We set out to identify 10 must-know tastemakers in the drinks world, a hand-picked list that includes talented rising stars and forward-thinking industry veterans.
There has never been a better time to be a discerning drinker. From postmodern speakeasies and hyperlocal wineries to sustainable craft breweries and game-changing platforms for industry education, we’re seeing unprecedented levels of creativity in the bottle, glass, and bar. Leading this revolution is new, more-diverse-than-ever generation of of bartenders, distillers, brewers, sommeliers, winemakers, and brand ambassadors who are changing the way we drink—and think about—booze.
We set out to identify 10 must-know tastemakers in the drinks world, a hand-picked list that includes talented rising stars and forward-thinking industry veterans. Our search took us from coast to coast, from cocktail meccas to burgeoning markets, all in the name of spirited excellence. Whether you’re a fellow beverage professional or a drinks enthusiast, here are 10 folks worth raising a glass to.
Bar Manager, Harvard & Stone (Los Angeles)
A one-time disciple of the late classic cocktail pioneer Sasha Petraske, bartending rockstar Aaron Polsky left New York City in 2016 to helm one of the most acclaimed high-volume bars in Los Angeles. At Harvard & Stone, which recently received its sixth nomination for the prestigious Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards, Polsky’s perfected the formula for slinging cocktails that are both creative (Aperol-infused compressed watermelon ice cubes, a tiki menu that swaps rum for whiskey and agave spirits) and efficiently executed ("efficient mise en place, fast service, economy of motion when moving around the bar"). Beyond the bar, Polsky’s also introduced his brand of replicable-but-high quality cocktails to some of the biggest music stages in the world—including Coachella, Panorama, and Stagecoach—even working with a flavor house to develop an organic citrus extract and blending various citric acids that could mimic the taste of overly labor-intensive fresh juices. “That’s how we were able to pump out drinks to 10,000 people a weekend and they were all consistently tasty and, in all likelihood, better than what anyone’s ever had at a music festival,” he says. Now, Polsky is hammering out the finishing touches on his own brand—"a ready-to-drink, packaged cocktail that’s totally different from what’s on the market," he told Food & Wine—and has just successfully lobbied a major spirits conglomerate to produce the forthcoming, first-ever Spanish-language bartending manual—all in the name of leveling the playing field for those “who’ve been relegated unfairly to being barbacks or at best, unskilled bartenders” because of the language barrier.
General Manager and Beverage Director, High Street Wine Company (San Antonio, Texas)
After earning a laundry list of sommelier accolades (including Texas’ Sommelier of the Year) in Austin, one-time Houstonian Scott Ota left what he calls an "a saturated market dominated by a few powerful groups" to share his love for fine wine with Texas’ second-largest, but oft-overlooked city, San Antonio. Wearing two hats as general manager and beverage director of High Street Wine Company, Ota handles the bar’s 240-bottle wine list—"I’m trying not to break the 250-mark," he jokes—along with leading wine tastings and overseeing special events. But despite years of experience winning somm competitions and curating beverage programs, Ota says that being part of the opening team at High Street forced him to embrace a new set of challenges that have much less to do with wine.
“We wrote a business plan, created the architectural design for empty building, came up with a handhook and steps of service all in four-and-a-half months—it was the most monumental undertaking of my career, more challenging than any competition or Court of Masters,” he says. “What I’m most proud of is that we’ve changed what people think, not just about wine, but about hospitality. We’ve seen that 60 percent of our credit card transactions are from repeat guests, and we’ve only been open for a year and a half.” Always looking to further his own education while educating others, Ota is studying for his master sommelier certification in 2019.
Assistant Master Distiller, Woodford Reserve (Louisville, Kentucky)
A master’s degree in psychology and a chance introduction led Elizabeth McCall to the spirits world. Following in the footsteps of her mother, who also worked in the bourbon industry, McCall started in 2009 as a sensory expert in the research and development department at spirits conglomerate Brown-Forman, climbing the ladder first to master taster, and now assistant master distiller for the massive Woodford Reserve brand. She is one of the youngest distillers, and one of the few female distillers, in the industry.
“From the get-go, I never wanted to be highlighted as a woman in this job; I wanted to be highlighted for being the person best-qualified for the job who just happens to be a woman,” McCall admits. “But at the same time, I do recognize and the gravity and significance of it.” These days, McCall says her job is made up of four areas: innovation, production, quality, and education. “Active learning and education is part of my training,” she explains. “I’m actually going to the cooperages and helping build barrels.” Woodford Reserve processes between two to three batches a day, meaning McCall could be tasting anywhere from three to 40 samples daily. And while that can get tedious, she’s also been able to pursue her own passion projects, including one in which she’s spearheaded a partnership local farms to produce heirloom grains, which she’s hopes to use in a master’s collection. She hopes that anyone who wants to pursue their dreams can learn from her story. “People should understand that your college degree does not dictate what you do in life,” McCall says. “Say yes to opportunities—you never know what will happen.”
