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“I think every young bartender is trying to be creative,” says A-K Hada, head bartender at iconic New York bar PDT. “But I think the creativity is in the nuance.”
For Hada, the secret to building drinks is one she learned from PDT proprietor Jim Meehan and general manager Jeff Bell: Instead of starting with high-concept details, focus on the base spirit first, and then push boundaries from there. “It may not sound creative, but that’s how you can create a drink that’s well balanced and delicious,” she says. “That’s what’s most important in a cocktail.”
The Atlanta native’s first introduction to bartending was during her college years at Georgia State and UNC Charlotte. She then switched gears to focus on a dance career, working on cruise ships before eventually settling in New York. After a while, she stopped dancing and took a job at Major Food Group’s Mulberry Street restaurant Parm, where for about a year and half she tended bar during the opening stages of the restaurant. While there, she came to a key realization: “I was enjoying myself more here behind the bar than I was waking up at 5 a.m. to go to auditions,” she says.
From Parm, she did an internship in the pastry department at Locanda Verde, a job that would inform her future drink-making aesthetic. It’s not unusual for her drinks to include an elaborate element that seems like it would be at home on a dessert menu. Take, for instance, the coconut-honey-sesame syrup that complements Japanese whisky and ginger in her Soup to Nuts cocktail, which is finished with a fragrant Makrut lime leaf. “A lot of my drinks have an aromatic component, in terms of the garnish,” she notes. “I think a lot about the garnish.”
In the fall of 2013, she interviewed at PDT on the advice of a friend. “I didn’t know what PDT was, or who Jim [Meehan] was,” she admits. She was hired and began work on January 1 as a host. “When I started…I felt I had to work hard and absorb as much as I could. I worked every position; I worked my way up.” After three years behind the bar, she was named head bartender.
While she credits her PDT mentors with influencing her drink-making style—particularly Meehan and Bell’s efforts to keep her “grounded”—her own unique influences still shine through. In particular, she often draws from flavors that reflect various cultures, including those connected to her own heritage, which is Japanese, French and Italian. “I grew up being an adventurous eater,” she notes.
All of this together brings Hada’s signature drink, the Delivery Point, into relief: It’s a variation on the classic Airmail and revolves around Banks 7 rum (a product pioneered by Meehan) infused with nutty genmaicha, a Japanese tea that mixes green tea with roasted popped brown rice. The finishing touch: a fragrant shiso leaf.
“In general, I try to make sure each ingredient [in a drink] has some continuity, some aroma, some sort of cultural story line.” But, she says, returning to her original point, “it should always go back down to the base spirit.”