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.
When Megan Cross was five, she already knew she wanted to be a bartender. Her dad’s favorite show was Cheers, and sometimes she would fake a stomachache at bedtime so she’d be allowed to lie on the couch when it came on. “I wasn’t allowed to face the TV, though. So I listened to it, and the characters lived in my head in a totally different way,” she says. She still wants to be Sam Malone when she grows up.
Originally from Bakersfield, California, Cross’s first job behind a bar was actually at a pub while she was living in the UK; it was the only job she could manage landing without a worker’s visa. When she arrived back in California, she tried her hand at the film industry, writing and vegan cooking, before fully committing to the path of the cocktail bartender. “I wrote down five LA bartenders’ names I respected and wanted to work with. I was walking down Abbot Kinney and was kind of freaking out, needing a job. I literally ran into one of the people I had on my list.” Eventually, she connected with Pablo Moix and Steve Livigni, who were opening Old Lightning in Venice, a reservations-only cocktail bar with a 1200-bottle collection.
While there, Cross was tapped by a regular guest to open two venues at the newly remodeled Hutton Hotel in Nashville, where she has since moved. Having gained an expertise in rare spirits at Old Lightning, she also builds spirits collections for clients—specializing in uncovering American bourbon sold on the Japanese market. That ongoing obsession with spirits shines through her drink-making style :“Whenever I make drinks, I’m trying to enhance the spirit and make sure it maintains its original integrity,” she says, as evidenced by her Bacardi 8-laden Handsome in Handcuffs. “I’m big on letting the spirit speak for itself.”
By the Numbers
Current occupation: Beverage Manager at Analog and West End Kitchen & Bar at Hutton Hotel.
What do want to be when you grow up? A baby. (When I was in second grade and had to draw a picture of “what I want to be when I grow up,” I drew a stick figure pushing a stroller. My teacher thought it was sweet that I wanted to be a mommy. I took my picture back and drew an arrow pointing inside the stroller.) OR Sam Malone.
What books are essential to have behind the bar? The Savoy Cocktail Book and a book of guests’ favorite cocktails.
How would you describe your style of drink-making? High-proof.
If you could have three people, living or dead, come sit at your bar, who would they be? Ellen DeGeneres, Hunter S. Thompson and Gam Gam (one of my best friends).
What’s your favorite thing to educate drinkers about? The folklore, the stories that have created drinking our culture.
In your opinion, what’s been the greatest change in drinking culture in the last decade? No waste, which is amazing. Wasting ingredients breaks everyone’s heart a little each time.
What’s the next great frontier in cocktail culture? The opposite of a speakeasy—an open and inviting space that welcomes guests into a friendly atmosphere.
You’re spending one final night drinking anywhere in the world, where is it and what are you drinking? My final night of drinking would be a party with my dear friends on the Spruce Goose at the museum in McMinnville, Oregon, with copious amounts of gin and freshly foraged mushroom dishes from Joel Palmer House.
Tell us about your drink: The Handsome in Handcuffs is kind of named after Freddy Schwenk, a bartender here in Nashville who helped me find my roots [here]. His knuckle tattoos say Handsome. It’s basically an El Presidente with strawberry syrup, which really enhances the Bacardi 8. The syrup adds a great texture… Sometimes we do an orange expression to brighten it up on your nose.
What does leadership behind the bar mean to you? I believe a strong leader has a strong presence. That becomes difficult when I have two bars literally on top of each other, but if I’m not in one, I’m in the other. I also believe in leading by example. There isn’t a job I wouldn’t do.
Best thing you ever drank: The entire Parker’s Heritage line and Ken’s Choice by Ken Matsuyama.
Worst thing you ever drank: My first Manhattan. I’d never seen Sex and the City, but knew it took place in NYC, so I assumed that famous pink drink was a Manhattan. It wasn’t.
If you had to listen to one album on loop, for the rest of your life, what would it be? TLC, Crazy Sexy Cool.
What’s the weirdest hobby you currently have or have had? I used to build model planes. I still do a bit. I love visiting airports. Most of them have amazing vantage points and some even have parks meant for pedestrians. Every time, I arrive or leave an airport, no matter the stress or ease, I’m in awe because every emotion, at some point, exists inside an airport. OR building Home Depot carts online while eating milkshakes and watching D- list horror movies or anything with “princess” in the title. OR hula-hooping
What do you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago? Bitcoin is a thing.
Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted: I can only say it involved dominoes, dice and a pendulum.
What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not eating, drinking or drink-making? Typing stories or poems on an old Royal my dad gave to me. Bartending is obviously very social, and I find it cathartic to communicate without using my voice. Although I like to sing. Privately.
Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten: “Whatever you like to drink.” If they only knew. I would make a drink out of ranch dressing, croutons and bacon bits.
Your favorite bar, and why: Le Calbar in Paris. It’s everything I love: amazing crew, creative, fun and no pants. I mean…
Best meal you’ve ever had: Kobe in Kobe with Niko Novick. Ramen in Shinjuku with Timur Dmitriyev, at a place we can only remember by getting lost. Although, the T-bone at Scopa, with Katarina’s oil, made me say f*** it to a ten-year meat-free diet.
What’s your go-to drink in a cocktail bar? Gin.
Wine bar? Gin. Even if I have to bring it myself.
In a dive bar? Gin.
Your preferred hangover recovery regime: Pretending.
The one thing you wish would disappear from drink lists forever: Fingerprints.
The last text message you sent: “Is there someone in your place? I’m at work and my mom is freaking out.”