Industry Activist and Bartender (New Orleans)
“You can’t give good hospitality if you don’t understand humanity,” says Ashtin Berry, one of the foremost voices leading the conversation about diversity, inclusivity, and equity within the bartending community.col While working behind the stick at New Orleans’ Ace Hotel and New York’s Tokyo Record Bar, Berry realized a need for transformative justice models within the beverage industry, leveraging her background in sociology and community activism to translate unfamiliar academic concepts into real-world applications specifically for bartenders.
“People think that things going on in the world have nothing to do with the work we do—but the reality is that we have a duty to undo our implicit biases,” she says. “It starts with language. So often I walk into these cocktail bars as a person of color and no one makes eye contact with me. If you are already someone who feels like a space may not made for you, something that’s surely going to make you feel even more isolated and dismissed is when none of the people in power, the people who constructed that space, recognize that you are there. It’s something a lot of people in the hospitality industry miss.”
Unafraid to challenge the status quo, Berry has also been outspoken in demanding accountability from the deeply-entrenched circles of industry leadership in the wake of the #MeToo movement, and educates the community through workshops, hosted dinners, and discussions at major forums like the female-led Chicago Style and Bacardi Spirit Forward. Nowadays, she’s furthering the conversation by penning articles about social equity and is working on a forthcoming podcast called "Family Meal with Ashtin."
Hagen Dost and Bill Wesselink
Founders and Brewers, Dovetail Brewery (Chicago)
Running one of the buzziest new breweries in Chicago, and even the country, certified master brewers Hagen Dost and Bill Wesselink are bucking mainstream craft beer trends by returning to monastic brewing methods with a focus on European styles. The two Chicago natives met while studying beer at the Doemens Academy in Munich, falling in love with the traditional methods found in the brewing of German, Czech, and Belgian beers, learning to use time-honored equipment not often seen Stateside.
“There is such care and tradition in the way these beers are made.” says Wesselink. “I thought, ‘Why not make a name for yourself doing what everyone else isn’t doing?’”
Decidedly gimmick-free, you won’t find punny product names at Dovetail—the original house styles were simply called the Dovetail Lager, Dovetail Rauchbier, and Dovetail Hefeweizen. Opened in 2016, the brewery has grown rapidly: they sold 375 barrels in their first year, and are now on track to sell 2,200 in 2018. But despite a steady stream of national industry acclaim and recognition—they were voted in into USA Today’s Top 5 breweries in America—Dost says one his proudest moments has been seeing his beers served at the local spots he’s been frequenting for years. Continuing to merge innovation with tradition, the duo reveals they’re now working on their version of a Kriek, the funky, spontaneously fermented cherry beer made in the Belgian lambic style, to be released in July.
Brand Ambassador, Montelobos Mezcal (New York City)
Known affectionately in the industry as la loba mezcalera, or “the mezcal she-wolf,” Camille Austin is one of the brightest stars representing agave spirits in the United States. Born and raised in Cancun, Austin always loved sharing her heritage through colorful clothing, handcrafted huichol jewelry, and of course “Mexican grandma” hospitality. But it wasn’t until she was running top-notch beverage programs for the likes of Hakkasan Group, the Fountainbleau Miami, and Soho House New York that she discovered her passion for mezcal, the smoky, centuries-old spirit whose soaring popularity has thrust the Mexican state of Oaxaca into the global spotlight.
“Mezcal is the most diverse white spirit out there,” she says, nodding to the vast range of agave species and terroirs. “It’s the spirit of discovery.” Eventually recognized by preeminent agave authority and Montelobos Mezcal founder Dr. Iván Saldaña Oyarzábal, Austin was chosen for brand ambassadorship—a coveted next-step for bartenders looking to take their skills to a wider platform. In this role, she travels the world, often hitting “six or seven cities a month,” spreading the gospel of Montelobos, a sustainable mezcal that’s at-once traditional (working with a fifth-generation mezcalero) and modern (using only organically cultivated agave). But for Austin, her journey has just begun: “I think I’m still writing my legacy. I’m the kind of person who needs to accomplish something really impactful before I move on to a new project. And we’re just scratching the surface of the mezcal landscape.”
General Manager, Hirsch Vineyards (Sonoma, California)
Jasmine Hirsch has wine flowing through her veins—her father, David, became one Sonoma’s pioneering winemakers when he purchased a 1,000-acre coastal estate back in 1978. Hirsch took the reins on the winery side as general manager back in 2015, while her father continues to oversee the farming for their eponymous, 72-acre Hirsch Vineyards.
