Portrait of a Bartender: Linda Lichtenwalter
I sat down with Linda Lichtenwalter for this issue’s bartender portrait. Linda has written for Food & Spirits Magazine in the past, mostly in her capacity as a pastry chef for Modern Love, but she can turn an outstanding cocktail around in hurry.
Food & Spirits Magazine: Where do you work and how long have you worked there?
Linda Lichtenwalter: Currently, I am employed at Slowdown (about 8 years), Trap Room (about 3 years), and Jake’s Cigars (about 5 years)
FSM: How long have you been bartending and what are some of the past places you bartended at in the past?
Linda: I have been in the industry for almost 14 years. Over the years I have had the privilege to bartend in a variety of environments. I got my start at the Ranch Bowl, bartending in all the bars there, for the volleyball and bowling leagues, concerts, as well as in the pub. After they closed, I moved to bartending at the Old Market Underground, a very fast paced college bar for a few years. I tried my hand restaurant bartending a little here and there, mostly in the French Café, where I was able to get a little more practice on the classic cocktails. I also worked at House of Loom when they first opened, further expanding my knowledge of the classics, as well as the craft side of bartending.
FSM: When did you know you wanted to be behind the bar?
Linda: I actually became interested in learning to bartend as soon as I became of legal age to do so. It was a fun job to have and offered scheduling flexibility while I was in college. After finishing my degree, I realized that my career path I set out to follow after high school may not be where I was meant to go with my life. I did still enjoy the work I was doing in the bar scene and kept with it. As I was gaining more experience, I was able to start working in bars that required more knowledge in the cocktail world and encouraged creativity in crafting cocktails. At that point, I really started to realize that I was happy with being a career bartender. I know that bartending will definitely be in some way a part of my work in my future.
FSM: Have you had any people along the way who have helped you be the bartender you are today?
Linda: Absolutely! We are all constantly learning from each other in this field. I have definitely learned about new varieties of spirits and flavor profiles from my college years, as well as from the many beer and liquor representatives I have been able to work with over the years at the different bars. Those of us that are passionate about this field, and especially those of us who are cocktail nerds, definitely love to pick each other’s brain about new and exciting things we are doing.
FSM: Where do you find inspiration?
Linda: There are many ways I draw inspiration for the cocktails I create. I often am inspired by new spirits I have not worked with before. I enjoy a challenge to come up with a cocktail to showcase a delicious spirit that others are not likely to be familiar with. I also draw inspiration from working with fresh ingredients or spices. I love to cook, and especially bake, so I sometimes am inspired by something delicious I create with food. This either inspires me to create a cocktail to pair with a dish I made or a cocktail that can mimic what I had made.
FSM: What is the best part of your job? And the worst?
Linda: I have two favorite parts to my job. Being able to create something that a guest enjoys. And if it is a cocktail that I come up with on the fly, it is even more rewarding. That is the most satisfying part of my job, I would say. The second aspect I love about bartending would be the people. Getting to meet new and interesting people is always exciting. As far as parts I don’t enjoy, it is never fun to have to cut someone off or ask someone to leave, especially if they don’t agree with you on making that call. While I do love my guests that I serve, there are also sometimes people that come through that are not quite as nice as others and can be rude to the staff. It is not so enjoyable to put on a fake smile and try to cater to the needs of someone who is trying not to have a good time.
FSM: Do you think bartending will be any different in 20 years?
Linda: I feel the bar trends will continue to evolve and new and exciting venues, cocktail programs and techniques will continue to develop. We continue to learn more about ways to make cocktails and new ingredients are constantly being introduced to the bars. The style of what we are serving and how we are serving them will definitely continue to change. However, I feel the core traits of being a bartender will remain in tact.
FSM: What makes a good bartender?
