in LA before: Edendale in Silverlake. It lives in an old firehouse. It’s not a dive bar or a cocktail bar—it’s just a great place with an awesome vibe and great bartenders who all seem to love working there.
Best meal you’ve ever had:
Lunch at the French Laundry.
What’s your go-to drink in a cocktail bar?
A dry white.
In a dive bar?
G&T or a shot and a beer.
Your preferred hangover recovery regime:
Drink a big glass of water before bed. Eat two Pedialyte popsicles. If you forgot to do all of that because you were drunk, then when you wake up, have a whole container of Pedialyte, a cheeseburger and a Coke.
The one thing you wish would disappear from drink lists forever:
Calling anything besides vodka [or] gin and vermouth a Martini.
The last text message you sent:
“Hello. I love you. That is all.” (Sent to my long distance work wife Will Popko.)