Welcome to Mixology Spirit. In this edition we visit with Michela Zurstadt to learn more about her inspiration for making amazing cocktails. Michela built us a drink called the Golden Gun, a variation of the Vesper. It was delicious, crisp and clean–lovely to sip slowly and enjoy the perfectly balanced citrus notes enabled by orange bitters and the expressed oils of an orange peel.
Batchers: Where do you work and what’s your role?
Michela: I am the bar manager at The Essex in Centerbrook, CT.
Batchers: What inspired you to become a bartender?
Michela: I started my restaurant journey as a server. One night the dishwasher called out, so I volunteered to fill in. At the end of the night, the chef (and owner) asked if I would like to learn to cook. For the next five years I remained in the kitchen, starting as a dishwasher and training behind the line, then worked my way up to sous chef. Soon thereafter, I helped open another restaurant where I ran the kitchen. I loved creating flavor profiles but missed the front-of-house guest interaction.
So I moved and took a serving job elsewhere where I was asked to bartend. Reluctant at first, I finally decided to give it a shot…and fell in love instantly. Bartending combined my love for flavors and art with the guest interaction I was missing. From there I was lucky to have a handful of mentors guide me in the right direction and teach me important lessons along the way. My passion for the industry grew, as did my desire to learn and grow.
Batchers: What was the hardest night you ever worked?
Michela: That would be an unforgettable night on Cinco de Mayo at a margarita bar. I was the service bartender. I worked an 18-hour shift and stood in the same spot for 15 of them—leaving only once for 3 minutes! I served over 1,000 cocktails by myself. I’ve never seen so many service tickets. Believe it or not, I had to go to the 24-hour urgent care center afterwards because I pulled multiple muscles in my shoulders. The experience overwhelmed my body for a while, but I was proud of myself for sticking it out. As they say, “the show must go on!”
Batchers: How would you describe your cocktail-making philosophy?
Michela: My personal philosophy is based on purity: using the freshest ingredients possible, and unadulterated modifiers. Respect for ingredients is key.
Batchers: The Essex is committed to sustainability. How does that impact your work and creativity behind the bar?
Michela: I get to work closely with the kitchen here. It’s a very symbiotic relationship. We source ingredients as locally as possible and work hard to keep everything fresh so our high standards for quality and sustainability are met. Berries and herbs come from local farmers. We incorporate as much of every ingredient as possible to avoid unnecessary waste. For example, our citrus is multi-purposed, meaning one lemon can create four “products” for us to use in bar or kitchen. What we can’t use ends up in our on-site composter. The bar is stocked with spirits that demonstrate honesty and integrity. It might not please everyone when they don’t see their favorite brands, but it has certainly gained us the trust and respect of our customers.
Batchers: What is your favorite Litchfield Distillery spirit to work with?
Michela: This might shock my bartender friends, but honestly, it’s the Batchers’ Vodka. I’m not usually partial to working with vodka as it presents little challenge with respect to flavor balance. But running a bar program requires versatility in all directions. So, with vodka I must play and experiment. Litchfield Distillery’s Vodka is unique in both its mouth feel and sweetness, which offers something different. For cocktails requiring a vodka base this adds another velvety layer, rather than just flat alcohol. I use it in my Espresso Martinis where Litchfield Distillery’s Vodka complements the bitterness of the espresso, herbal notes of Amaro, and the gentle sweetness of our house-made coffee and vanilla syrup. Where most other vodkas wouldn’t make a noticeable impact, this one helps take an already smooth texture to the next level.
Batchers: What does The Spirit of Hard Work® mean to you?
Michela: My mom raised me to have a great work ethic. To me it comes naturally. There is always something to do, always room to grow, always something to learn. Pushing myself to do and be better brought me where I am now. I work in my favorite restaurant with the best boss I’ve ever had. I get to do what I want because I earned the trust and respect of my team. This restaurant requires a team effort where we’re all doing the hard work required to be great. Each team member’s effort affects the flow of every aspect of the restaurant. Teamwork and hard work is the core of any successful establishment, whether it’s in the restaurant industry or elsewhere. The Spirit of Hard Work is a culture and a lifestyle. It requires a level of understanding that what we do affects something much greater than ourselves. Working hard shows our respect for our team and our passion for what The Essex stands for.
How to make the Golden Gun:
About Mixology Spirit:
Mixology Spirit is a Litchfield Distillery blog series dedicated to sharing the stories of creative and passionate mixologists who embody The Spirit Of Hard Work®. Think you got what it takes to be featured? Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2018 Litchfield Distillery. Photography & Editing Credit: Tony Vengrove