“My biggest ongoing responsibility is to ensure that we are able to make it to the next generation, so we can continue my father’s long-term vision of restoring our land to ecological health,” says Hirsch. “We live here, we make wine here, and that’s it—it’s incredibly deep dive in one specific place.”
The property’s unique and wide-ranging terroir has yielded delicious, biodynamic wines with the acid and structure characteristic of the region, while also offering jammy fruitiness with lots of aging potential—their flagship bottling, the 2014 Hirsch San Andreas Fault Estate Pinot Noir showcases this, drawing from 30 of the vineyard’s 61 distinct parcels. Beyond day-to-day winery operations, however, Hirsch has become a de facto ambassador for the entire Sonoma region—in 2011, she co-founded In Pursuit of Balance (IPOB), a collective of California producers of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay dedicated to introducing wines that are more subtle, and typically lower-alcohol than the bold-and-ripe varieties that had long dominated the commercial market. Though Hirsch decided to dissolve the organization in 2016—she says their goal was achieved in that they started a necessary conversation among wine cognoscenti—she continues her mission of championing Sonoma and Pinot Noir to mainstream wine media today.
Bar Manager, Alter (Miami)
As a former chef with a decade’s worth of restaurant experience, Miami native Gustavo Martinez is making a name in the Magic City’s thriving cocktail scene with his innovative, kitchen-driven approach to cocktailing. Under his leadership, Bar Alter has earned local and national recognition, including best restaurant-bar program in Miami at the Time Out Bar Awards. With inspiration from acclaimed chef Brad Kilgore’s kitchen at Alter, Martinez pushes the envelopes with ingredients, using his culinary know-how to curate a vast portfolio of house bitters, tinctures, and shrubs.
“Watching and admiring a chef like Brad Kilgore motivates me to tag along and create,” he explains. On Martinez’s dynamic menu—currently 28 cocktails deep—guests will encounter custom-flavored ices and foams, petit-four garnishes, and even a peculiar-sounding “dehydrated-lime ash.” But while Martinez is known for cocktails with a bit of showmanship, his calling card within the industry is his humility and hunger to continue learning—he’s recently completed stages at the country’s top bars like Chicago’s Aviary and DC’s bar mini by José Andrés. “I take pride in being able to learn from someone else—teach me and I will teach you.”
Ann Marshall and Scott Blackwell
Founders, High Wire Distilling (Charleston)
Whiskey-loving husband-wife duo Ann Marshall and Scott Blackwell have earned a cult following for a diverse portfolio of premium, small-batch spirits that tap into the earliest days of American distilling with agricultural traditions and forgotten ingredients. Since High Wire Distilling’s founding in 2013, the husband-wife duo have produced the first watermelon brandy in 150 years, a rhum agricole made entirely from Carolina sugarcane, and a bourbon that uses an until-now extinct variety of Lowcountry corn known as Jimmy Red. The latter has become a full-fledged passion project for the couple that extends beyond the walls of their distillery—Blackwell says the ultimate goal is to work with farmers to bring the once-heralded heirloom crop back “to a sustainable level in the bottle and on the plate.”
Since launching the project, they’ve gone through 250,000 pounds of Jimmy Red and have even seen some of their partner farms milling the stuff into grits and cornmeal. Championing principles of sustainability, High Wire sends their distillation byproducts to local farmers, who pickle the rinds and use corn mash as feed for livestock. As for their creative philosophy? “We’re trying to approach a big category like whiskey with a culinary mind and think about this not as hobbyists, but to become stewards of true goods,” says Blackwell. Up next for the duo is a peach brandy—recalling the original formula for the earliest American brandy—that will go to barrels this summer.
Proprietor, Gardiner Liquid Mercantile (Gardiner, New York)
New York can thank Gable Erenzo, and his father, Ralph Erenzo, for the rise of the micro-distillery. When the two founded the acclaimed Tuthilltown Distillery in Gardiner, New York along with partner Brian Lee, they used a 2000 state law stipulating a reduced permit fee for distilleries producing less than 35,000 gallons a year. Gable spent nearly a decade as chief distiller of the pioneering farm-based distillery, producing the acclaimed Hudson Whiskey line which was later sold to William Grant & Sons.
In 2012, he fully divested from Tuthilltown in order to start his solo project, the Gardiner Liquid Mercantile, going even more local with a multi-concept nano-distillery, satellite retail shop, and tasting room. Using produce sourced almost exclusively from the 400-acre Dressel’s Farm, Erenzo turns out unique spirits that range from grappa made with local Cayuga grapes to eau de vies made from strawberries, peaches, and pears—all at a low impact to the environment. “The business is self-sustaining and profitable and I get to do what I want as far as experimentation with distillation,” he says. “We have deep relationships with local farmers so that nothing is really going to waste because we use what they might not be able to sell.”