Lynn House is a woman of many talents. Not only has she overseen the bar program at Chicago’s Blackbird, but she has worked at Graham Elliot and The Drawing Room. Just a few of her mixology awards include being a 2009 national finalist for Bombay Sapphire/GQ Magazine’s Most Inspired Bartender, 2010 National finalist for the 42 Below World Cup Cocktail competition, 2010 national finalist Benedictine/Esquire Magazine Alchemist of our Age, and 2011 national finalist for Bacardi Legacy. She now represents PAMA liqueur full-time as their official Brand Ambassador and is president of the Chicago chapter of LUPEC (Ladies United for the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails). I caught up with Lynn recently to ask her how she got started.
GSN: What drew you into the world of bartending and mixology?
Lynn: I worked in restaurants to pay for college. So I have been in the industry for over 25 years. I was primarily a server. About 15 years back I had the opportunity to help open Spring Restaurant in Chicago. Ironically the chef (Shawn McLain) and I grew up together. We had both worked in the same restaurant during college. He was receiving huge accolades and for me it was an opportunity to leave causal dining and go into the more financially lucrative fine dining scene. While there I continued to learn about food, sake, wine and beer. However what struck me as odd was that we were paying little attention to the products we were using behind the bar. It made no sense to serve a beautiful piece of fish, that had just been flown in from Japan, with a cocktail made out of blue curacao (fact). I realized although I had worked in restaurants and bars for years, I had no idea of what I was serving, I wanted to learn more and I wanted us to carry higher quality products and make better cocktails. I approached my boss, who also ran the wine program, and told her she should incorporate spirits trainings in with our wine program. She had no interest and said if that’s how I felt, then I should do the research and lead staff trainings. I purchased several books on spirits, sat in on tastings, lead staff trainings and the rest as they say, became history. I would then go on to study with the Academy of Spirits and Fine Service, The Advanced Academy of Culinary Mixology and Bar Smarts.
Lynn: To me these skills go hand in hand. Both the mixology world and the culinary world are about flavor building, finding a balance, creating a sensory experience and hospitality. It frustrates me more people don’t embrace this. I have had chefs tell me cocktails don’t match well with food. I have had bartenders serve a fantastic drink but can’t tell me one thing about the food menu. I am fortunate to have come from a culinary and wine background. I am always looking for ways for the two to intertwine and I believe that is what gives me a unique voice in this business.
GSN: Where do you see the bartending world heading these days?
Lynn: I see it getting a little simpler. The fact is, the 20 minute cocktail works best in small venues. Places that do high volume have to find a happy medium. Our customer is smarter and more willing to step out of their comfort zone when it comes to experimenting with spirits. We are going to continue to see huge growth in artisanal local made spirits, wine, beer, and bitters. I think we are also going to see more and more local and national programs train bartenders in their craft.
GSN: What advice would you give to a beginning bartender?
Lynn: My best advice for a beginning bartender is to find someone who they truly admire and see if you can stage with them, or take them out to lunch and pick their brain. Learn as much about food, wine and beer as possible. It will help your palate become more well-rounded. Take advantage of all the training programs available. Be patient and be humble.
Lynn: The Joy of Mixology, The Spirit Journal and the Flavor Bible. Paul Pacult’s Spirit Journal is simply one of the greatest compilations of spirits in one book. He has an amazing palate and is very detailed and thorough. The Joy of Mixology has been a wonderful resource for myself to learn about cocktail construction, and The Flavor Bible is an absolute must for everyone. Even though it is traditionally thought as a book for chefs. I have so many friends who use this as their number one resource. My personal copy looks like it has gone to hell and back.
GSN: What’s the one cocktail you’ve created you’re most proud of?
Lynn: London Calling. It was a modern twist on a Pimm’s Cup. Plymouth Gin, Pimm’s #1, ginger syrup, lemon, home-made apple butter and cucumber soda. It has been featured in countless publications including Gaz Regan’s The Bartenders Gin Compendium. The Clash was one of my favorite bands of all time and I wanted to create a cocktail that paid homage to them. That cocktail followed me at 2 two restaurants and was part of my fall menu for 5 seasons.
GSN: Who do you admire in the spirits/bartending world?
Lynn: My heroes are Bridget Albert, Debbi Peek, Steve Olson, Tony Abu-Ganim and Gaz Regan. They have all had a profound influence on my career.
