Juyoung Kang spent a year leading up to the 2014 Bombay Sapphire bartending competition, planning her submission. She’d placed fourth the previous year, and she says, she spent each mixing and remixing her idea. She won “most imaginative bartender” that year with a a variation on a Ramos Gin Fizz, an 8-spice syrup, garnished with little micro-flowers.
Kang is now a bartender and the lead mixologist at Emeril Lagasse's Delmonico Steakhouse in Las Vegas, Nevada, and one of hundreds of thousands of bartenders in the U.S. For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with Kang about how she creates new drinks, misconceptions about the difficulties of bartending, and how the beverage industry has changed over her 17-year career. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Adrienne Green: What inspired you to start bartending and then to become a mixologist?
Juyoung Kang: I started in the food-and-beverage industry when I was 18 years old in Philadelphia. There was an ad for a job in the newspaper and my sister and I both went to an interview. I basically told the general manager that if he didn’t hire me then no one was going to give me the start to learn. One day one of the bartenders forgot to show up, and there were 300 people there for a wedding. My bar manager was like, “Hey, you're smart enough. You get behind the bar." I learned the little things, but I didn't know anything about it. I would go to the liquor store to find out what brands were vodka, gin, rum, and write them all down.
I didn't know where I wanted to take the career; I was in college at the time. I thought I was going to be a filmmaker or a digital marketing person. I was bored and my job [as a bartender] was more fun than school. I thought I wanted to be a sommelier. I went to all these wine tastings, and I was still completely bored out of my mind, but then I went to a Johnnie Walker tasting and I was like, "Liquor is way more fun." That's where it started.
Then, I left Philadelphia and moved to Los Angeles to work in more hotels. I realized the bartending style in California was a lot different than it was on the east coast. It was more about fresh fruit, and making a drink more refreshing. It wasn’t just about Jack and Cokes. Then, when all these L.A. restaurants started closing, I moved to Las Vegas to open up The Cosmopolitan, and that’s where the mixology came in. And when I went to Comme Ça [the now-closed Vegas bar] and Sam Ross mentored me.
Green: Oftentimes people consider bartending as a temporary job, but it’s your career. What factored into your decision to stick with it full time after going to college for something else?
Kang: I think I decided to stick with it because again not only was it fun, but there was more to it than just bartending. There's an actual science, and methodology, and reasoning as to why a good beverage program or drink works. I think a lot of people just think like, "Oh, you just put things together and it becomes a drink," and it really isn't. Look at the history: becoming a bartender was not an easy job. You had to pass a two-year apprenticeship. Everyone thinks now, "Anyone could be a bartender," but now people are realizing that it's not just a job anymore.
Kang: When I was learning how to make the drinks at Comme Ca with Sam Ross, I noticed that he gave a menu matrix of how certain drinks were broken down. I didn't understand why certain measurements made sense and certain ones didn't. I was like, “Okay, so why 1 ounce of lemon, and why 3/4 of this?” The answer was like, “Oh, well lemon's more tart than lime, so you need a little bit more sweetness to balance it out,” or, “This will cause more balance.” There was an actual meaning as to why certain amounts made sense. I was like, “Oh, so you're not just making a recipe up.” He said, “There's always a formula, and if you plug in certain things this always make sense.” When I thought about it, I said, "Oh, so all those things you learned in science class, this can actually apply here?"
Menu building for me is a long process. I try to develop different drinks, and different tastes, and different styles almost every day. When you're creating a beverage menu, it's not about you, your creativity, or how cool your drinks are. It's about the guests that are sitting at your table.
I noticed when I lived in Philly, a lot of my drinks were a little bit more booze forward, because that's how they like their drinks. When I was in California, they like their drinks a little bit longer, and more refreshing. In Vegas, it's an array of things. At Delmonico, we have a lot of people that are a little bit more old school, so I had to understand the old school drinks and bring that in. At the same time, I need to redefine it so it's more modern.
Green: What do you do on a day-to-day basis?
Kang: A lot of people think bartending or running a beverage program is just about being a mad scientist and creating drinks day in and day out, which it’s really not. Besides work my shift, I make sure I have all my products, because I have to predict what is going to be sold ahead of time. If I have a new menu I have to train the staff on it, for example updating what beers we carry by season.
Green: You are in Vegas, and all of its social scenes are your job. Do you feel a separation between your professional life in bars and the social aspect of Vegas when you’re not at work?
Kang: A lot of us in Vegas work a lot, so we don't see each other, even though we've all worked together and become friends. So, I usually try to go see them when they're working [at other bars] because that's one of the only times I get to see them unless we're at an event together. A lot of my friends work at a lot of great places, like The Sand Dollar. It’s like a dive bar, but they carry a nice little selection. Usually I drink something simple like a scotch neat with some water or an old-fashioned. Usually after a while you've made so many cocktails you don't want one.
Green: How have you seen the food-and-beverage industry change over time?
Kang: People have definitely gotten more conscientious of the food and drinks that they're consuming. They’re a lot braver than they were before in terms of trying new things that they eat, but at the same time they’re more time timid because they're not exactly sure if it's good for them or not.
Price-wise, a lot of people think, “I used to pay $8 for this.” It's like, “Well, back then that bottle was only $12. I'm paying $29 for that bottle now, so I can't charge you $8 for a drink.” Sometimes it's hard to understand that, especially in Vegas because some things can be sold at a lower price because customers are gambling [in casinos] and that offset the cost [of their drinks]. It's hard for them to understand that it's more about business.
Vegas has changed a lot in that a lot of people don't come out to gamble anymore. They come out to eat and drink, so they're not afraid to spend the money to do that. They know the value they're getting out of it.
Green: What would you say is the most rewarding part of your job?
Kang: I like that it’s routine, so I can predict what I'm going to be doing. But there's variation too; I'm meeting new people everyday. I know where my bottles are, my tools are right here, this is my stage. I know how to perform right here, but it's always a different play in a sense.
Green: What would you say motivates you at work?
Kang: It's not only just the people that sit in front of me, but also the people that are going to follow behind me to do the same work that I'm doing. People shouldn’t be afraid; you don't have to be a doctor. There are more people that need to eat and drink than to be healed. I tell my parents every day that I'm a doctor or I'm a pharmacist. I'm like, “Hey, when people are not feeling well they come to me, I make them a drink.” If they'll say, “I have a sore throat.” I'm like, "I have something for you,” and they'll feel better later. They only have to pay like $5 or even $16 [for a] drink to make them feel better, rather than an $80 copay to hear, "Oh, just take an aspirin."
It's not expensive to become a bartender, but if you do become one, learning more really helps in your job. Knowing everything in that bottle is a challenge in itself. I swear a new vodka brand comes out every day. It's about leaving a legacy behind. You're like, “Who's going to pick it up next?” and you try to find that next person. You're like, “You've got talent. You've got tenacity. You've got the brains. I'm going to choose you to take over what I've done." That is what it used to be, and now I feel like it's starting to come back, and that's really cool.
I want people, especially up-and-coming bartenders, to know that just because someone didn't like it doesn't mean it's not a good dish or drink. If one little thing like that discouraged me from not moving forward, I would probably just be a lawyer or something, and I would probably be bored. Right now I'm having a very exciting career, and I think they shouldn't be discouraged because someone's opinion on Yelp told them that their work wasn't exciting.
This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with a waitress, a butcher, and a McDonald’s manager.