Friday, May 1, 2015

Let’s Talk Mocktails With April Wachtel!

About April Wachtel

April Wachtel began her career bartending in Boston and New York City. In 2012 until March 2014, she served as the Brand Master Apprentice for Bacardi Rum and in the later portion of 2014 she served as the Director of Trade Advocacy for Solbeso cacao spirit. Now, April  has been running Swig + Swallow, a company which specializes in drink consulting and high end cocktail classes.

Since she started Swig + Swallow she's done a bit of dabbling with mocktails and in this interview April will share some of her experiences as a bartender and mocktail-pioneer!

  1. What got you into bartending?

    I started off in restaurants really young- when I was 13, helping around the kitchen, bussing, and serving. It didn’t take too much time before I noticed that the bartenders got to wear their own clothes (as opposed to uniforms), and got to be themselves behind the bar, as opposed to being formal and stiff. I was sold! By this time I was 19, and a server at an upscale restaurant in Boston. I took a bartending class then convinced the daytime bartender/manager to let me stand behind the bar so he could sit and watch TV. That led to some fill-in bar shifts, and eventually to real bar shifts elsewhere.

  2. Could you share with us some of your non-profit work and visions? Do you believe that giving back to the community is an important part to being a bartender?

    I do think it’s important that if we are fortunate to have knowledge, money, or power, or all three- that we pay it forward and bring deserving people up with us. At one point I felt like it had to be in an extreme way (among other things I spent 6 months volunteering in Sri Lanka with teenage mothers who were survivors of abuse), but at this point it feels more natural for me to do it in my day to day. When I was doing brand work I felt like I had an opportunity to shine the light on people I really believed in- that was the most rewarding part, hands down. These days, teaching is my opportunity to give back.  I hated so much of my academic experiences throughout my life, but was saved by a few smart, intuitive teachers. If I can get someone excited about learning (about cocktails or anything else) I feel like I’ve won. And of course, I learn as much or more than the students in these moments… it’s a two way street.

    Source: April Wachtel's Blog

  3. How did you make the transition from being a bartender to a Brand Master Apprentice for Bacardi and later to being the Director of Trade Advocacy for Solbeso?

    I really believe that the more you build a life you love around you, the more interested people are in seeking you out, for work, for friendship, for collaboration. Bacardi happened when I was cruising along on a happy path- I was bartending part time at Lani Kai, was the community manager for an events startup, was helping out at my friends distillery, and was teaching at Astor. I ran into Juan Coronado, one of the Brand Masters for Bacardi, and he mentioned that they had a new position he thought I should apply for. I was so content doing what I was doing that I didn’t reach out for over a week but then thought ‘what the heck, why close doors.’ I had 8 interviews to get the job- after the very first one I realized it had the potential to be my next great opportunity, and after reading ‘Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba’ I was hooked, and that fueled my passion for the brand for the following two years. I still love Bacardi and am still enamored by the story. Ultimately I left because I was looking for extreme learning opportunities and career growth, and I knew that was impossible staying where I was.
  4. What was the biggest challenge you faced in that transition?

    Hm. I’ve always been an entrepreneur at heart and as such I am very comfortable with risk. I make gut decisions and go all in, even if it seems crazy to the people around me. I did that taking the job with Bacardi, when all of the cocktail world thought it was a crappy brand, and if you ask people now, they don’t think that anymore. Solbeso was a particularly large risk because you’re asking people to adapt their behaviors and all of their systems to accommodate a completely new spirit category, and frankly, I understood the challenge and after a year I still didn’t have a solution. So that was the hardest part- understanding the obstacles but not being able to provide a solution that would work for the customer base and the brand.

  5. You are now a beverage consultant making some of the most beautiful looking drinks in the world for the public to experience, teaching in places like the Astor Center and the Institute for Culinary Education in New York. How does your current life differ from the one you had as an alcohol ambassador?

    Aw, thanks!!! Well, for one, I spend a lot less time in bars. I do bartend a couple of nights a week, and I go out to visit friends, but I don’t go hard like I used to, and I couldn’t be happier about that. Also, frankly, I wake up when I want and manage my schedule around the various projects I’m working on at the time. I think of Cartman saying ‘I do what I want!’ every time I’m feeling particularly smug about it.

    Possibly most exciting of all, I get to do yoga or rockclimb (or both!) every day… whether I make it every day is another story, but I am able to go. I also get to cook a lot more… I really march to the beat of my own drummer.

    Source:April Watchel's Blog

  6. What inspired you to start Swig + Swallow?

    I have wanted my own company for years, and filed the paperwork with the state when I was still with Bacardi, just to see what the process was like. When I launched Swig + Swallow officially in January I had originally envisioned it as a consulting firm serving brands, but the more time I spent away from brand work, the clearer it became that that was not what I wanted to do in this period in my life. So, like everything, that is constantly evolving, and it feels great to be learning the skills to manage my own little business.

  7. Can you talk a little bit about your approach to beverage consulting and what makes it unique?

    Hm. That’s a hard question to answer because my ‘consulting company’ isn’t really a consulting company as I would frame one. It’s not like I am advertising myself as a restaurant consultant, though I have those skills for when/if interesting projects arise, you know what I mean? I have several lines of business that I’m sorting out and picking between, but thus far it’s all been people who know me or know of me and ask me to do work for them. Hilariously, I think what makes my consulting unique is that I basically haven’t said exactly what I do, I’ve just been putting my passions out there and work keeps showing up.

    That said, I am now funneling my activities into 3 work streams through separate websites so it’s easier for people to understand. is for public classes, press, testimonials, blog, and freelance work; is for event production, private classes, and restaurant/brand consulting; is for my secret mocktail business that I’m in the process of developing.

    Source:April Watchel's Blog
  8. What is the one industry related trend that has most impressed you since you started working?

    I’m generally not that excited about trends because so many of them are created just so there’s something to talk about, but there’s very little substance. One that I do think is meaningful though is the expansion of the United States Bartending Guild across the US. I am such a huge supporter of community and collaboration, that I can’t think of anything more exciting than a support system sharing and growing on a national and international scale.

  9. The thing I love most about your drink creations is the presentation. Everything from the naming, to the cloth it's sitting on just looks impeccable, almost as if you can feel the spirit of the drink from the small little blurbs you write on them. How do you get inspired to create drinks that are so beautiful?

    Thank you!!! I started styling and photographing these because this winter has been obscenely long and sans color. I felt like spring has been bursting at the seams for two months, but I had only seen black, white, and denim for months. My first mocktail photo was basically a green juice that I measured and shook like I would a cocktail, and strained it into a glass. I took a photo of it then was like ‘Eh, I can do this way better… and that’s how it started!

  10. On your blog, you’ve mentioned you wanted to share your passion for mocktails, cocktails without the use of alcohol, with the world. What is it about mocktails that you like the most?

    I could go on about this for two hours, but I’m sure you don’t want to hear it.  First and foremost I feel like it’s a symbol of hospitality- I want to far exceed people’s expectations of what a mocktail can be. People are so used to getting shut down when they ask for something non-alcoholic, it’s an amazing opportunity to surprise and delight.

    Beyond that, the most delicious beverage I’ve had was a heirloom tomato water with olive oil, flaky sea salt and micro basil served as an amuse bouche years ago at a fancy restaurant. It has been popping into my head a lot recently, and I finally just asked myself why that didn’t ‘count’ as a cocktail, a mocktail, or otherwise as the main event. The important part is that it’s delicious, isn’t it? There’s this weird expectation that a mocktail is a cocktail but without booze, but why can’t it just be something that is stunningly delicious and refreshing that stands on its own?

    Finally, I am someone who wants it all, and I have constantly been bummed that every juice bar I’ve been to is loud, bright, and focused on to-go business, not on ambiance, service, or properly measured and delicious drinks. I want the healthy delicious drinks in an environment where I want to hang out!
    Source:April Watchel's Blog
  11. What is the most noticeable difference you’ve experienced when designing a mocktail over a cocktail?

    I was so disillusioned by the mocktails composed of half sugar/half citrus/splash of soda, (often when I don’t feel like drinking it’s because I don’t want all the sugar) that I put a really tough restriction on the ones I’ve made so far. With the exception of one recipe, I add no additional sugar, using naturally sweet fresh pressed fruit juice to balance the mocktails  where necessary. Eliminating syrups would cripple most bars, so as you can imagine, it’s an interesting challenge.

    I think I’ll likely incorporate limited syrups in some future recipes, but just be sure to denote which have added sugar or not for those who want to avoid it.
  12. Finally, what is your favorite drink to make at home? What is your favorite mocktail to drink? Can you share it with us?

    If I’m making a cocktail at home these days, it’s likely the Negroni, or something weird and savory, but honestly I rarely drink cocktails at home. In regards to mocktails, I really loved all the ones I’ve created so far, but the one I think that was the most breathtakingly elegant was the Damascus Dame. I stewed dried california apricots in water on the stove, then strained, chilled, and carbonated the water and added a tiny splash of orange juice for sweetness, and squeezed orange oil over the surface. Aromatic, thirst-quenching, and delicious.
    Photo of Damascus Dame. Source April Wachtel's Blog
  13. Any current inspirations in the industry?

    My head is pretty firmly in this mocktail game, so no, I feel totally consumed at the moment.

    Swig and Swallow Webpage: Wachtel's Blog:
    April Wachtel's mocktail website:
    Hear April Wachtel lecturing at Aqua Vitae Institute via our SoundCloud

    Next Interview on May 8th: Jackie "The Liquortarian" Summers, founder of Jack From Brooklyn and distiller of the award winning Sorel!
Related: Learn to be a Bartender at Bartending School