Bartender in Residence

Mary Palac Has Mastered the Comfort Cocktail

August 03, 2020

Story: Chloe Frechette

Art: Dan Phan

The Paper Plane bartender favors low-tech approachability over experimental technique.

“I have a rotovap, a centrifuge, a chamber vacuum sealer and a homogenizer in my home,” says Mary Palac. “But those belong to my roommate.”

Palac, bartender at San Jose’s Paper Plane, instead describes her drinks as “low tech” and “low maintenance,” noting that she shies away from cocktail competitions for this very reason. “I don’t really make that kind of drink,” she says of the hypercrafted, avant-garde creations that typically take home the titles. “I make bangers.”

Having taken up bartending just as the craft movement was hitting San Jose, Palac witnessed the needle shift from what she describes as “ultra-lounge bottle service” to a more refined, ingredient-driven movement. She caught the full arc of the transition, working her first restaurant job at Margaritaville in Capitola, then Loft Bar and Bistro (a downtown San Jose stalwart) and eventually Mortar & Pestle, a cocktail bar tucked within the Curry Up Now restaurant in the northern part of town. It was at Singlebarrel, however, one of the city’s first New York–style craft cocktail bars, that she received a foundational education in the tenets of modern cocktail culture. “It was very Milk & Honey,” explains Palac of their speakeasy aesthetic and bartender’s choice menu. She recalls the strict house rules designed to reeducate the public on what constituted a proper cocktail. “We had to say ‘no’ a lot back then, which now seems ridiculous.”

When Singlebarrel closed to reconcept in 2015, Palac bounced around the Bay Area, working primarily at The Interval, a nonprofit bar housed within the Long Now Foundation, under the tutelage of bar director Jennifer Colliau. “I knew [Jennifer] because of Small Hand Foods, but I also knew her because in this sea of men—especially on the West Coast—who were getting shout-outs and book deals, she was one of the few women,” explains Palac. “Everything she does has intention behind it—she takes staple classics and makes them her own.” She cites Colliau’s Navy Gimlet, an iconic twist on the original that simply calls for navy-strength gin and housemade lime cordial, as an example. It’s not hard to see Colliau’s influence on Palac’s own brand of cocktail-making, which favors approachability and balance over experimental technique.

It’s a style that resonates with her guests at Paper Plane, where Palac has been a bartender for the past four and a half years. “When Paper Plane opened, it introduced the idea that cocktails didn’t have to be this small, quiet, fancy thing,” she says. “Cocktails could be accessible on a larger scale for a larger audience.”

In their familiar ingredients and construction, there’s an undeniable comfort in Palac’s cocktails, yet she never fails to imbue each drink with a dose of personality, like calamansi syrup in her Rickshaw, a Sidecar riff that nods to her Filipino heritage, or the float of violet liqueur on her Gunmetal Fix, an unexpected addition to a Bramble-like sour. “There’s an element to them that makes them interesting,” says Palac, “but they can still be enjoyed by most.”

Gunmetal Fix

“Mezcal was always seen as a smoke bomb and a really aggressive flavor,” says Palac, “and every time you see it in a drink it’s usually in a spicy Margarita; I wanted to try something a little more delicate.” Inspired by Dick Bradsell’s modern classic, the Bramble, Palac achieves a similarly craveable combination of agave spirit, lemon juice and pineapple gum syrup. It’s topped with a float of violet liqueur, which gives it the gunmetal-gray appearance that inspired the name. “I remember smelling the mezcal and thinking immediately of flowers, so I tried it with the violet [liqueur],” she says.

 

Cradle to the Grave

Inspired by a trip to Jamaica and its abundance of allspice trees, Palac created this rich stirred cocktail. “Everything had this spice to it,” she recalls of the cuisine, which forms the inspiration for this funky, complex drink built on Jamaican rum. (The name borrows a phrase from Appleton distiller Joy Spence, in reference to how Jamaicans drink rum throughout their life.) To the rum base she adds nutty oloroso sherry, herbal Cynar and a measure of allspice dram, all accented by a dusting of freshly grated nutmeg.

Rickshaw

“This was the first time that I really embraced flavors that I grew up with,” says Palac. Calamansi, a citrus fruit native to the Philippines that she describes as “near and dear,” lends its distinctive tartness to a syrup that replaces traditional simple syrup in this Sidecar variation. “It was an ‘aha!’ moment realizing that there’s only so many ways you can make an Old-Fashioned or a Daiquiri, but when you inject more of yourself and more of what makes you unique then that makes your flavors and your cocktails unique.”

Chai-Rish Coffee

While working at The Interval, not far from Buena Vista Cafe, Palac and the bar team talked frequently on the topic of Irish Coffees, a signature of the nearby bar. What began as a joke—a play on an Irish Coffee made with spiced chai—eventually became a bestseller at Paper Plane. For the drink, Palac combines Irish whiskey, cold brew and a chai syrup and tops the whole thing with chai spice–flavored whipped cream. “This,” she says, “is one of those drinks that I’d call a banger.”

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