GSN: How did you end up working with Heaven Hill and PAMA?
Lynn: I sustained a severe bar injury last year. I tore the tendon in my right arm from shaking KD ice. It was incredibly painful and because I could not sit out of work for 3 months it took a very long time to heal. I started to think about my longevity in this business. I love the world of liquid, but my body was having difficulty with the hours and physical stress. I spent the next 8 months putting feelers out and looking for an opportunity that would best fit my character. Heaven Hill was in the process of creating the position. I knew several members of the team, had done work for them before and had nothing but the utmost respect for the company. My dear friend, teacher and mentor Bridget Albert really thought this would be a good fit for me. She encouraged me to put my name in the hat. I did, and the interview process began. Eventually after about 2 months of phone interviews and flying in to meet key people, I found out I got the job.
GSN: What is your life like, as a brand ambassador?
Lynn: Life as a brand ambassador is a tough one to describe. First and foremost I love it!!!! There is a tremendous amount of travel. I am on the road an average of 3 weeks a month. For some this can be difficult, however for me it’s exciting. I have been able to visit places I have never been to before, meet amazing new people and reconnect with friends I often only see once a year at Tales. You have to be organized because you are juggling several balls at once. First you are the face of your product, so there is always a sense of being “on”. I am very involved with our social media, I work not only with bartenders, enlightening them about PAMA, but I work with our distributors and retailers teaching them about PAMA. I write recipes for national accounts. No longer do I get menu credit, but I know when I go into an AMC theatre, that’s my recipe on the menu. I design recipes for individual accounts, participate in events like Repeal Day, Camp Runamok, Tales and PDX. I work hand in hand with our PR company making guest bar appearances, tv and newspaper interviews and MC’ing press events. I design spirit dinners and work closely with the USBG.
GSN: How did your work in theatre and acting play into your work as a bartender and brand ambassador?
Lynn: My work in theatre and acting trained me to be comfortable in front of people. In acting we talk a lot about filling the space. When you step onto the stage, you take control of your environment. That is definitely how I approached the bar. I treated it like a stage, my customers were the audience and I filled the space. In acting you also spend a lot of time training your voice. Bars can be loud and stressful on the vocal chords. It’s important to know how to project without going hoarse.
Lynn: The bar culture in Columbus is dramatically different now than it was when I grew up there. When I was growing up we ate at Friday’s and Godfathers pizza. You drank either beer (mostly beer) or Long Island Iced Teas. I usually frequented the campus bars whose specialty was Buckets of Suds. I have just returned from a visit to Columbus and I was in shock at how much it has changed. Beer is still king there, and there is a thriving Brewery District. However, the craft cocktail scene started to emerge a few years back and it is continuing to grow. There is a huge focus on traditional classic cocktails. Ohio is a control state, and so not everything is available. I was impressed to see several distilleries had opened. Their tasting rooms stay constantly packed. Because it is in a control state, Columbus has really embraced the idea of staying local.
GSN: What’s the funniest thing that ever happened to you while bartending?
Lynn: I remember one time there was a leak in my bar sink. My boss would not believe me. He kept saying that I was overflowing my sink. Apparently it chose not to leak on my days off. He refused to have a plumber come look at the leak. This went on for weeks until finally one Friday night right at the beginning of the dinner rush, the pipe that had been leaking gave way and my bar turned into a lagoon. It was a fine dining establishment so we had to act like everything was okay. I’m behind the bar in heels and a nice dress trying to pretend that I wasn’t skating on 3 inches of water. My boss had just left work, so I got my camera phone and took photos the water just rushing through the bar and sent them to him. The whole restaurant was laughing because we knew he had to drive an hour to get back to the restaurant. I had a great I Told You So moment when he got back.
Lynn: I keep 2 phones. When I’m not working or on the road, the work phone is put away. Just like I book trips, I book time with family and friends, as well as down time for myself. You have to decide what is a priority in your life and for me it’s balance. I love work, but I love my family and friends even more. When I’m on the road I like to send little notes to them so they know I am thinking about them.
GSN: Lastly, in one sentence, sum up what PAMA is to you.
Lynn: A beautiful well-balanced all natural liqueur that compliments white and dark spirits.
For more information, visit PAMA.com