She may be in between gigs right now, but Ándrea Pentabona’s hasn’t shaken the bartending bug. With stints at some of the city’s most beloved current (and former) destinations for craft cocktails (pour one out for Tavern Road), she’s come a long way since fumbling her way through her first Manhattan. As she maps out her next move, she sat down with the BostonChefs team to reminisce a little about her path within the hospitality industry, her love of orange liqueurs and the mysterious, but aptly-named JackChoke shot.
1. Where do you work now? What’s your position? Where else have you worked in the last five years?
I most recently consulted, designed and created the concept and cocktails for Variety at The Comedy Studio in Bow Market, Union Square Somerville. I also spent a year working as the brand specialist for Leblon Cachaça. Right now I’m taking some time to focus on myself and my family—but look out for a new project coming soon! Over the past five years I’ve worked at The Hawthorne, Tavern Road, Rialto, Sam’s, Red Bird and Uni. It’s funny looking at that list because half of them are, sadly closed now.
2. Briefly, how did you get involved in restaurants (and, specifically, bartending)? What draws you to this line of work?
I started working as a busser at TGIFriday’s when I was 16. I went on to work at small neighborhood places and eventually, a casual fine dining restaurant in Providence. I fibbed a bit to get behind the bar on a night when someone had called out and they were short staffed. I got back there with confidence and promptly had someone order a Manhattan. I can’t even remember what I put in that poor soul’s cocktail. Despite not knowing what I was doing, I definitely caught the bartending bug. I went on to grad school at NYU and got my master’s degree in social work, but kept a job in the restaurant industry throughout school and even when I went on to practice therapy. I eventually decided to move to Boston and pursue my career in bartending in 2012. I am drawn to bartending because I love learning, being around people, and the ever-changing nature of the restaurant industry, how no two days are the same. The beverage industry is so complex and diverse there will never be a time when I stop learning something new.
3. What’s your favorite drink to make (or wine or beer to pour)? Least favorite?
My favorite drink to make, hands down, is a Ramos Gin Fizz. Some bartenders shy away from it because it can be time consuming due to the multiple steps and taking time to wait so it’s perfect, but the efforts are well worth the finished product. People love watching it be made, it’s technically challenging no matter how many times you’ve made it, it’s beautiful and it’s flipping delicious.
4. How do you feel about the mixology movement? Does that term appeal to you, not appeal to you? What do you think it means to be involved in the bartender culture, if you agree that there is one?
Well, this is a loaded question. I think mixology is when you are thinking about flavors and creating something different or new. This should not be happening during service. This is the R&D phase of things. You are a “mixologist” if you work for a brand or restaurant group creating cocktails and that’s the main part of your job. Otherwise you are a bartender and you aren’t being a very good one if you are “mixologizing” while guests are sitting in front of you. You don’t want to be taking chances on your guests’ dime. Those things should be worked out ahead of time and you should know they taste great. Bartending is most of what we do. I know I’m not the first one to say this, but making cocktails is about 10% of a bartenders job.
Bartender culture; there definitely is one. I don’t think anyone can logically argue that there isn’t. What that culture involves is definitely up for debate. To me, the best part of bartender culture is about the close knit group of professionals that enjoy working and playing together. We support each other, and there’s a definitely a select group of us who know about and get opportunities to go to cocktail festivals, intensive educational events, and the like. These serve to establish closer relationships between the bartenders and other beverage professionals who attend. I would love to see these opportunities expand and cater to professionals beyond craft cocktail bartenders. The dark side of this, I think we are just beginning to talk about. It’s imperative that we remember and keep reminding ourselves that just because someone is popular among their peers and has thousands of Instagram followers doesn’t mean they’re infallible. It’s easy to see bartenders as celebrities in this social media driven era and there’s a huge cultural problem when people misuse that power and others aren’t willing to put them under the same magnifying glass because they are perceived as socially powerful influencers who can make or break careers.
5. On your days off, what kind of places do you frequent? A lot of industry folk are happier with a Miller High Life and a Fernet than composed cocktails or craft beer. You?
One of my favorite bars in the city has been and always will be The Druid. They are a neighborhood bar with a fantastic staff and I just feel at home there. It’s no secret that going out is mostly about visiting people you like behind the bar. I often end up where my friends are working or where everyone is gathering (almost always Eastern Standard). Also wherever Sparky happens to be with The People’s Karaoke. I’m a HUGE karaoke fan and TPK’s nights across town are where it’s at. My go-to beverages are Twisted Tea with a side of ice, Bud Light Lime, or Cider. I don’t shoot fernet, it’s never been my preferred amaro (though when I was new to the scene I definitely tried very hard to get into it). I take a lot less shots these days, but if I feel like one it will probably be Laird’s Bonded Apple Brandy or Cynar (or a mix of the two that I like to call a JackChoke).
6. What do you always keep stocked at home? Are there different things you like to drink or to make for special occasions?
I have a ton of liquor at my house thanks to generous brands that I actually don’t touch very often. That being said, if I am going to make a cocktail at home it will most likely be a Daiquiri or Caipirinha. Most of the time when my husband and I are hanging out on the couch after our 3-yr-old daughter has gone to bed I’m drinking wine or a fortified version like vermouth or sherry. Special occasions always call for sparkling wine (usually rosé in our house) and I typically make a non-alcoholic punch for holidays that you can add booze to order, so everyone can enjoy.
7. Are you excited about one spirit in particular? Is there something really overrated or underrated, in your opinion?
I’m sort of obsessed with orange liqueurs. My heart has always been most dedicated to classic cocktails and orange liqueur is found in lots of them. There are SO MANY of different liqueurs and they all taste and mix differently. Some of my favorites are Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao (for a Side Car or Mai Tai), Patron Citronge (for a Margarita or El Presidente) and Combier Blue Curaçao because it’s light and delicious and, duh, it’s blue!
I wouldn’t go so far as to say overrated, but the amount of “craft” whiskey hitting the scene is overwhelming and saturating the market to the point where consumers no longer know what’s quality and what just has fancy packaging and a good story. Blind tasting is super important to make sure you don’t have any biases just because the person selling it to you was slick and charming.
8. What’s something you wish the average guest knew about your job, not service-wise, but related to the craft of bartending. (In other words, apart from common courtesy and being a good guest, what’s something you think everybody should know about bartending?)
By my definition, the craft of a great bartender is mostly about being able to manage your own emotions and feelings and channel them into discerning and then executing whatever kind of experience the person in front of you needs. Which means you could be code-switching (social work talk for changing how you interact with someone) multiple times a minute. That is completely mentally exhausting and while there is no excuse for a bartender to be rude, we are still human and sometimes the facade cracks a little. Give your bartender props when you see them on a busy shift nailing it and making everyone happy. That’s why we do what we do.