By Jenniffer Weigel
Bridget Albert approaches cocktails with the mind-set of a chef.
“You have to understand balance and flavor,” says Albert, regional director of mixology at Southern Wine & Spirits of Illinois, Minnesota and Kentucky. “If you talk to anyone who’s in my position, not only can they make great drinks, they’re all pretty darn good cooks, too.”
Albert creates beverage programs and cocktail menus for restaurants across the U.S. and is co-author of “Market Fresh Mixology: Cocktails for Every Season” (Agate Surrey). She also teaches her craft to aspiring bartenders, and is one of 10 finalists in the “Best Bar Mentors in the World” category at the 2015 Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards, to be held July 18 in New Orleans.
Albert says she is still amazed she gets to make cocktails for a living.
“And believe it or not, I’m actually not a big drinker,” she says. “But this is what I do and know and love. In my family, we have a terrific history with Chicago and bartending and beverage.”
Raised in the Illinois farming town of Shorewood to parents she describes as “hard-working and loving,” Albert says her ties to the spirits industry go back generations, on both sides of the family.
“My 98-year-old grandmother (Rosella Pancurak) worked and lived in the family tavern in Coal City (Ill.) from the time she was a child until it closed down in the late 1940s,” she says. “And on my dad’s side of the family, my great-grandmother used to make bathtub gin during Prohibition.”
Albert and her husband, Jamie, returned to live in Shorewood after their daughter, Paige, was born. “I’d been on the opening team of the Bellagio in Las Vegas (working as a bartender), and we decided we wanted to raise our daughter closer to family, so we moved home in 2005,” she says.
Following is an edited version of our conversation at the Southern Wine & Spirits’ Hospitality Center in Chicago.
Q: When did you first start working in the beverage industry?
A: When I turned 21, I was a cocktail server for a week at the Empress River Casino in Joliet. I’m a tomboy, I grew up chasing frogs and fishing and playing in the river. I had to wear heels and pantyhose, (and) I didn’t even know how to walk in heels. It was horrible. I can’t flirt, so I made no money. I can be hospitable, though. A bartender got sick one day, and I asked if I could jump behind the bar. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I loved it. I got to wear pants and tennis shoes, and I got to be myself and didn’t have to be pretty for anybody. I could just be happy. I never left.
Q: When did you start to get creative with cocktails?
A: I started to experiment at the bar. My goal was, every day at the bar, I wanted every person who sat with me to be drinking something different. So (when) you would look at my bar, it would almost be a rainbow of flavors. Then I started competing with my cocktails, I think it was 1998 or so, through the United States Bartenders’ Guild and other competitions that gave me a platform to get my cocktails judged. I didn’t care so much if I won, I just wanted some feedback. I need to learn and grow. Then I started winning. I thought, “How cool!” It was great fun. Then I started taking it more seriously.
Q: Who was your mentor?
A: Tony Abou-Ganim (a nationally known mixologist and author of “The Modern Mixologist”). I met him in Vegas when I helped to open the Bellagio. He was sharing his passion with other people, and I saw how it got them really excited. I’ll never forget, he did this giant pep rally for the beverage staff and I said, “I want to be him!” And I drove him bananas for two years, asking him, “What can I do to help? I just want to learn from you.” He gave me a chance.
Q: What’s one of your favorite awards that you’ve won or a favorite award memory?
A: I won the first “Tales of the Cocktail” competition in 2007. And I was (an honoree) at the James Beard Awards (in 2009, saluting influential women in the food and beverage industry). I was really nervous to meet Martha Stewart and Emeril Lagasse. I was thinking, “Wow, how did I get here?” It was a very big moment.
Q: What is an underappreciated cocktail that’s great for summer?
A: A spritzer. I love bubbles. So start off with a base spirit of your choice, then add some club soda, or sparking wine, and a little fresh fruit or fresh juice. You can batch them, and they’re incredibly easy to make.
Q: What’s the biggest mistake you see your students make?
A: They are afraid they’re going to make a mistake. I see it all the time. They get really uptight and say, “I can’t do that!” And I say, “Sure you can. Go for it!” So what if you make a mistake? You just start over.
Q: What’s the most bizarre drink request you’ve ever gotten?
A: Once I got a request for four frozen tomato cocktails. I was, like, “Huh?” And I did some experimenting, and it came out delicious. That’s when I started to experiment more with veggies in drinks, because before that I would think Bloody Mary and that’s it. Now I use beets, green peppers, radishes, carrots, you name it.
Q: What ingredient are you experimenting with most these days?
A: I’m really playing with bitters right now. There’s a bitters resurgence. Celery bitters is really interesting. So throwing that in a fizz, and keeping it simple and fresh. I like drink recipes with just a few ingredients. If you can’t read the recipe because it’s so complicated, then nobody will make it.
Q: If you could vacation anywhere, where would you go?
A: On New Year’s Eve, we spun the globe and said if it lands in a place that we can afford, we will go. It landed on Iceland. I (asked), “Can we spin again? I want to go on a beach in Hawaii, not Iceland.” We just got back (from Iceland) and it was the best adventure we ever had. You see glaciers, and then volcanoes, and waterfalls, and green cliffs with weird birds everywhere. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve been to a lot of places, and that’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. If I could go back every year I would!
Q: What cocktail book is on your nightstand?
A: I’ve studied so many classic cocktail books. I have a ton of them, and they’re all marked up. One of my favorites is Jerry Thomas’ “How to Mix Drinks” (from 1862) _ he was really the original mixologist.
Q: Knowing everything you know now, what would you tell your 20-something self?
A: Stop overthinking and trust what’s in front of you. Trust the journey. You can calm down a little bit. I would tell her that you are where you’re supposed to be.