A chat with mezcal missionary Misty Kalkofen
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Misty Kalkofen hails from Green Bay. But, you'd probably never guess if she didn't tell you. After all, she's spent a good part of her career making a name for herself in some of the best cocktail establishments in Boston.
And even that was due to a bit of serendipity. Kalkofen first stepped behind the bar while studying theology at Harvard Divinity School. She needed a way to make some money to get herself through school, and so she landed a job as a server at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge, Mass. One evening, when one of the bartenders failed to show up, she stepped into his shoes. And she found her calling.
"I could get done with my classes and go home, study a little bit, take a nap and still get to work on time," she says. "I made decent money and it was also a great way for me to be social."
By the time she graduated with her master's degree, she was beginning to realize that the cocktail scene was where she belonged.
"I realized 'I have a job that I love and people search their whole life for that,'" she says.
She credits local music legend Brother Cleve with cementing her interest in classic cocktails.
"It all started with Cleve," she says. "We'd go back to his house and look at cocktail books and make different things. And I'm a big geek. So, you put old books in front of me and I get really excited. And then I met David Wondrich and took the B.A.R. – and all of those things combined sort of fed the beast."
But her initiation took place on an otherwise inauspicious night when Cleve dropped by and presented her with a bottle of Old Overholt rye.
"He called me his protégé," she says. "And I was crying and it was crazy."
It was also the start of something big.
Since that time, Kalkofen has been featured in Bon Appetit, Imbibe, Food & Wine Cocktail editions, Wine Enthusiast, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Tasting Panel, Wine & Spirits and more. In 2011, she was nominated for American Bartender of the Year at Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans; and in 2012 she was nominated again for International Bartender of the Year.
In 2010, Kalkofen became a founding member of the Tequila Interchange Project, a not-for-profit consumer advocacy group comprised of bartenders, educators and academics focused on tequila education and the preservation of sustainable, traditional and quality practices in the tequila industry. As a board member, she was able share her love for the history, heritage and culture of Mexico's noble agave spirits … a love which led her to take a position with Del Meguey.
"I set the seed with owner, Ron Cooper, a few years ago when I started having trouble with my wrists," she tells me. "If I was going to have to move into the supplier side, it was going to have to be for a product I really believed in, and I told him he was one of the only ones I would consider."
Last April, Cooper made Kalkofen an offer. And she's been a missionary of mezcal ever since.
This past week, Kalkofen was in town for a mezcal training session with industry folks, and I had the privilege of sitting down with her at Bryant's Cocktail Lounge for a chat. Here's what she shared about her past, her present, and what she thinks about the Milwaukee cocktail scene.
OnMilwaukee: So, we can't resist asking you about your background in theology. How did it become an interest for you?
Misty Kalkofen: My mother was raised Southern Baptist and father grew up Lutheran. I was actually raised in the United Church of Christ.
I recall a particular moment when the minister of education – we called her "Jan Babes" – was talking about symbolism in the Bible. She asked us to think for a minute about what was, for some, an inconceivable possibility: What if there wasn't a flood? While some of my classmates sat there shocked, it was really a turning point for me.
OMC: So, did you study theology in college?
MK: Well, yes and no. I started off with a biology major with a theology minor. I was going to be a doctor. But, I hated biology. Memorization and regurgitation. I wanted to shoot myself in the head. Meanwhile, in all of my theology classes, I was getting an A-plus, and they were asking me if I wanted to consider a change of major. So, when I was a junior, I flip-flopped my major and minor.
Then, I set my sights on divinity school, and I got into Harvard. But, once I got a taste of what upper academia was, I pretty much knew it wasn't for me.
OMC: So, tell me. What do religion and cocktails have in common?
MK: It wasn't really until I met Ron Cooper (owner of Del Maguey) that I made the connection. He was visiting Boston and came to my bar. He rolled in on a very slow Friday night and sat down at a table. They ordered two tequila cocktails. And that was before the tequila renaissance, so I was like, "who is this guy?"
So, they had their drink, and then he came up to the bar and started unloading these woven baskets at the bar. He explained that he was launching a company making mezcal. And that he wanted me to taste it.
He was telling me about these villages. And the spirituality the people brought to the processes ran through his stories. And I connected with it on a level I never had before. I mean, when you walk into a palenque where they make mezcal and you see an altar … they stop working and they place their tools there for safe keeping. So much of their spirituality is based on the fact that they're dependent upon the fickle land and the changeable weather. So, they use prayer to ensure their success.
OMC: Speaking of mezcal, what made you fall in love with it?
MK: That first night with Ron.
OMC: Had you tasted it before?
MK: No. And thankfully my first experience was a really great one. At the time, Del Maguey made 400 liters a year. He pulled out a bottle of Tobola, and asked me to make a drink with it.
And then I thought he was crazy – because why would you make a cocktail with something so perfect? To this day, I still would never mix a cocktail with Tobola.
OMC: How do you introduce people to mezcal?
MK: It can be a tricky thing. If you do it the wrong way, it can backfire. Usually the things I point out are that it's the "grandmother" of tequila. It's made from agave, like tequila, that the processes are much older and more artisanal. It's strong; it's not for the weak of heart.
If you say "it's going to be smoky … or it's really strong," you alienate people. Phrasing is so important.
OMC: You watched the cocktail scene blossom during your time in Boston. What's your impression of the Milwaukee cocktail scene?
MK: I don't know if I've spent enough time here recently to really make an assessment; I don't want to make assumptions.
But, it's interesting that a lot of my introductions to Milwaukee have been from friends in Chicago who have moved north. They have amazing training from places like The Violet Hour … and they're smart enough to realize that starting a cocktail place in Chicago is really challenging.
But, it's spreading – so you guys have the benefit of being one of those markets that are on the radar because of people like Ira Koplowitz. You'll see a lot more brands paying attention.
OMC: What's your drink of choice? Why?
MK: Beyond mezcal – which is what I drink 90 percent of the time – at home, when I'm having a rough week, I make myself a Puritan. It's a gin martini with orange bitters, chartreuse and lemon oil.
It's like the gin martini and the Alaska made a baby – and they're not supposed to – so they call it the Puritan.
OMC: If you could be any drink, what would it be? Why?
MK: Oooh. I'm debating between two. I think I would be the Ramos Gin Fizz. Which is funny because it's a really high maintenance cocktail, and I'm totally not high maintenance at all. At the same time, it's light, it's fluffy, and it's carefree. People who don't like gin try it and then they're like … OK, I'll take 17.
As a final question, I asked Kalkofen if she had any maxims she lives by when it comes to slinging cocktails. Here's what she shared.
Five Maxims from Misty
- For bartenders: more ingredients doesn't necessarily mean it's better.
- The most important part of your job is taking care of your guests … not just making them great drinks but also helping them find a comfortable seat, finding a spot to hang their coat and all the other small things that alone seem trivial but combined make for a truly great experience.
- Straw taste every drink. It's your opportunity to make sure you are providing the best to your guests.
- Your co-workers are your bar family. Always support them and keep your collective interest in mind.
- And for guests: remember, bartenders have bad days, too. We do our best to wear a smile every day at work leaving our personal cares and concerns at home, but some days it's very very hard. A little empathy can go a very long way on those days.
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