With her place-driven recipes, Sam Kiley aims to create drinks capable of drawing in novices and seasoned cocktail enthusiasts in equal measure. “I want to bring people in who are on the cusp of discovering their love for cocktails, and challenge those that think they have found their favorite,” says the New Orleans–based bartender.
A relative newcomer to the field herself, Kiley has just three years in the industry under her belt, but she’s more than made them count. After graduating from Salem College in North Carolina—where she bartended for two months, learning the basics at one of Winston-Salem’s first craft cocktail bars—she worked at nonprofits including League of Conservation Voters and the Climate Reality Project. In 2017, she moved to New Orleans, a city she had previously visited and loved, expecting to pursue opportunities in that same field. As a stopgap measure, she took a job as a bartender at Three Muses, a snug jazz and cocktail bar on Frenchmen Street, but was quickly taken in by the geekier side of cocktails—the rich history and lore. In 2018, she moved to the French Quarter’s proto-tiki rum bar Cane & Table, where she currently works as bar manager. Kiley describes the transition from the world of nonprofits to that of bartending as “seamless,” noting that “the ability to connect with people, [to] break down concepts and to get people coming back are true in both worlds.”
Even in such a cocktail-saturated city as New Orleans, Kiley’s drinks stand out for their ability to turn the more-is-more dictum of tiki upside-down, cramming as much flavor into a drink with fewer ingredients. Take, for example, her Madhatter, a 50/50 Martini variation made with Mississippi gin and a vermouth she made with botanicals native to the Southeast, including chamomile, black pepper, swamp bay leaf and kudzu vine. With just two ingredients, she’s able to translate layered complexity into a simple, familiar blueprint. “Each component is very intentional,” explains Kiley. “I attempt to create a story, not just a taste.”
Here, get to know Sam Kiley in three cocktails.
The BIR Questionnaire
Best (and worst) drink you’ve ever had:
A Mojito in Cuba from our host’s garden—best little lime I’ve ever tasted. And a Mojito accidentally made with salt instead of sugar. Goes to show not to judge a drink by the name but by its contents.
Your favorite bar, and why:
Single Brothers in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It was my first Old-Fashioned and the first bar that felt like a second home. We could pack into that little candlelit room, and fill up the patio outside. The name is actually a Moravian reference, but it was also kind of a sad-boi bar.
Your favorite classic cocktail, and why:
50/50 gin Martini with a twist—to the point, and great to riff.
Worst drink you’ve ever made:
I like to utilize seasonal produce from the kitchen. It was fall so I attempted a roasted squash syrup, coffee liqueur and mezcal with Ango bitters cocktail. It was a flavor combo that didn’t translate from my cooking brain to the bar.
Your go-to dive bar drink order:
Sometimes I luck out with Myers’s Rum. If not, it’s a pour of Tullamore Dew and a ginger beer.
The one thing you wish would disappear from drink lists forever: