Part chef, part artist, and part therapist, a great bartender has the ability to improve your day with a fistful of ice and a pretty coupe glass. While making sourdough and TikTok feta pasta got us through the pandemic, there was no way to recreate the joy of sitting at a bar with a properly made drink during lockdown. And that’s brought people back to bars.
“There’s more of an appreciation for craft cocktails now,” says Nick Miller-Garringer, general manager of Paddle Inn in Newburyport, who works closely with bar manager Cady Jones to develop the restaurant’s creative cocktails. “We’re noticing a lot more people ordering drinks off our menu versus a vodka soda, and I think that’s coming from doing their own at-home bartending and realizing it’s not as easy as they think it is.”
Certainly, you won’t find a sesame-fat-washed Scotch for your home bar—the star of “Oh My Goodness,” a luscious, savory yet refreshing drink on their spring menu. “I feel like a lot of people are appreciative of what we do more than ever before,” agrees Jones.
And beyond the drinks, that cherished role as sympathetic ear is especially needed now—and most mixologists are happy to listen. “It’s nice if you’re making that person’s day better,” Jones says. “If they’re going to walk out of here, having a great experience, a great conversation, a great cocktail, and a great meal, then I feel good.”
We’ve rounded up some of the best bartenders north of Boston to find out what makes them excited, what’s trending—and what pearls of wisdom they have to share.
Bar Manager, Row 34, Burlington
Inspiration: “Learning from [bartending greats] Thomas Fawcett, Jackson Cannon, and Vannaluck Hongthong has greatly improved my skill set and techniques, both behind the bar and personally.”
Favorite spirit: Whiskey—both bourbon and rye. “They provide a great starting base, from drinking neat or on the rocks, to classic cocktails like an Old Fashioned and a Manhattan.”
Signature Drink: The Red Eye, a riff on an Old Fashioned, with Rittenhouse Rye Whiskey, St. George’s coffee Liqueur, Averna, Demerara syrup, and a dash each of Bittermen’s Xocolatl Mole and Angostura bitters, finished with an orange peel.
Wisdom: “Don’t be too hard on yourself, and be willing to fail.”
Cady Jones and Nick Miller Garringer
Bar manager and general manager, Paddle Inn, Newburyport
Inspiration: Both cite Beau Sturm, co-owner. “Beau found me and opened up an entirely different world of bartending. And I just caught the bug,” says Jones, while Miller-Garringer had his first date with his husband Morton at Trina’s Starlite Lounge, another of Sturm’s restaurants, and the pair were married by Sturm’s wife Trina.
Spirit: Jones says cachaca. “A lot of people do not know about it. I love teaching people about a new thing. And it’s so versatile—I just love to play with it.” Miller-Garringer says, “I like to work with things that are a little bit harder, just because I like the challenge. [It’s a way to] draw people into liking things that aren’t typically liked.”
Signature cocktail: “We make a great Painkiller here,” Jones says. “With the surfing on the TV and the beachy vibes, for one second, you can feel like you’re on vacation.”
Trending: “Low ABV, and a lot of healthier style cocktails,” says Miller-Garringer. “Shrubs, and things like turmeric and beets.”
Wisdom: “Anything my therapist tells me,” Jones quips. “But really, it’s nice when you can make people feel good.”
Bar Manager, Elm Square Oyster Co., Andover
Inspiration: “I enjoy not knowing how each night will go. It’s never monotonous. I like meeting new people and learning about jobs or hobbies I knew nothing about, like one person who made electric car battery testing machines and a person who flies private jets.”
Favorite spirit: Vodka. “It’s versatile and the most popular, but when I put out a cocktail list I try to have a few drinks with each main spirit.”
Signature cocktail: “Guests’ preferences are always changing, and with that the cocktails that I make. Currently Old Fashioned, and Espresso, Violet Lemon Drop, or Dirty Martinis.”
Wisdom: “People just want someone to listen to them, but if you do give advice, don’t make it too good or they won’t be back.”
Sean P. Maher
Bar Manager, Ledger Restaurant, Salem
Inspiration: “The book Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails by Ted Haigh, which I was introduced to by a co-worker and friend, Scott Holiday (formerly of Chez Henri and Rendezvous). It melded my love of history with the craft of bartending.”
Favorite spirit: “Brown spirits, particularly bourbon and amari. I like the depth, complexity, and flavor you can get using these.”
Trending: “People are enjoying more whimsical and fun cocktails this summer. After everything we have all been through, I think people are looking forward to having a great summer drinking fun rosé, tiki drinks, and whatever else makes them happy!”
Bar Manager, Brine, Newburyport
Inspiration: “At first, I wanted a backup plan that could pay the bills during tough times, and I ended up developing a new passion.”
Favorite spirit: Rum. “It gets a bad rap because a lot of people believe it’s naturally too sweet, when quality rum absolutely isn’t…. I put a lot of thought and care into all of my drinks, but usually just a little extra thought and care into my rum cocktails.”
Trending: Ingredients in ways guests might not expect. “For summer, that might mean using something like banana in an elegant stirred whiskey cocktail rather than a tiki drink.”
Wisdom: “I’ve worked with bartenders who were paying their way through school, part-time bartenders who had day jobs, and bartenders who had left other careers. I don’t believe any of them had a degree in psychology, but I do like to think most of us have some wisdom to share—or, at the very least, an ear to lend.”
Bartender, Privé, Andover
Inspiration: “The history of cocktails and spirits is so rich and interesting. I especially love how you could travel to the other side of the world with just a taste of a drink.”
Signature drink: Kiss from a Rose, with rose-petal-infused vodka, lychee sake, fresh raspberry syrup, and lemon juice. “It is inspired by my wife’s favorite iconic Parisian dessert, the Ispahan, a macaron cake filled with fragrant rose buttercream, lychee cream, fresh raspberries and lychee.”
Wisdom: “Appreciate the little things in life, and start and end every day with a laugh.”
General Manager/Beverage Director, Nightshade Noodle Bar
Inspiration: “I have always appreciated experience-building, and my love for wine and spirits lies in how what we drink is woven into how we experience meals and the company we share them with: clinking glasses and bubbles elevate celebration, bitter spirits aid in digestion, great pairings heighten the senses and invite you to focus on things you may never have noticed about flavor.”
Favorite spirit: “I am a contrarian, so I love working with things that people are convinced they don’t like, such as sherry ('too sweet'), vermouth ('I like dry martinis'), mezcal ('too smoky') or super bitter spirits.”
Signature drink: “A lot of our guests ask for flights of amaro or wine. I’ll break out three or four contrasting or complimentary products and we will taste and discuss together.”
Wisdom: “When guests feel safe enough to share intimate details about their lives with us, that’s a big compliment. I just try to listen and provide empathy and a touch of levity when appropriate.”
Bar Manager, Opus, Salem
Inspiration: “I got into bartending expecting it would be a trade I could take with me anywhere. I fell in love with the people at Opus and learned a lot! We have a very creative and knowledgeable team.”
Favorite spirit: Gin. “It’s so universal and versatile. It is particularly awesome to get people who think they hate gin to like it.”
Signature drink: Jagged Edge. “It’s the first cocktail I created that I was super proud of. Rye and aged rum with dry curaçao, gran classico and bitters. The Old Fashioned drinker will love it.”
Wisdom: “Communicate problems and issues and get them solved ASAP. Problems that fester can lead to horrible conclusions.”
Assistant Bar Manager, The Baldwin Bar, Woburn
Inspiration: “I fell in love with the allure of being in a bar, drinking with friends, and just having a grand old time. One day, I told myself, what if I was behind the bar making delicious drinks and showing people a good time? …. 10 or so years later, I’m working with the best team I’ve worked with, at the best cocktail bar in Massachusetts.”
Favorite spirit: “I like to switch it up all the time—that way I could hone the flavor profile of a particular spirit. Think of it like lifting weights at the gym: You have to incorporate muscle confusion, you can’t just do the same routine. My “bartender’s ketchup” is Licor 43; it’s complex, vanilla-forward, and adds depth in either stirred or shaken cocktails.”
Signature drink: The Halo-halo. “My spin on a Piña Colada uses ube [purple yam], a staple ingredient back in my hometown of Manila, Philippines. [It’s] a blend of cachaça and silver rum, coconut milk, condensed milk, pineapple juice, and fresh squeezed lime. Creamy, refreshing, and aesthetically pleasing.”
Wisdom: “My solution is to make something stiff for them. It usually works.”
Barmaiden Extraordinaire, Joy Nest, Newburyport
Inspiration: “I’m a culinary major. I’ve always been intrigued by how flavors pair with each other and finding the perfect balance first in food and then drinks.”
Signature cocktail: “I like to think outside the realm of a signature, though I’ve been told numerous times my Old Fashioneds are the best... I really enjoy creating custom cocktails tailored to a specific person using a set of questions to determine preferences.”
Trending: Herbal infusions, ferments like kombucha and jun, and mocktails. “Many people are pushing for health and wellness these days, and I really like experimenting with different ferments. … and just like adult-style milkshakes took off a few years ago, adult bubble teas might be making an appearance on our menu.”
Wisdom: “Sage advice for anyone who sees their bartender as a psychologist: just keep in mind that we, being sober while working, will most likely remember the things said.”
Barkeep, Free Pour Princess, Blue Ox, Lynn
Inspiration: “Being home for my family during the day, and combining my two loves of creating and cooking [while] providing a hospitable and delicious experience.”
Favorite spirits: Vodka and tequila. “They are both malleable and mix deliciously with so many seasonal, fresh flavors.”
Signature cocktail: Up The Ante, a blend of smoky mezcal, elderflower, thyme, strawberry, lemons and pink grapefruit.
Lead Bartender, Short & Main, Gloucester
Inspiration: “I was a music major. For a lot of creative types, it’s a natural progression. The ability to be creative, as well as the energy of busy night, can be rewarding.”
Favorite spirit: Mezcal. “It is such a perfect spirit to substitute in a lot of classic cocktails. My favorite drink is a Negroni with mezcal. The smokiness of the mezcal adds a perfect extra layer of complexity to the drink.”
Signature drink: “I like turning guest on to new cocktails based on what their favorite spirits are.”
Trending: Lower-proof cocktails. “People are going to be excited to just get out of the house and catch up with friends, and aren’t necessarily going to be looking for the strongest drink on the menu. I think we’ll see more cocktails with amaros and vermouths as their base spirits. I also foresee myself making a few Pimms cups this summer.”
Wisdom: “Watch an episode of Cosmos. That usually has a profound effect of putting things in perspective.”
Restaurants aren’t the only spots for a perfect cocktail. With the number of distilleries on the North Shore continuing to grow, locally made liquor is available for just about every spirit, from rum to vodka. What’s really cool? When an attached cocktail lounge enables fans to explore expert preparations of their locally distilled spirits.
At Deacon Giles (75 Canal St., Salem), the Speakeasy Lab is a lounge-y space that puts bartenders front-and-center. A visit allows you to explore their full range of spirits, featured in everything from a Hemingway Daiquiri to the Essex Street Espresso Martini, which doubles down on the local, combining Deacon Giles’ vodka and Essex Roasters Espresso.
At Short Path (71 Kelvin St., Everett), they offer an astonishing array of spirits, from gin and whiskey to fernat and triple sec. Please don’t plan to explore all 25-plus in a night in their large, exposed-brick lined space, but if you want to try several, check out the Gin & Tonic flight, featuring four mini G&Ts, each with a different gin. Or the sour flight—four little sour cocktails, each with a different liquor.