Two Cinco de Mayo Cocktails from Gerber Group Bartender Michelle Romano

It’s Cinco de Mayo, the day Mexicans and Americans celebrate the victory of the Mexican Army over the French in the Battle of Puebla (May 5, 1862) with tequila shots and loutish behavior. Tequila shots are great, and loutish behavior is okay in certain circumstances, but I think we can do better. Fortunately, so does Gerber Group bartender and manager Michelle Romano (above), who was kind enough to invent two amazing cocktails for us that are worthy of the holiday. 

I dropped by Whiskey Blue Thursday afternoon for a tasting, and I’m glad I did, because it expanded my cocktail repertoire quite a bit. The idea was to just have one drinko for Cinco, but when Michelle told me it involved a jalapeno-infused tequila, I got scared. I like spicy food just fine, but spicy drinks – jalapeno tequila, black pepper vodka, etc. – don’t do it for me. I like the heat in my mouth, but not down my throat. So she took pity on the widdle baby and came up with a milder option as well. It’s called the Watermelon Cilantro Margarita, and it’s a good place to begin.  

Watermelon Cilantro Margarita

2 oz Excellia tequila
12 cilantro leaves
3/4 oz agave syrup
1/2 oz fresh lime juice
4 large chunks of fresh watermelon
In a cocktail shaker, muddle watermelon and cilantro with agave syrup. Add ice, lime juice and tequila. Shake vigorously and pour directly into highball glass.
This is a lovely and refreshing cocktail with a great smoothie-like texture. The cilantro and lime play nicely against the watermelon and you’re forced to drink it slowly because leaves keep getting stuck in the straw. Forced moderation is better than no moderation at all. A great drink. 
The second cocktail she made was the one I was afraid of, but I figured I’d give it a try, because Michelle knows what she’s doing behind the bar (more on that later). 
Jalapeno Cooler
2 oz Tanteo Jalapeno Tequila
12 cilantro leaves
1/2 oz agave syrup
4 large chunks of watermelon
In a building glass muddle watermelon and cilantro with agave syrup. Add ice and tequila. Shake vigorously and pour directly into a rocks glass.
With some trepidation, I took a sip. And then another. And another. Where was the heat? Ah, there it is, on the lips, on the tongue, and a bit in the cheeks. But nothing in the throat, nothing in the belly. It’s a spice that knows when to quit. Like I said, I’m fine with spicy food, but I’ve got nothing to prove. Give me a little bit of a kick, enough to wake me up a bit, but don’t start an inferno inside me. Michelle balanced the jalapeno perfectly agains the other ingredients. It’s still not something I’d go out of my way to order, but for those who like their cold drinks hot, it’s as good as they get. 
And as for Michelle, she’s one of the coolest bartenders in New York. I know this because she hosted us at Lilium when I sampled upscale St. Patrick’s Day cocktails with actor Jon Glaser. Not only were the cocktails amazing, but we all had a great time sitting around and shooting the breeze. To find out more about Michelle, let’s ask her.
Where were you born, where did you grow up, and what kinds of things were you into as a kid?
I’m originally from Mt. Shasta California, which is the very top of Cali near the Oregon border. I spent 25 years in Cali before I transplanted myself to the East Coast. I grew up climbing trees, catching lizards, and playing in the mud. I was a total tomboy and complete ham, loved to be the center of attention and had a wild imagination, but I guess that’s no different from me now. 
How did you get into bartending? What about it appealed to you, and when did you realize you had a knack for it?
I actually lied my way into my first bartending job. One day I just woke up and said "I want to be a bartender," so I Googled some drinks and shots, made myself flash cards with the recipes, and went to my favorite restaurant/club in town and asked them for a job. I told them I had bartended at another local bar in town (where the owner was willing to fake a reference for me). They hired me as a happy hour bartender and quickly realized that even though I knew what was in the drinks, I had no clue how to make them. But  what I lacked in knowhow I made up for in personality, and I had a great bar manager who was willing to show me the ropes. Shout out to Jeff Lennon! 
What exactly are you doing now? What is your title and basic responsibilities?
