The most viral bartender in history isn’t “Professor” Jerry Thomas or Dale DeGroff. Nor is it David Wondrich or Audrey Saunders, or even young Brian Flanagan of Cocktail fame. No, the most viral bartender in the history of the profession is currently an AP history teacher living in Sacramento, and she prefers wine over mixed drinks.
“Hi! I’m JaNee, from Mahalo dot com,” she says at the start of each instructional video, evidently unaware that she will one day break the internet.
Starting in the late summer of 2010, Mahalo.com—a short-lived search engine—quietly uploaded a series of 100 drink-making tutorials to YouTube, all hosted by JaNee Nyberg (née Nisonger). The bare-bones set, amateur videography and Nyberg’s bartending acumen, which might be described as haphazard at best, initially garnered a few views from would-be home bartenders. In 2013, however, deep into the cocktail revival, several acclaimed bartenders (including Erick Castro and Sother Teague) stumbled upon the videos, sharing them among industry friends with great delight.
The videos continued to pick up steam over the years, experiencing blips of borderline virality along the way. Then, in May 2019, it happened: The videos exploded across Facebook and Twitter, being shared millions of times, bolstered by one fan favorite in particular: the most unconventional Old-Fashioned preparation the internet had ever seen.
“I’m losing my fucking mind,” wrote Twitter user @turing_police, echoing just about everyone’s reaction to the video.
By today’s standards, Nyberg’s Old-Fashioned recipe—and the seemingly improvised video demonstrating its build—would hardly be considered archetypal, more closely resembling a drink that might have been served at a chain restaurant in the 1970s. It calls for two artificially colored maraschino cherries, a seed-heavy orange wedge, a sugar cube, a dainty dash of Angostura bitters (the bottle of which, on camera, dispenses not even a single drop into the drink) and a nearly full pint glass of Jim Beam—which Nyberg describes as “three ounces of bourbon,” but, without the benefit of a pour spout, ends up closer to 12. She muddles the ingredients with the handle of a wooden spoon the size of a Little Leaguer’s baseball bat, adds cracked ice to the top, and then sloshes the cocktail between two glasses, spilling a good portion on her workstation in the process.
“It’s like someone told her, these are the flavors in an Old-Fashioned, you got it from here? Great!” wrote one YouTube commenter on the video that has since been taken down by Mahalo, but is still published regularly by a community of superfans. But despite her apparent inexperience, Nyberg did, in fact, know what she was doing.
“To be fair, I was a good bartender,” says Nyberg, who worked at the trendy West Hollywood restaurant Katana as well as Eva Longoria’s restaurant, Beso, to supplement her burgeoning acting career after college. (Her interview at the latter consisted of jumping behind the bar to make 25 Raspberry Lemon Drop shots. She mixed and poured them without fault, and was hired on the spot.)
A model by the time she was 11, Nyberg graduated from high school in Elk Grove, California, at 16, after which she began acting; she appeared on soap operas like The Young and the Restless and Passions in her late teens. Eventually, she decided to put performing aside and return home to attend college. She graduated summa cum laude from University of California, Davis, and got her master’s degree in secondary education at Grand Canyon University. But, unable to shake the acting bug, she moved back to Los Angeles in 2010 to pursue a career in television.
While she was pulling in $300 to $400 a night in bartending tips (“I was making Ginger Lychee Mojitos all night, every night—16 to 20 bucks a cocktail”), acting roles continued to come her way. Kevin Costner, a Katana regular, even got her a leading role in a short film, Demon Cam. She was 26 years old, still struggling to find continuous acting work, when her agent booked her a gig that would allow her to employ her bartending skills on set. The night before the infamous shoot in the late summer of 2010, Nyberg had worked at Katana until 3 in the morning and was due in Santa Monica for a 7 a.m. call time. “A little worse for wear,” Nyberg recalls.
She was stunned when she walked not onto a set, but into a conference room at the Mahalo offices on Colorado Avenue. A black curtain had been draped on the back wall in a perfunctory attempt to dress up the surroundings. In front, a table was set up with dozens of bottles of bottom-shelf alcohol, but, notably, no bartending tools.
