Kathleen Sullivan, The Spotted Owl
On any given weeknight, you might find Kathleen "Sully" Sullivan sawing a massive block of ice or testing recipes using spirits from Japan or Peru. It comes with the territory when you're the beverage director for the Spotted Owl, Tremont's premier cocktail destination.
Sullivan, like the Spotted Owl's owner Will Hollingsworth, is a veteran of Michael Symon's Lolita. The difference is that Sullivan didn't get behind the bar for about seven years. She first worked as hostess, back waiter, server — basically, everything but pouring drinks.
"I was begging for something else to learn," she said, and so she took on bartending. The focus at Lolita was mostly wine. "It wasn't this, that's for sure," Sullivan says, gesturing to the Owl's impressive back bar.
After gaining some experience at Lolita, Sullivan came on as a barback at the then-new Owl. One of her shifts fell on Mondays, the night allotted for "drink development" and experimentation. These nights instilled in Sullivan, who was promoted to beverage director in May 2015, a dedication to researching the craft.
Under her tenure as director, the Owl has continued to enjoy a reputation as a destination bar for elaborate cocktails. She waves away the Owl's reputation, among some, as pretentious: "We're just really excited to show you what we've learned."
If the Owl's new Peruvian-themed drink menu is to be taken as an indication, Sullivan has clearly learned quite a lot. With drinks like the Chicha Morada, Sullivan and the Owl crew are striving to recreate a South American atmosphere of leisurely and communal drinking.
Sullivan, ever one to deflect compliments, is quick to highlight the contributions her fellow bartenders made to drink development. "I'm really proud of everyone's work on this menu," she says.
Sullivan is a native Clevelander, born in West Park and a professed "westside girl at heart." The owl tattoo on her arm, she will tell anyone who asks, is just a coincidence. She loves patronizing neighborhood bars, but often doesn't have the time. "It's hard to imagine just sitting in a bar enjoying a drink," she admits.
When not at the Owl, she spends her time walking her two dogs and researching new ways to improve the Owl's cocktail menu. "This is my life," she says, gesturing to the bar around her. "This and the dogs. But it wouldn't be my life if I didn't enjoy it."
Andy Knecht, Porco Lounge and Tiki Room
One thing you can say about Andy Knecht (pronounced like "connect," he says helpfully) is that he's always game. He's the newest bartender at Porco Lounge and Tiki Room, where he pulls double duty as a server.
Born and raised in Chardon, Knecht's industry experience began at age 15, when he worked the kitchen of a summer camp in Carollton, 40 minutes southeast of Canton. Though he was later made a counselor — moved, as would often happen in his working life, "from the back of the house to the front" — his work with food stuck with him. After college he found himself back in Cleveland with a job he disliked. "I'm officially the world's worst office employee," he confesses. For a hobby, he started brewing beer. Then the hobby turned into a job. Knecht worked in the kitchen and as a bar back at BottleHouse Brewing Company, where he learned his bartending philosophy: "You're serving customers, not drinks."
Knecht has enjoyed the switch from slinging beer to cocktails. "There's so much more to explore," he says. "It's in your hands to craft the beverage that person wants right in front of them." And working a craft cocktail bar like Porco comes with its own set of responsibilities. "Half our job is to be educators," he explains. If a customer comes in and orders, say, an "Alaskan Thunderfuck Blowjob," Knecht sees it as his duty to say: "I can do something better for you."
Like many kids growing up in Cleveland in the 1990s and early oughts, Knecht left for college vowing never to return. And like many of those kids, Knecht is thrilled to be back. "Cleveland is rooted in me," he says.
Kevin Patrick, The Speakeasy at Quintana's
After many stints of downtown and westside bartending, Kevin Mayock (better known as Kevin Patrick) has returned to the east side. The Euclid-raised mixologist has joined a dream team of bartenders — friends Leanne Kubiez and Molly McSweeny — to revamp the bar program at Prohibition-style gem the Speakeasy at Quintana's, a barbershop and spa that, yes, also has a drinking establishment upstairs. The bar has always had the Roaring '20s trappings down, as it was designed to. Now, there will be a cocktail menu on par with the decor.
Patrick, already a seasoned veteran of the bar scene at 28, first entered the industry as a cook at 19. He got his start pouring drinks while working the kitchen at a biker bar in Eastlake. "During the day, the bartenders would get too drunk to serve," he says. "I had to bartend at 20." He must have been good: As soon as he turned 21, they had him running shifts.
For a while, Patrick took on a string of Lake County dives and dance clubs. Some shady dealings with management soured him on the business, and he returned to cooking. "I wanted a nice bar," he says.
It wasn't far in his future. After a stint at Chicago's Cordon Bleu culinary school, Patrick returned to Cleveland to become sous chef at Collinwood's well-loved (and mourned) Grovewood Tavern. "It was like dive bars, dive bars, straight to fine dining," says Patrick.
Grovewood was where Patrick first got into craft cocktails. "Moving from culinary to tending was so easy," he says. "You know how to mesh flavor profiles. It's the same as being in culinary when you do the mixology part."
The syrups and spice mixes Patrick makes behind the bar give credence to his comparison. His passion for and knowledge of the craft of cocktails is evident, and at the Speakeasy, he'll truly get a chance to shine. And he's committed to the service bit, too.
"I'm a jerk," Patrick says, "but I love making people happy."