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This Is What Creativity Means to James Socci

The Portland bartender on why storytelling is key to the human experience, imitating Oprah and the recipe for her Helen of Troy-inspired A Thousand Ships cocktail.

Jamie Socci Most Imaginative Bartender

Mythologist Joseph Campbell once remarked that in the modern world, the cocktail party is a ritual that serves an almost-religious function. “This is the Confucian idea, that relationships are the way you experience the Tao,” Campbell said in an interview. “Realize that’s what you’re doing when you’re giving a cocktail party.”

It’s with this in mind that bartender Jamie Socci, after pursuing anthropology, religion and philosophy in her undergraduate and graduate studies, has always approached the world of cocktails. Currently behind the bar in Portland, Oregon, she aims to give guests a sense of intimacy and a space where they can feel comfortable being themselves. She sees the act of meeting a friend for a drink as one of the most “recognizable and integrated rituals that we currently have.”

She strives to achieve the same outside the bar, hosting monthly storytelling circles that tap into oral narrative traditions stretching back to Homer and beyond. “The bulk of it is really providing a platform for other people to share what’s on their hearts and minds.”

Facilitating group expression is something Socci has been doing since childhood, when she would emulate Oprah by bringing together fellow first- and second-graders to discuss the latest topics of conversation on the host’s daytime talk show. It’s little surprise that, while bartending as a student, she discovered she thrived on the ability to immediately connect with people through making drinks. “When I bartend, I get that kind of instant satisfaction of someone wants a drink, I make it for them, and they’re delighted and grateful right there in the moment.”

After graduate school, Socci ended up in Portland, and, by chance, was introduced to cocktail impresario and bar manager Jeffrey Morgenthaler, who hired her. At first, she says, she was intimidated by the level of skill and knowledge required for working at Morgenthaler’s bars. But she was also fulfilled by how the job drew on all her faculties, from the physical to the intellectual to the social.

Recently, Socci came up with a way to challenge the staff to develop original drinks. As an exercise, she helped organize a faux competition where staff bartenders invented and submitted drinks to a panel of judges. The event landed three new drinks on the bar menu. For Socci, it demonstrated that efforts undertaken communally work to the advantage of every member.

“It was exciting to see the whole team kind of really feeling like they were a part of putting this together,” she says. “I think creativity multiplies when other minds are … being creative together in a playful manner.”

What is your creative outlet outside of bartending?
Ritual storytelling.

How does it inspire you?
Myths speak to a deeper, archetypal part of humanity. They connect us to each other through time and space. They also open a door for us to tell our own, personal stories.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
Find the people that inspire you. When I was a freshman in undergrad, I was questioning whether or not I should stay at the university I had chosen. As I was considering my options, one of my professors told me… [to] find the people that inspired me and study with them. She said that this was more important than the school or major I chose. I’ve thought of this often and applied it to every part of my life, whether that’s choosing friends or places to work or people to hire.

Describe your creative process in one sentence.
I’m a meticulous researcher and that’s my foundation, but the moment of creation happens when I can drop everything and just sink into the energy of others and let it flow.

What’s been the most rewarding aspect of competition so far
Challenging myself to articulate why this work is so important to me has clarified what I bring into the world.

What do you want to be when you grow up?
I majored in anthropology in college and one of my professors said that anthropologists tell the story of those who have no voice. Now I create spaces for others to share their own story. The best I can be is someone who respects the unique voices of others and empowers people on their own journeys of discovery.

Best thing you ever drank:
Everything is contextual. Sparkling rosé at sunset, Scotch after a long week at work, a Whiskey Sour on a rare night out… The best drink is what helps you celebrate the moment.

Worst thing you ever drank:
Everything I drank in my early 20s, but I loved it! My best friends and I were known for making “Gin Buckets” at our parties: one bottle of gin, one bottle of Juicy Juice, one bottle of Sprite, served with a turkey baster directly into your mouth.

Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted:
I don’t think any attempt at a cocktail is weird. I think every idea is worth exploring and testing, because you never know. That said, the journey from idea to finished cocktail usually involves a lot of nasty drinks along the way.

What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not eating, drinking or drink-making?
If I’m not hosting a circle or ritual, watching TV or reading a book while cozied up with my partner and my cat.

If you had to listen to one album on loop for the rest of your life, what would it be?
The thought makes me very claustrophobic. I’d have to pick something without words, like Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony.

What’s the weirdest hobby you currently have or have had?
Some might argue most of what I do is weird. I suppose making vejigantes, traditional Puerto Rican papier-mâché demon masks.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago
That the last season of Game of Thrones would be mostly underwhelming. But it’s really the journey that matters more than the ending.

Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten:
A cocktail with pickles and honey. I said no.

What’s your go-to drink in a cocktail bar?
Gin Martini.

Dive bar?
Pour of whiskey.

The one thing you wish would disappear from drink lists forever:
I think people should drink what they like. I’m very particular about what I personally drink, but I don’t think anyone needs to follow my rules or anyone else’s.

Last text message you sent:
Let’s catch up soon and swap stories.