Linda: There are several aspects to being a good bartender. First of all, you have to be able to talk to people. Someone who bellies up to the bar likely wants a bartender that can hold a conversation while they enjoy their beverage. A good bartender is also knowledgeable about their products they serve. He or she should have a good general knowledge of the varieties of spirits, wines, and beers and know the flavor profiles. This helps inform the guest of what they are about to order, or help them to find the right beverage to enjoy. In some bars, speed plays a big part, especially on a weekend night. Be able to quickly serve drinks without sacrificing quality, either on the cocktail or the interaction with the guest. Finally, it is always a bonus if the bartender can come up with drinks on the spot for someone who may not know what they want. We have to find what the guest wants even if they don’t know what that may be.
FSM: What is your favorite drink to make?
Linda: I love making classic and craft cocktails, of any variety. I do particularly enjoy making the more labor-intensive libations, at least when I am not three people deep at the bar. If I have the time to dedicate to one drink for one person, then I jump on the opportunity. Cocktails involving muddling of fresh ingredients, using egg whites, or making pretty garnishes? Throw them my way!
FSM: What do you drink?
Linda: I am quite a connoisseur in the cocktail world. I do enjoy the occasional beer or glass of wine in certain settings, but overall I definitely gravitate towards cocktails. I always like to peruse a cocktail menu when I am out, and I find the cocktail with the most unique combination of ingredients or flavors, or one with a spirit I am unfamiliar with. If I were at a venue without a cocktail list, my go-to drinks would be either the Horse Feather or the Pimm’s Cup.
FSM: What’s something you wished people knew about being a bartender?
Linda: Well, I feel that many of us in the service industry generally agree that everyone should work in the service industry, even for a brief amount of time. Just so that everyone can understand the stress involved in this business. For example, in your faster paced atmospheres, some people get impatient after waiting for a drink and often can take it out on the bar staff. They don’t seem to notice that we are moving as quickly as we can to get everyone taken care of. They can also better understand reasons why in some cases that we may need to cut off a guest. Of course it would also allow them to better understand tipping etiquette. When a person orders a more complicated cocktail that requires a little extra time to create, you probably would want to tip a little more than you would if you just asked them to crack open a beer.
FSM: Describe the perfect cocktail?
Linda: While there are many styles of cocktails, my favorites are always ones that are well balanced and hit the various parts of your palate. It should have a little tart, sweet, bitter, and bonus if you can incorporate a touch of savory. The flavors should also gradually open up with the sip. The nuances can be lost if the flavors are just muddled together when you take a drink. It is much more enjoyable if you smell one element as you raise your glass, taste one as it hits your tongue, another as you drink, and another with the aftertaste.
FSM: What do you think some of the current trends are with bartending?
Linda: Craft bars are popping up all over currently. I have been enjoying seeing a playful touch to the craft cocktail menus at some bars. Where they take exceptional spirits, and pair them in surprising combinations and a fun name to top it off. While I love a beautiful artistic concoction, I find it refreshing to see a non-pretentious approach developing in the craft world. It makes it a little more approachable to the masses while still incorporating unique ingredients, alcoholic or not.
FSM: Since you’re also a baker, what are some of the similarities and differences between baking and bartending?
Linda: In my experience as a pastry chef, I have definitely noticed some similarities in the two fields. Knowledge of flavor profiles is key in both. Where in baking I am focusing on spices and fresh ingredients, when it comes to cocktails, I am simply incorporating spirits. This can be spirits to go along with spices and fresh ingredients, or spirits that mimic those same flavors. I have definitely expanded my knowledge on syrups and shrubs as well. I have learned some new approaches to making these ingredients to bring about stronger flavors so that when used in garnishing on a dessert it can pack more of a punch. This easily applies to bartending as well since these ingredients are frequently used in the field. I specialize in vegan and gluten-free baking which allows me to use some more unique ingredients with interesting scientific properties. Knowing how to handle those ingredients can allow for me to make some unique garnishes to add to a cocktail. Working in both these fields, it is definitely fun to use crossover knowledge. I have made desserts mimicking classic cocktails as well cocktails to pair with desserts I have made and brought to the bar to share with my guests.
Erik Totten is the founder and publisher of Food & Spirits Magazine in Omaha, Nebraska. He's worked in publications for the last 21 years at all levels. As well as serving as a writer, designer, photographer and editor, he's also founded two publications which have allowed him to grow into being a publisher, which he would describe as his 'true calling'.
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