“I assumed they were going to have things set up,” Nyberg says. “But they had no pour spouts, no jiggers, no glassware, no sinks, nothing. Huh? Well, OK, let’s do this.”
She wasn’t given a script either, just a spreadsheet listing the 100 drinks she would prepare—50 per day over the two-day shoot, for which she would be paid $2,000. (In the videos from the first day, she’s wearing her now-iconic asymmetrical maroon dress; on day two she’s wearing a black number with a plunging neckline.) The two-person “crew” consisted of a cameraman and a producer, whom—Nyberg was certain—knew nothing about cocktails.
“I tell them, ‘Look, I’m going to be honest, nobody uses sweet and sour mix anymore,’” she recalls. “And they’ve given me these gross maraschino cherries, the cheap drugstore kind, a box of sugar cubes, no simple syrup—I have to make everything up as I go.”
She was forced to ad-lib her way through every drink—each of which was recorded in a single take. “It was ‘And go! And go!’” remembers Nyberg. Since there was no muddler on hand, she asked if the team had anything that could stand in—they found the comically large wooden spoon in the employee break room. She was given a single bucket of ice for the entirety of the shoot, requiring her to reuse it and strain the melted water out between each new video. Some of the drinks they asked her to prepare she had never heard of: a French Whore, a Harrison Ford, a Purple Pirate, the last one inexplicably made by mixing spiced rum and Welch’s grape juice. The drinks she was familiar with were often listed with incorrect ingredients, like spiced rum for the Mojito. She quit arguing, figuring that if the producer didn’t care about accuracy, why should she?
“If you pay attention and watch all the videos, the bottles keep getting emptier and emptier, because we’re using the same stuff for all of the drinks,” she says. Nyberg wrapped up the first day by 2 p.m. in order to make it back to Katana for her shift at 4. As she drove away, she distinctly remembers thinking: “Nobody’s going to watch these because they are horrible.”
It was a fair assumption, given that Nyberg herself had never heard of Mahalo.com prior to that first day on set. Indeed, by 2014 Mahalo was out of business, but most of Nyberg’s videos lived on, garnering more views with each passing year. (Because the original video was removed, it’s hard to gauge precisely how many views it has accumulated.) In a sure sign of virality, parodies were starting to spring up, too, including one from 2018 that has racked up 2.6 million views.
Of course, both the social media and cocktail landscapes have changed dramatically since Nyberg first hosted the videos. In 2010, when she proclaimed that the Old-Fashioned was a drink “not that many people order anymore,” she wasn’t entirely wrong. Robert Simonson’s definitive book on the cocktail was still four years away, and the general drinking public was nowhere near as cocktail literate as it is today. To bash JaNee, a pretty and seemingly ditzy blonde (who, it should be noted, held a master’s degree at the time of filming) making subpar cocktails at a time when just about everyone was making subpar cocktails, was not only low-hanging fruit, but borderline cruel.
“In the beginning, when you read all the stuff, you think, ‘Wow that’s really mean!’ But you realize they’re just doing that for fun, something for them to converse about; they’re not viewing you as a person,” says Nyberg. “But I really wasn’t offended. I knew the videos were bad and that’s not how I even bartended.”
Today, most people in her orbit, including her current students at Highlands High School, don’t know about her former career as an online bartending instructor. She’s happy to be out of the bartending and acting spheres—she can’t imagine how cruel internet commenters must be to truly famous people. She’s much more content spending time with her family, teaching AP history, coaching mock trial and running the school’s women’s empowerment network club.
But she still enjoys a drink on occasion, mostly favoring Basil Hayden’s Bourbon or what she knowingly calls “not sophisticated” New Zealand sauvignon blanc. When her 3-year-old son goes to bed, she often makes a cocktail for herself and her husband, usually incorporating fresh California produce—ingredients already on-hand from their dinner. The night before we spoke, she threw together Hendrick’s Gin with some muddled cucumbers and jalapeño slices, topped with ginger beer. “Despite the horribleness of the video, I can still make a terrific cocktail.”