How a Minneapolis bartender became America’s best

Jessi Pollak describes herself as a child goth witch from Florida who never wanted to stay in Minnesota. She’s also the best bartender in the country.

Pollak moved here with his parents as a teenager and immediately began dreaming of a way out. But instead of packing up after her independence was achieved, she found work at the cocktail lounge of Du Nord Social Spirits in south Minneapolis. Although she was new to the world of hospitality, she quickly fell in love with the art of working with seasonal ingredients, creating flavors and serving guests. That job ignited a spark that eventually propelled her to head the bar program at North Loop’s prestigious Spoon and Stable restaurant.

But she didn’t stop there. Just four years after her debut at Spoon and Stable, she entered the American Bartenders Guild national competition, which pits the best of the best against each other for the title of American Bartender of the Year. And she won.

Pollak beat 15 of the nation’s top bartenders after two days and four challenges at the competition, held in Nashville in late June.

“He’s the underdog [who] shows up for the World Series. Not only are they throwing a no-hitter, they’re hitting a grand slam,” Spoon and Stable chef/owner Gavin Kaysen said of Pollak’s win.

To prepare for the contest, Pollak asked Kaysen how he and the US team trained for the Bocuse d’Or, the world’s most prestigious cooking competition. (Kaysen is the team’s president.) She then took those pointers and got to work, walking into the bar early in the morning, pouring out bottles filled with water to practice her speed and accuracy. She was talking to the wall, refining her cocktail presentations.

“I remember we were ready for prep in the kitchen around 10:30 a.m., cutting up some fish, and there was Jessi, practicing and working on her speed. It’s like any speed training. ‘athlete,” Kaysen said.

“It was so amazing to see someone work so hard for something and be rewarded for that hard work. That morning she showed it. She belonged there.”

This fall, she will represent the United States in Sydney, Australia, where she hopes to win the title of best bartender in the world.

We sat down with Pollak in Spoon and Stable’s sunny dining room to talk all things cocktail and how an impromptu session helped bring the title home. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: How did you come to work at Spoon and Stable?

A: Robb Jones [the previous bar director], who now owns Meteor, immediately took an interest in me and saw that I was ambitious, thirsty and eager to learn. Eventually, he began to prepare me to take over. I have been in charge of this program for almost three years. But we had the pandemic in the middle, which was kind of a weird, elastic time.

Actually, the way I got hired here was funny. I was in a competition against Nathaniel Smith [former Spoon and Stable barman]. And he won. Shortly after, he held out his hand to me and said, “I won, but not much. You should come work here. They had an opening. So here we are.

Q: When did the post-pandemic tide really turn and did you feel like you had the leeway to really spoil the bar team and program like your own?

A: Summer [2021] is when we got to a place where the team really came together. We’ve had a bit of turnover during the pandemic, but not a lot. Last summer, we started to really find our voice, and honestly, I got more comfortable being a leader. Our program is a reflection on me, not just Spoon and Gavin [Kaysen].

Q: How did you find out about this contest?

A: In 2019, the [Bartenders’ Guild] The Midwest regional competition was there. Thanks to my involvement with the Guild, I worked on the event so I was able to watch it. Everyone was so nice and so genuine and so talented. And that was the first moment I looked at it and thought, “Yeah, I could be a part of it.” This year, I just decided it was my year.

Q: How do we get in?

A: You have to make great cocktails, but many, many, many bartenders across the country can make great cocktails. It’s about testing everything. It is therefore also storytelling, the creation of ingredients, speed and knowledge of spirits.

You are actually submitting a conscious menu that is related to your local community. And that one was purely conceptual. Thousands of people signed up, and then it went down to the top 100. We had more challenges that narrowed it down to 50. From there, we competed in Chicago for regionals. Then we were in the top 15.

Q: What was it like walking into this room with the other contestants?

A: It’s the best of the best so no one really makes big mistakes. It’s tiny little things. There is a lot of collaboration — we would help each other. There’s a production team setting us up for success, including the most overqualified bar backs in the world. I had the beverage manager of the Dead Rabbit in New York as a bar.

We were also matched with an official mentor. I was paired with Leo Robitschek, who created the cocktail scene at 11 Madison Park. It was just crazy to be paired with someone like that. I’m from Minneapolis.

Q: What were the challenges you faced?

There were four different challenges over two days. One of the challenges was to create two cocktails in tribute to Don Julio, the man who created Don Julio tequila. I made a cocktail that was a tribute to his childhood in Jalisco. Then for the second cocktail, it’s like, well, that was his legacy in life, but unfortunately he passed away in 2012. So we’re going to commune with his spirit and we did a little session. Each ingredient represented something related to his life or spiritual realm and communed with it. It was awesome. I was very happy that the judges agreed because they might have thought I was crazy.

I know for sure that the reason I succeeded is because I chose to be myself. I’ve lost way more cocktail contests than I’ve won. And that was the one where it was interesting to be myself – I’m just a weird goth kid from Florida.

Q: And the other challenge was right in your food pairing wheelhouse.

A: It was really fun because they wanted you to take local ingredients and use them to create two different cocktails. Then we had to use this ingredient in two different ways. I’ve used Keepsake Cider, an amazing cider house in Dundas, Minnesota, and they do great stuff and Minnesotans are obsessed with apples. I made a flip with the cider in its natural state and then I also made a vermouth.

Q: How do you practice?

A: I love this puzzle of how can I get better? How can I go faster? The actual physics of it. I spent so much time pretending to shake cocktails, getting my shake perfect and where I want it to be. But it amuses me.

Training for speed, I did so many dry rounds. I would just have the corks on all the bottles and go through the whole process practicing exactly the order in which I was going to touch everything, timing the pour so you know exactly how long it is going to take.

Q: I really want this to be a movie. And I really want it to be an edit with a rock soundtrack.

A: In fact, you can create your own playlist for it. Oh, I had music. I used that to my advantage. I had 10 different songs that were 1 minute each. And then it told me where I was, how much time had passed, and how much time I had left.

Q: So first you take over the United States, then the world. And after?

A: They send me to Sydney, Australia. It’s not a place I thought I could go. He’s the best of the best and I’m going to represent us.

Q: What is the cocktail on your menu that reflects what you are passionate about this summer?

A: The Oaxaca. It’s a modern classic cocktail, which came out of New York in the early 2000s. Traditionally, it’s an Old Fashioned mezcal. We use a blend of mezcal and bourbon…along with two different types of peach flavor. Then we mix in some St. Agrestis Amaro which has cinnamon and Coca-Cola vibes. It’s all mixed together to create something that at first glance looks like an old-fashioned walk in the park, but actually has a ton of layers.

Oaxaca

Give 1.

Note: This take on the Old Fashioned is on Jessi Pollak’s bar menu at Spoon and Stable.

• 3 tablespoons (1.5 oz) Banhez Joven mezcal

• 1 tbsp. (1/2 oz) old grandpa bound bourbon

• 1 tbsp. (1/2 oz) Rothman & Winter Orchard Peach Liqueur

• 1/2 tsp. (1/4 oz) St. Agrestis Amaro

• 1/2 tsp. (1/4 oz.) Demerara Syrup

• 1 dash of Regan’s orange bitters

directions

Combine everything in a mixing glass with ice and stir until cool. Filter over a large ice cube and garnish with an orange zest.

About Wesley Williamson

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