It was a bright, yet mellow summer afternoon at The Promontory. The music was bumping and it was the perfect day and location to chat with our featured mixologist, Samantha Spencer, whose cocktail was starring on the menu there. Pears on Point, a nod to the neighborhood landmark and restaurant namesake–Promontory Point, was Samantha’s winning submission for the Grey Goose Express Yourself Cocktail Challenge.
We posted up at the bar, ordered some frosé, and settled in so the 15 year bar veteran from New York City could tell me about her life behind bars, cocktail competitions, and how her life experiences show up in her creations.
Noelle: Tell me about your first gig. How’d you wind up behind the bar?
Samantha: I worked at a Mexican restaurant in Queens. I was hired as a server and hand to do a weekly bar shift. For a while, it was just a summer and in between semester job. I decided to make it full time about 6 or 7 years ago. I began to look at bartending as a craft while working with a chef/restaurateur in Florida who was all about the details. My career went from there.
N: Bartender or Mixologist? There seems to be controversy around the title these days.
S: I don’t have a concrete measure of the difference, but I get why people want to be addressed as one or the other. I tend to fall in the middle ground of things and I’m just happy with whatever term people respect. Neither are all encompassing. I like the title of consultant because I love creating menus for events, which isn’t exactly bartending if I’m not building drinks or even serving them. I am still drawing from my experiences behind the bar in anything I create of course.
N: Tell me about cocktail competitions in the industry. What are some of the prizes? How do they add value to what you do?
S: There are so many, and some have incredible prizes with cash and trips being the most coveted in my opinion. However small or large, they’re almost all sponsored by brands which makes total sense. I do wish there were more independent competitions that focused on skills or didn’t focus on one brand/portfolio. Competing has a lot of value. In fact, you learn the most when you lose. You learn to think way outside of the box and to be more organized and meticulous.
N: Tell me about your experience with the Express Your Cocktail Competition. (Side Note: I entered that one too! My recipe was horrible, LOL)
S: This is maybe the 5th competition I’ve entered. This one is blowing my mind. Initially, you submitted a recipe of a drink and a photo. I was cool with that because it eliminated the anxiety of the the live competition. I was excited with that because I don’t feel like I do well under pressure. The live competitions have more pressure because it’s not like a spelling bee where you’re allowed to concentrate, breathe, and even ask for clarification. You’re being timed, someone is asking you questions and/or you have to perform and entertain while making the cocktail. Sure, it’s what we do all day and it’s stressful at 2 a.m., but who wants to lose?
Competitions can get expensive, but there are resources out there to help. The Alchemy Room is one that is specific to the Breakthru Beverage Group, but other distributors have similar resources as well. I would love to have a space like that where people (self included) could come workshop rather than my own bar or something.
N: What was your creative process when creating Pears on Point?
S: At that workshop (Grey Goose and Causing a Stir co-hosted a workshop to assist with cocktail development), you had all of this stuff in front of you. My thought was just make something!
S: I picked pears because the La Poire is my favorite Grey Goose vodka and I thought it would stand out amongst the competition. I tried to think of something I already knew and liked, and did a different riff on it. I just switched out some stuff. I wanted to do a martini because when I think of vodka, that’s what I think of. I picked up the fino sherry for acid instead of citrus. Then I added a bunch of lime because it needed it; sugar too. I didn’t want to be too basic either, so I thought about aromatics. I asked myself, “What can I use to enhance this cocktail, yet not complicate it.” Lavender was the answer! I think it’s elegant and a good way to elevate vodka. I don’t like to limit my palate!
N: Apparently, the judges and crowd loved Pears on Point! You won the competition and you’re heading to France. How are you processing the win?
S: I’m very excited to be the first winner of the Express Your Cocktail Challenge and encourage other bartenders of color to do their thing, stand up and be recognized! I’m really excited for the future of my career for the first time in a long time. I’m glad I went on this journey because I learned a lot about myself. I pushed my own boundaries and limits and it definitely paid off!
I’m going to Berlin for Bar Convent first, but I’m excited to get to Grey Goose’s Le Logis in Cognac and then Paris!
N: Can you take me with you? LOL
I literally couldn’t include everything we discussed during our interview, but if you want to get to know Samantha a bit more, check out how she answered my quick shake up questions! Also, get the recipe to Pears on Point below!
Are you interested in competing in the Express Your Cocktail Challenge for your chance to win a trip to France? Check out their website for more info! You’ll also see a familiar face 😉 https://expressyourcocktail.com/
Are you in the industry and want #getinvolved by listening and understanding the needs of the bar community as a whole? Check out http://causingastir.org for more information.
Pears on Point
A light and aromatic cocktail made with Grey Goose La Poire that is the perfect ode to Promontory Point in Chicago.
- 1 Sage Leaf
- 1 Dash Lavender Bitters
- .75 Parts Lime Juice
- .5 Parts Fino Sherry
- .75 Parts Simple Syrup
- 1.5 Parts Grey Goose La Poire
Put all of the ingredients in a shaker. Add ice. Shake to blend and chill. Double strain into glass. Garnish with a sprig of lavender. Enjoy!