Bartender Exit Interview: Michele Willard
Saying goodbye to San Diego's cocktail scene’s den mom
Michele Willard behind the bar at Urbn. | Photo: Jarnard Sutton
San Diego attracts a surprising number of bartenders from big-name cocktail cities, like New York, L.A., and San Francisco—but we sometimes lose ’em, too. Some top-notch talent’s taken off in the last year or so— like Zach Gray and Andrew Larson—and, a few weeks ago, Michele Willard (Bracero, Urbn, Coin-Op) announced she was moving to Miami to take a job with spirits importer Back Bar Project. In addition to making amazing cocktails, Willard was kind of like the den mom in San Diego’s cocktail scene, going out of her way to nurture up-and-coming talent while making sure the long-timers were behaving themselves and doing their best work. Stephen Kurpinsky, president of the San Diego chapter of the United States Bartenders’ Guild, said he’s “already plotting a way to steal her back.”
“Michele’s energy, passion, and willingness to share knowledge, along with her creativity for not just cocktails, but what it takes to create unique and memorable experiences, will be sorely missed in San Diego,” he says.
I caught up with Michele during her first week at her new gig and asked her to reflect on what she loved—and will miss—about San Diego’s cocktail scene.
Where'd you go for your last cocktail before leaving San Diego? What was it?
To be honest, my last night in San Diego, I traveled to about 15 bars to hug everyone who made a huge impact on my life. I would have loved for all of them to have made me cocktails, but I would not have been able to walk. To best answer your question, hands down in all of San Diego, the last cocktail I will ever dream about—which I did have my last week (just not the night I left) is The Hunter Thompson (pineapple-infused rum, mezcal, agave, raspberry syrup, lime, bitters). An oldie but goodie at one of my favorite bars in history, The Lion’s Share.
What are you going to miss most about San Diego's cocktail scene?
Do you have time for me to answer this? Everything! As I sit here in my new apartment going through the thousands of memories I have from San Diego, it’s so hard for me to pick. I would have to say the support, the togetherness, the acceptance of all different personalities, the education, the constant creativity, and the love (and hate) we have for spirits and how to balance them within everyday life, because they are our lives. We want to try everything and learn everything, but try to be responsible at the same time.
I know it's tough to pick, but is there a particular bar or bartender who’s always impressed you?
Christian Siglin (Fernside): For more than just his amazingly simple, balanced cocktails—for his love of knowledge, his honesty, his balance, his sincerity, and his love of hospitality. He makes me a better bartender.
Jason O’Bryan (Lion’s Share): There’s not another person in history who has worked harder with less in San Diego. As most of us have grown up in [Consortium Holdings] shoes, Jason moved here, created a name, obtained the knowledge on his own, and has crafted some of the best cocktails. He’s also one of the most well-spoken, caring individuals in history.
Ian Ward (Addison): He is the most brilliant man you will ever meet. His shyness has made most people think he’s arrogant, but he’s the opposite of that. He would give you the shirt off his back or the last shot in his bottle. He’s the most creative person I have ever known. Value every conversation you have with him—it could make you millions.
Jesse Ross (Sycamore Den): I wish I knew Jesse better, but this guy knows how to make a cocktail.
Any bar or bartender you think more people should know about?
Cassandra Randazzo, who currently works at Coin-Op Gaslamp. She’s a rising star who will never promote herself on social media. She is like that amazing hole-in-the-wall place that no one knows about and you kind of want to keep to yourself.
You left San Diego to work for Back Bar Project. Are there any under-the-radar spirits you're repping that you think folks should know about?
Worthy Park Estate’s Rum-Bar rums (silver, gold, overproof). Worthy Park is the oldest operating sugar and rum producer in Jamaica (established in 1670). They produce copper pot-still Jamaica rums, and every element of production takes place on the estate. The name Rum-Bar pays tribute to the thousands of tiny rum bars spread throughout communities across Jamaica.
Do you have a favorite cocktail recipe for the folks at home?
I think all home bartenders should know their classics, because everything is a variation of a classic. The easiest to start with is a sour:
2 oz spirit of your choice
3/4 oz fresh juice
3/4 oz sweetener*
*Orgeat is the best sweetener that most home bartenders don’t use. It’s even good in coffee. I use it for everything. You can infuse simple syrup (1-to-1 ratio of water and sugar) with anything out of your garden.
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