Shaking and stirring her way to the top
A local mixologist seeks national recognition
Bartender Misty Kalkofen is a blur of dark-rimmed Tina Fey glasses, crisp white shirt, and tattoos on a recent Saturday night at the Fort Point watering hole Drink. With a crowd jostling for attention and a line beginning to congregate on the sidewalk outside, Kalkofen is juggling triple duty as bartender, best friend, and mind reader. The kicker is that she is balancing these tasks with an impossibly amiable demeanor.
Despite dealing with this level of stress regularly, the 39-year-old Somerville resident will encounter one of her biggest challenges this week when she faces well-respected competition for the prestigious American Bartender of the Year Award on July 23 at Tales of the Cocktail, the country’s largest cocktail conference. The event, which drew more than 18,000 industry professionals and enthusiastic tipplers last year, takes place annually in New Orleans. Drink was also nominated as best American cocktail bar.
“There are no shot girls, and it’s not a five-day bar crawl,’’ says Paul Tuennerman, chief operations officer of Tales of the Cocktail. “The nominees for American Bartender of the Year are chosen by an international committee of their peers. Then the committee has to go to the bar and meet with the bartender. I always say it’s huge if you get nominated, and if you win it’s just unbelievable.’’
Although the prize is not substantial (a high-end glass plate), Tuennerman says that this kind of honor would go far in cementing Boston’s reputation as an important city for mixology.
“You live in a great city for cocktails,’’ he says. “You don’t have the sheer number of places as New York or Chicago, but the quality is high. You’ve got a good core of folks and establishments there that are creating a lot of excitement around cocktails.’’
Despite her extensive training and accolades, the chatty Kalkofen was still surprised by the honor.
“I was in Venice when I found out about the nomination,’’ Kalkofen recalls over a beer on a quiet afternoon at the Plough and Stars in Cambridge. “And when I heard, I thought, ‘I’m going to throw up.’ That was my first instinct, I was so amazed.’’
Drink is unique in Boston because it has no cocktail menu. There are no liquor bottles on display. Kalkofen doesn’t simply pull drafts from the tap and make chit chat. She quizzes patrons on likes and dislikes, all the while keeping her sweating silver cocktail shaker in motion.
Regulars at Drink often decide on a libation after they’ve consulted with a bartender. They tick off favorite varieties of spirits, and then wait for a masterpiece to materialize in front of them in period-appropriate barware. Kalkofen rarely disappoints.
“We have those boards that we put up [with suggested drinks]. That was our one-year birthday present to ourselves,’’ Kalkofen says. “It was more of a recognition that people get freaked out when they walk in here for their first experience. It’s so unlike any bar they’ve been to. You put a piece of paper in front of them that has food but no drink items. Eventually they watch what other people do and feel more comfortable.’’
For her bartender of the year award, Kalkofen is competing against friends such as Joaquin Simo from New York’s buzzed-about Death + Company and Kenta Goto from Pegu Club in New York.
“When I’m watching him work I describe it as like being in church,’’ she says of Goto. “He’s so graceful. He’s from Japan and trained in the Japanese technique. There is no wasted movement. He’s so calm.’’
But Kalkofen has her share of admirers as well. She’s appeared in the pages of publications such as Bon Appetit and The Wall Street Journal, instructed seminars and classes, and is the cocktail equivalent of Mr. Memory from Alfred Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps.’’
“I can say without hesitation that Misty is one of America’s brightest mixology superstars,’’ says F. Paul Pacult, author and publisher of Spirit Journal. “She graduated from the world’s toughest and most respected spirits and mixology program [organized by the Beverage Alcohol Resource] with honors. She’s inspirational, kind, and diligent.’’
She has also been a leading force in researching and reviving vintage cocktails in Boston. She took part in regular cocktail meetings with Boston’s brightest bar hands, such as Think Tank’s Br. Cleve and Eastern Standard’s Jackson Cannon, to research recipes that had been altered - often not for the better - over the decades.
She also founded the Boston chapter of the Ladies United for the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails, a network of enthusiasts who are devoted to “breeding, raising and releasing endangered cocktails back into the wild.’’
Despite the knowledge and respect she has earned, Kalkofen didn’t arrive in Boston with visions of cocktail shakers rattling in her head. Originally from Green Bay, Wis., Kalkofen studied at Drake University in Des Moines before moving to Cambridge to earn her master’s of theological studies degree at Harvard Divinity School. Having grown up working in restaurants, she did the same in Cambridge, working at Christopher’s in Porter Square when she wasn’t in classes. When student loans became too much, she shifted from academics to restaurant work.
She eventually changed jobs and started cocktail waitressing down the street at the Lizard Lounge. But one night when one of the bartenders was a no-show during a busy CD-release party, Kalkofen was escorted behind the bar and told that she would be pouring drinks.
“I would get an order for something that I didn’t know how to make,’’ she says. “I’d turn to the bartender and say, ‘Can you make this for me?’ And he’d say, ‘No, but I’ll show you how to make it.’ It was that way from the beginning. I must have been doing something right, because they never put me back out on the floor.’’
Kalkofen’s knowledge base increased dramatically as she worked with local mixology legend Br. Cleve. Eventually, they would sit on his porch and talk cocktails by the end of the evening.
After a brief stint in Key West, she returned to Boston and resumed mixing classic cocktails at the B-Side Lounge (now Lord Hobo) and Green Street Grill. When the Barbara Lynch-owned Drink opened in Fort Point Channel, she was enlisted by John Gertsen to practice her craft there.
Mixing the perfect cocktail for her patrons is Kalkofen’s main concern, but she also realizes in a city that she calls “a little sister to New York,’’ hospitality can be just as important as the drink being served.
“You could have someone sitting at one end the bar who just found out that their husband has been cheating on them, and then four seats away have somebody who’s celebrating their engagement,’’ she says. “You have to be able to go back and forth between those things without missing a beat.’’
Kalkofen acknowledges that such scenarios are rare, but when they do happen, a customer often needs more than a stiff drink to help repair a broken heart.
“In general, the atmosphere of a bar is convivial and happy,’’ she says. “I think the hardest thing is when you find a guest who just really needs to be consoled for whatever that reason is. But helping someone can be just as satisfying as introducing someone to a perfect new cocktail.’’