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.
Selena Donovan learned to bartend by being thrown into the deep end. More specifically, Bourbon Street. While attending school at Loyola, her parents told her she needed to get a job, so she went over to the French Quarter and got a position working 17-hour shifts at a typical dive. It was 2006, the height of mixed shots and flavored vodka, and she loved it. “I think my parents regretted telling me to get a job after that,” she says.
Post-Bourbon Street, she graduated to the opening team of the beloved bar and restaurant Sylvain, located on the quieter side of the Quarter. “That’s where I really learned, trial by fire,” she says. “We knew it was going to be busy, but not as busy as it was.”
Since New Orleans, Donovan has managed and worked in restaurants and bars in her hometown of Boston (where she made Zagat’s “30 Under 30” list), San Francisco (where she was a partner in the restaurant Maven) and her current location, Los Angeles. “I landed at the Ace managing and soon after got a call from Bacardi. The next week I flew to Miami to interview,” she says. Now the Grey Goose Ambassador, Donovan travels “spreading all the vodka love out west.” She’s also a most ardent champion of the Martini, something her hero Ada Coleman, head bartender at the Savoy in the early-20th century and the creator of classic Martini riff the Hanky Panky, could certainly appreciate.
Here, Donovan takes our Lookbook Questionnaire to share her weirdest cocktail experiment, the best meal she’s ever had and where in the world she’d spend her final night drinking.
Current occupation: Grey Goose Ambassador.
What do want to be when you grow up? Grace Kelly.
What books are essential to have behind the bar? The Flavor Bible and The Savoy Cocktail Book.
How would you describe your style of drink-making? These days I’m quite a chameleon depending on what we have going on with Grey Goose. It’s nice to put on all sorts of hats ranging from high-volume-friendly to classic to more conceptual.
If you could have three women, living or dead, come sit at your bar, who would they be? Annie Hall. Grace Kelly. Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
What’s your favorite thing to educate drinkers about? My favorite things to share with people are the great origin stories about cocktails… stories help to build the personal bond with the drinks.
In your opinion, what’s been the greatest change in drinking culture in the last decade? Knowledge. Bartenders are more educated, the consumer is more educated. We’re not just taking things at face value anymore; we’re curious and asking questions and, because of that, the entire industry is being held to a higher standard.
What’s the next great frontier in cocktail culture? Less is more.
You’re spending one final night drinking anywhere in the world, where is it and what are you drinking? The Saint in New Orleans. Cheap beer. Shots. My dignity away.
How do you define leadership behind the bar? I think leadership is defined by example and empowerment. I have always been most inspired by those who get their hands the dirtiest, who show up first and leave last, and who dedicate time and effort in developing their team.
Which industry leaders do you admire most? Historically, Ada Coleman. To hold the position of head bartender at The Savoy for 23 years is a feat in and of itself. To hold that position as a woman in the early 1900s was groundbreaking. These days, I admire anyone, male or female, in our industry who is able to juggle marriage, parenthood, personal time (sleep?), hobbies, exercise, a full-time job and professional growth. They are the unsung heroes.
Tell us about your cocktail: The Rebuttal Cocktail is a riff on a Martini variation called a Tuxedo No. 2. It’s one of my favorites. It was the first time I had a cocktail that blew my mind [and] it was all of these things I thought I didn’t like in one glass. So many people will say, “I don’t like vodka,” but I put all these things in a glass and know they’re going to like it.
Best thing you ever drank: The Hometown Vixen (pistachio-infused bourbon, lemon, orange, gomme syrup) from Maven in San Francisco. It was so simple, yet so complex. Kate Bolton, the creator of that cocktail, continues to inspire me.
Worst thing you ever drank: Chlorophyll. I bought it to be “healthy” after reading an article about all of its benefits, but the cons outweighed any pros.
If you had to listen to one album on loop, for the rest of your life, what would it be? Boogie Nights soundtrack. It’s perfect.
What’s the weirdest hobby you currently have or have had? I’ve always loved joyriding. I’m not into cars or anything like that… I just love being alone with my thoughts while driving aimlessly.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago? Being vulnerable is a strength, not a weakness.
Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted: Avocado whipped cream… it kept curdling during the production process. I had to consult with some chef friends on that one.
What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not eating, drinking or drink-making? Sheet masks and noir mysteries… I switched from reading lots of Dashiell Hammett to Raymond Chandler when I moved from SF to LA last year.
Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten: A professionally printed business card containing the specs for a guest’s desired Negroni. Not a strange cocktail to request, but a very unique method of requesting.
Best meal you’ve ever had: Hickory burger, fries and chocolate cream pie from The Apple Pan in LA.
What’s your go-to drink in a wine bar? Whatever the bartender suggests. However, given the time of year, I will order Beaujolais nouveau whenever I see it on menu.
In a dive bar? Vodka soda (#vodsod) or Guinness.
The one thing you wish would disappear from drink lists forever: “Bottomless Brunch” cocktails.
The last text message you sent: 💙💙 💙
Responses have been condensed and edited for clarity.
Find out more about the Spirit Forward Women in Leadership program here.