Continuing along with my Spirited Pride Series in collaboration with Campari America, I sat down with spitfire Mimi Burnham. Mimi's has been bartending around Long Island, Queens and New York City since the 1980s and has seen the evolution (and decline) of nightclub culture and the rise of craft cocktails. She was part of the opening team at Porchlight in far, far West Chelsea, the only bar from Danny Meyer's Union Square Hospitality Group. The aptly named bar is probably the Westernmost cocktail spot in Manhattan, a block from the river at West 26th street, a notoriously underserved area for those in search of a proper drink, and Porchlight has been that much-desired haven.
As we chatted in the back area of Porchlight we realized we'd both spent many late nights there in the late 80s and early 90s in its incarnation as Tunnel Club.
JR: I remember seeing Nina Hagen down in the VIP Lounge in the late, late 80s.
MB: Yeah, I used to hang out with her there!
JR: Let's start with your history of bartending in New York.
MB: I started at the North Shore Yacht Club in Sea Clff, and bartended around Long Island bars for years, including at the gay bar Chameleon Club. In New York City I bartended at Danceteria at the roof bar [for the unititated, Danceteria was the early 80s club where Madonna is seen dancing to “Into The Groove' in “Desperately Seeking Susan”. I was at Palladium in the Michael Todd Room [the star-heavy VIP lounge] for about 3 months. That was fun—don't remember too much of it. Edelweiss, too. At that age, you bounce around, that's part of the experience. It was kind of rare to see a young bartender stay in the same spot, and it's still important. You're on a fast track when you're starting out and you don't know your groove yet, and each place, even if they have a similar program, you've got different people and you're gonna learn different things at each place. And sometimes it's not even apparent right away. But it forges you into the bartender you will become. There's going to be different people that influnce your style and in the end you're a collective of all the these different bartenders who have influenced your life
Later on I was at Pappazio Restaurant in Bayside, Queens, in 2012 & 2013, where we won a lot of the “Best of Queens” awards over that time--”Best Bartender, Best Happy Hour, Best Martini, Best Mojito”.
JR: How did you transition from nightclubs and more party-type bars to the more craft cocktail world?
MB: When I moved over to restaurants after years of late night bartending, I went first to Italian restaurants, because they seemed to be on the same page of exploring flavors and more complex drinks. Then I picked up a copy of Dale DeGroff's “The Craft of the Cocktail” and that really opened things up for me. I joined the USBG: NYC and that was a great investment for me, opened up so many doors and opportunities. I found out about spirits master classes offered by the brands there, and really dove into those and I highly recommend those for bartenders just getting started, they are great educational opportunities. And I still attend them. Occasionally it will be about a category rather than one specific brand, and those are my favorites. But even if it's brand specific there are going to be 3 or 4 expressions you get into, with a tastings, lectures, and sometimes a test—which really keeps you on your toes. . I think of it as: if I'm a painter and I'm going to use my paints, don't I need to know what they are made of, and what goes into them? So when I start making a cocktail I'm often thinking of all the elements that go into the spirits in it and how it will affect the cocktail.
I joined the USBG for a lot of reasons but one big one was to connect and network with like-minded people, and I've met so many people who've influenced me, and who've become allies, and friends, and it's good to see each other once a month, and just hang out with all these like-minded geeks. They just raised the membership fee, which they haven't done in years, so it's $125, which is tax deductible, you easily make it the back on the master classes, and you get that money back time and time again. I mean, the value you get is far beyond that fee.
Also, getting people to be on your side and be advocates and allies for you is incredibly helpful. Pam Wiznitzer, President of our USBG: New York Chapter has been a real champion of mine over the years and it's been fantastic to count on her as such a good friend and mentor.
JR: Tell me about what you guys do at Porchlight.
MB: It's funny because a lot of people see Danny Meyer's name and they come in expecting a restaurant, and we are a bar first, with fantastic bar style food. We're a collective of different styles of bartending and as a team we are really collaborative. We just launched the summer menu and we all had a hand in it. There's one drink where all 8 of us worked on it and there's a component of each of us in there, it's neat when that happens. We're very imaginative with our cocktails but not fussy or precious—we call it “crafted cocktails without pretension.” Approachable cocktails.
A huge part of what we do is the hospitality we offer. When someone comes into the bar, you make eye contact with them right away, you say hi, good to see you, good to see you again, even if I can't get to you right away I'll let you know I know you're there—hold one finger up.....(laughs) If you see one finger up you know it's gonna be five, but I'll make sure you get a glass of water in the meantime! That's important. You can be so good at making cocktails but if you miss that human component you're shortchanging the customer, it's not going to be the same experience.
JR: I've got a friend who's turn me onto rose spritzers, and I've been crushing those this summer, with a good rose you still get the complexity and minerality coming through the sparkling water, but you're at such a low proof that you can go all afternoon and totally maintain. And I know spritzes and low ABV drinks are really coming up—are you seeing that at Porchlight?
MB: Absolutely, a lot of the thirtysomethings and below seem to have gotten the memo about going easy and being able to maintain throughout an evening. When this cocktail rennaissance came along it was so focused on stronger stirred cocktails but you can't really drink those all night and keep it together. I think that message has gotten across to the younger drinkers and I'm seeing a lot of them ordering drinks like our “Take It Easy”. I really like to have you sit at my bar and have a good time and leave in good shape and I pay close attention to that, so I'm happy to see these kinds of drinks really catching on.
JR: Have you felt homophobia or discrimination in the bar world?
MB: For a woman to enter the craft cocktail world is very difficult, it just is. Look, If there's one job opening and there's a hundred applicants it's probably gonna be the man who gets it, that's just the way it is. It's a hurdle, but you can't let it get you down, when one door closes, two doors open, I really believe that, I'm an optimist. But it's getting better, there's some support now, Girls with Bols has been really great, Speed Rack helps with visibility, these both are helping give women the ability to be confident in the industry. They are definitely pushing the women forward.
JR: How about homophobia.
MB: Sure, sometimes, you get a little sense of something. But it's changed a lot. Actually there's story that comes to mind—and I don't know if this is homophobia or sexism or what to call it. I was when I was working at the tranny* bar Edelweiss in the early 90s in the deserted far west 40s. I was working out a lot then and was really jacked, and I worked there for a few months until someone kind of figured out that I was an actual woman—I wasn't trying to deceive anyone, and I'd worked at gay men's bars plenty of times, so I thought that it was just that kind of deal. But apparently it wasn't and I got sent on my way. Fun bar, though.
*Editor's note: The term "tranny" seems to have been designated as offensive or un-PC recently--just ask Kelly Osbourne-but that's what this bar was referred to as at that time, including by it's staff and guests, so we're gonna go with it.