For much of Lydia McLuen’s early years behind the bar, she was told that bartending wasn’t a real job. But even after stints as an educator and an au pair, McLuen was drawn back to hospitality. “When a room is full—the noise, the happiness, the chatter—I like the dance of the restaurant,” she says.
After taking a barbacking position at Moloko, what she describes as “a neighborhood dive bar masquerading as a cocktail bar,” where she went to college in Portland, Oregon, McLuen quickly found herself as a full-time bartender when most of the staff turned over. “I was 21, I didn’t know anything,” says McLuen, “so I just hit the books.” She recalls, with a laugh, the first text she read being Bartending for Dummies. “I was under the impression that the way to be a good bartender would be to start from the letter A and work my way through it,” she says. “But then I found better books, and a couple years later they promoted me to bar manager.”
Subsequent roles saw her deep-dive into everything from sherry to soju. She mastered Piña Coladas and frozen Daiquiris at Palomar, a Cuban-themed bar in Portland, and witnessed spirit production on the front lines at now-closed Townshend’s Distillery. “I poured myself into learning,” recalls McLuen.
As the bar manager of Takibi, a cocktail bar developed with Japanese brand Snow Peak alongside beverage director Jim Meehan, McLuen applies her studiousness to supporting and training her staff. She has produced highly detailed and organized binders that include information covering rice varieties and the nature of the bar’s sake program, as well as an abundance of checklists. “The goal is to bartend well, be hospitable and not have to think so much by having systems that set you up for autopilot,” says McLuen.
The result is a highly polished cocktail program that celebrates the Pacific Northwest with accents of Japan, inspired by Snow Peak’s hub in Niigata. Case in point: the Violet Hour cocktail, a play on the New York Sour, uses a half-ounce of locally made haskap liqueur (made from a berry native to Hokkaido) and is finished with a float of Willamette Valley piquette syrah. “Oregon is truly a special place, and our program deeply celebrates our region,” says McLuen.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago?
That kindness goes a long way. We have collectively been through a lot, and a lot of people are walking around with a ton of trauma and baggage. The best thing you can do every day is offer kindness.
Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten:
Beet vodka from a woman who hated beets.
Best drink you’ve ever had:
I went to New York in 2019 to attend [bartending certification program] BAR 5. It was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my career as a bartender. One of my best friends came with me on the trip for support. One night, after a very long 12-hour day of studying and learning, she asked me to meet her at Nitecap. I ordered the Believers & Skeptics, from their Shorties section, which was a mini Plymouth 50/50 Martini with a glass of orange wine. Absolutely perfect.
Your favorite classic cocktail:
50/50 Martini with a twist. Although they’re simple, they’re actually quite versatile as well. My family has a saying, “Simple is elegant and elegant is beautiful.” I think about it a lot and I think that gets into my cocktails as well.
Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted:
The worst drink I ever made was called “Absohot” and was the fourth drink listed in Bartending for Dummies. It called for one and a half shots of Absolut Peppar vodka and one dash of hot sauce. The directions were to “combine ingredients in a shot glass with a beer chaser.” My notes indicate that I made this on 12/30/13, that it hurt my stomach and that I threw up after.
The one thing you wish would disappear from drink lists forever:
Chaotically organized menus have got to go. I want thoughtful organization and flow. I want the menu to make sense, to have a purpose and to not just be made on a whim with stuff the manager likes.