Ryan Wainwright – A Bartender’s Bartender
on 12/01/16 at 1:51 pma woman walks into a bar..., Booze News
Ryan Wainwright wasn’t born wanting to be a bartender. Well, who does, you may ask. But, for Ryan, bartending was probably an even more distant career possibility given that he was raised in a strict Christian household where alcohol wasn’t an option, attended Fundamentalist schools and a church where alcohol was demonized. He didn’t go to a restaurant or have his first drink until he was twenty years old and in college. Curiosity got the better of him and he finally had a drink. Well, truth be told, it wasn’t a propitious start. That first drink was a shot of Johnnie Walker Red – neat. Unsurprisingly, it kind of made him “feel sick all over”. At that point, you’d think he would have walked away from alcohol but the booze gods knew better – they had their eye on him. So, how exactly did Ryan Wainwright end up being a bartender’s bartender?
It’s an intriguing journey of connect the dots starting from his home in Northridge, California to training to be a pastor to ditching that to study photography to substitute teaching to DJing in Santa Cruz which, circuitously, led to where he is now – bar program director for the Bombet Hospitality Group which operates two wonderful restaurants, Terrine and Viviane – and all in just eight short years from the beginning of his bartending career to today where he’s at the top of his game.
Influences, mentors, enemies and distractions come at you unexpectedly throughout your life and all have an impact, one way or another, and Ryan certainly has been dealt a compelling and diverse hand. Think about this: the fundamentalist church his dad belonged to was considered non-denominational because it wasn’t Christian enough. His dad, the main influence in his young life, was pretty tough but that strictness provided Ryan with a foundation of structure and a healthy circumspect perspective. Interestingly, his mom is not religious and both parents have PhDs in science – his dad in botany and his mom in biology. Ryan doesn’t decry his restrictive childhood and says he wouldn’t change that time for anything in the world. It really formed who he is.
As luck would have it, when it came time to leave home, Ryan wound up moving to Santa Cruz to be near his one hundred year old grandmother. He stayed until her death, just a few days short of her one hundred and fourth birthday! Marcella Portia Wainwright was a profound influence in his life. Ryan and she would talk for hours but it was how she treated people that had the most impact on him. He was “moved by her actions more than all her words”.
And what action that was. She was a suffragist during the 20’s and 30’s, went to Bryn Mawr, got a degree in sociology and was a mentor to the first black woman admitted to the college. She helped Native Americans when doing so was not in vogue and all while her husband worked on the Manhattan Project. Mind-spinning. She offered Ryan a new perspective on how to look at life and her inspiration gave him the confidence to move on. “I don’t think one person has impacted me more than she has. Her ability to see the beauty in things, and take pleasure in something as simple as a piece of fruit or a vegetable is beautiful. She shaped all that I am”. Her obituary provides but a sliver of this remarkable woman’s life. Marcella Wainwright is a grandma we all would be proud to call our own.
Fortuitously, while Ryan was living in Santa Cruz, a friend asked him to pour wine and beer at a music event he was DJing and – quelle shock! – Ryan found that it paid more than his substitute teaching gig and, oh yeah, was way more fun. That was the spark that Ryan needed to help him figure out what he wanted to do. Off and running, moving from one bar job to another at some of the best restaurants in Los Angeles, each offered a rung on the ladder to becoming a full-fledged bartender, Ryan found his niche. Along the way, he was mentored by John Coltharp, “the greatest bartender ever in L.A.”. He watched John closely and absorbed all that went into making a stellar drink – understanding the puzzle of how flavors fit together, studying the history of the classics so he could then break them down to the sum of their parts and create the best version. It was an education not taught in any school.
Now here’s the part where Ryan stands out as a bartender’s bartender. Stick with me…it all makes sense. He grew up playing the piano where, as you know, a note can be out of tune. When Ryan builds a drink, he is keenly aware of ‘hearing’ a dissonant note. That ‘something’ might not make beautiful music in the drink. And drinks for him are also a visual thing. He see drinks in shapes and builds them accordingly. You might say it’s a form of architectural synesthesia. Here, I’ll let him tell you himself…
“As far as how I see drinks, I see all drinks visually. It is much like building a structure. When I drink a drink, I can see where the spikes are, where the roundness is, where the strength and the subtleties come together to either form a harmonious tower or an out of balance precipice. I find some drinks to be strong balancing acts, perhaps like a Martini which in its perfection is a beautifully round ball balanced atop a tower. Some drinks are more about jagged shapes such as a Negroni which ends up as a crescent moon with ridges all along it set upon a stable cube. What makes these shapes are unknown to me but one thing is for sure; flavor is a visual thing. Perhaps that is a little crazy, perhaps it’s a little bombastic; hard to say really but it is how I taste and each ingredient builds a stable structure or throws everything to the ground.” That’s why you want cocktails by Ryan Wainw.right and not me or your martini swilling uncle cause we just see booze in a glass.
Terrine is where we meet him today. Order a drink from Ryan and you will always get a bespoke cocktail because Ryan does not turn out cookie cutter drinks. Want the best Negroni? He experimented by making fourteen of them until he came up with the perfect combination (wish I’d been a taster). Because booze brands matter, his perfect Negroni is made with: “only Beefeater will do”, Campari and Alessio Vermouth di Torino Rosso. After fourteen iterations, you’ve got perfection.
If you have the temerity to ask for a Negroni, say, with Hendricks gin, Ryan – who is in the hospitality business after all – will adjust his master recipe to accommodate your spirit request. Not just any gin will work with just any vermouth. It will be a totally different drink. You tell him what you’re in the mood for and Ryan begins constructing the cocktail shape before his eyes, flipping through the vast catalogue of spirits in his mind to choose those that make sense together. He’ll know when your cocktail is ready by touching the metal shaker for the right temperature, look at it for the correct volume, proper dilution and, most importantly, his gut feel. “I want you to be excited about tasting what’s in that cocktail.” Trust him. No matter what you order, you will get the best cocktail it can possibly be.
I wondered if his bartenders work the same way because the way Ryan approaches making a cocktail is something you really can’t teach. What he does do is train his staff to ask a lot of questions, drill down to find out what spirit will scratch your itch with a drink you’re hankering for. Asking a lot of questions is his personal philosophy and a reason why he is a bartender and not a pastor as it all circles back to his unique upbringing, “Dad is such a great leader and I like to think I am, too.”
What’s Ryan’s favorite drink? A martini with two ounces of Plymouth gin, one ounce of Dolin dry vermouth, three dashes of orange bitters: “It’s like listening to a Beethoven symphony fifteen times…it goes down so easily.”
Love vodka? Ryan: “I’ve done a lot of vodka tasting and it’s all painful.” However, there is vodka behind the bar. These vodkas pass muster: Russian Standard Vodka (BevMo, seventeen bucks), Monopalowa Vodka (Trader Joe’s, twelve bucks), Rain 100% Corn Vodka (despite the horrible bottle – BevMo, fifteen bucks) and Belvedere 100% Rye, Unfiltered Vodka (BevMo, twenty-two bucks)
Being a successful bartender brings its own rewards and one of those was making one of Ryan’s dreams come true. For years, he’s yearned for a certain vintage car and, two years ago, he was able to buy it: a ’65 Volvo coupe, all original, which he drives around town on his day off.
Drinking for Ryan is “a great tool to bring people together, a way to be part of something, not to be removed. And what’s cool is giving people something new they’re not used to.” What’s next for Ryan? Because there’s always a ‘next’ for ambitious, talented people…his own bar perhaps? Who knows. The world is his oyster and that will be with his own bespoke martini, thank you.