I currently work for two Gerber Group properties. At Lilium in the W Union Square, I’m the head bartender, team leader for all the staff and back up managerial support for the GM.  At Whiskey Blue I’m a full time manager where I do a lot of everything. Back of the house stuff like invoicing and payroll, as well as managing the floor and interacting with customers to enhance the guest experience.
What’s an average day like for you, if there is such a thing as an average day?
Lately every day has been something different. I just recently transferred to Whiskey Blue so I’m still getting my footing and the craziest things seem to happen when I’m running a shift. I’m constantly on call for both properties between staff, corporate, or other managers. My phone and email never stop, but I like it. I work well under pressure.
Any crazy stories you can share? Celebs-gone-wild, that kind of thing?
Honestly I have no celebrity dirt, but I wish I did! Gerber has such a good reputation among the celebrity circle so we have a regular flow of celebrities in our New York properties and everyone I’ve met has been really cool. I think the best moment for me was when I had first moved to NYC and met Chris Noth. I was of course a huge Sex and the City fan and my friend Sally always calls me her Carrie Bradshaw. Now I’m not one to get star struck, after living in LA you get pretty used to seeing famous people wandering around. But I’ll be honest when Chris sat at my bar for the first time it felt like the perfect New York moment. It took every ounce of my composure not to run up and hug him and call him Mr. Big!!
What spirits and mixers do you enjoy working with?
My favorite part of New York has always been the use of so many fresh ingredients and infusions. I’m really into gin these days. It’s become an obsession of mine to get non gin drinkers to enjoy a gin cocktail I craft. I Haven’t had someone dislike something I’ve made as of yet, knock on wood. I don’t want to give away my secrets but herbal gin infusions are where my head is right now.
What trends are you seeing in mixology these days? What is the Gerber Group of bars mixing up?
I’ve noticed that many bars are doing a play on flavors, mixing the sweet with the salty or savory. Like doing a sweet martini with a white pepper rim. Gerber Group has a new spirit favorite called Caliche Rum, which is new to the market. We actually just added two amazing Caliche cocktails to our cocktail lists company-wide. What I really like about it is that its a silver rum but it has some 30 year old rum mixed into each batch, giving it a lot more character than most silver rums you taste. 
What do you drink when you’re kicking back? What’s your favorite cocktail, wine, beer, etc.?
Well I love any beer I can put fruit in, and I even put fruit in some beers you wouldn’t think need it. like Stella with lime. I’m weird. If I’m drinking a martini its gin-based. I typically scope out the fresh ingredients the bar has and have them make me something I invent on the spot. Which I’m sure the bartenders just love! But if all else fails I’ll always go back to Hendrick’s with a splash of St. Germaine and a splash of grapefruit. Can’t go wrong there.
Any advice for aspiring bartenders out there? How do you make it to a high-end bar like a Gerber bar?
At the end of the day anyone can make a Jack and Coke. You have to have a personality if you want to get anywhere in the business. Too often I see bartenders who don’t smile, who look like they hate their jobs or hate people in general, and I think to myself "why are you even doing this? The money? Your tips can’t be very good with that attitude." Gerber hires personalities, not just bartenders. The reason I’ve gotten so far in this company in such a short period of time is because I’m a genuine, likeable person who enjoys what I do and works damn hard at it. 
Finally, what do you like to do when you’re not working? Any hobbies or leisure activities that keep you balanced? Photography, travel, etc?
I’m a jet setter. Last year I visited Spain twice and also Italy. This year I went to Costa Rica and am deciding where to head next. Every time I come back from a trip I feel renewed and reinvigorated towards life. I picked up photography a year ago and have fallen completely in love with it, and I’m actually quite good if I do say so myself. Those two things keep me balanced. Knowing that the world can look completely different through a camera lens drives me to see things other than how they appear on the surface and helps me to stay open to all the possibilities around me. 
[Photo: Eric Fischer]