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Meet the Bartender: Adele Stratton

Noble Experiment’s general manager talks about bringing vodka back and why there’s no such thing as a ‘girly’ cocktail


Noble Experiment's Adele Stratton | Photo by Kelly Davis

Seven years ago—and with no prior experience—Adele Stratton decided she wanted to work at Noble Experiment, the bar that set the bar for craft cocktails in San Diego. That’s like someone with no actual rock-climbing experience setting out to do Half Dome. Or a couch potato signing up for the Boston Marathon. But she was willing to put in the time—lots of it—and hard work. She’s now a general manager at Noble Experiment and co-creator of one of the bar’s more interesting menus.

How’d you get into bartending?

I actually came to Noble Experiment for my 21st birthday when I was in art school. I was having a really hard time figuring out how I was going to make money being a painter. I was kind of in a bad place and came here and was in awe of what the bartenders were doing—how creative they were and the level of detail and artistry they put into all these cocktails. I was sitting with my friend and I was, like, “I want to work here.”

Did you know a lot about cocktails back then?

I didn't know anything. I met the owner of this place [Nate Stanton]—I sat at the bar and he was my bartender. I sat here for four hours and just berated him with questions. We ended up exchanging numbers at the end of the night and I called him the next day and said, “How do I work for you?” He said, “You can’t. First of all, you don’t know what you’re doing.” But, he said, “If you’re really serious about it, I can help get you a job as a hostess at a new bar that I’m opening up.”

Within about a year, they opened up Craft & Commerce and I started a few months after they opened as a host. I wanted to bartend eventually, but I had a ways to go. So, I basically read everything I could. There’s a big compendium of classic cocktails that I memorized.

After four years of being there, working my way up to one of the general managers, I had a bar manager who was, like, “Alright, kid, it’s your chance.” I bartended there for a little over a year and a half and during that time helped Anthony Schmidt, who used to run Noble Experiment, open Rare Form and Fairweather.

When Trevor Easter took over [at Noble Experiment in mid-2014], they had a bunch of people sort of leave to go do their own thing and open their own projects. So, they had some room for me and brought me on. I ditched everything else because this was always my dream bar. I remember very vividly Trevor asking if I wanted to work here and I burst into tears. I’ve been here for about two years and now I’m one of the general managers.

Why do you think it took Craft & Commerce so long to bring you on as a bartender?

When I worked at Craft & Commerce, for the first three or four years they were open, the girls were the servers and the boys were the bartenders. They always told me it was because I was a really good server. No one ever said it’s because I was a girl. It took a lot of me kicking and screaming and begging for them to give me a chance. I’ve been told that it’s a really difficult job that requires you being on your feet 12 hours a day and lifting kegs. That always made me want to work 1,000 times harder and know twice as many cocktails. It actually was a good motivating force.

I don’t want it to sound like I’m knocking the amazing bartenders I’ve worked with. Craft & Commerce had some of the most incredible bartenders I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. In one shift, you’d have some of the top bartenders in Southern California. I used to work with Christian Siglin and Eric Johnson, all these really amazing people—they just all happened to be men.

Going back to what you said about memorizing all those cocktails—do you remember the moment when everything about cocktail-making kind of clicked and made sense?

Absolutely. There was a point when I first started learning all this stuff that I made, like, flash cards with hundreds and hundreds of drinks on them. I was trying to remember the drinks, remember the ingredients and remember the specs. One of the bartenders [at Craft & Commerce] said to me, “You know you have to learn all the families first.” There are all these categories of drinks—your Old Fashioneds, your Manhattans, your daiquiris, your gimlets, your Tom Collinses, etcetera. Within those families, there’s a very specific formula. Like, a Tom Collins is 2 ounces of spirit with 3/4 ounces of simple syrup, 3/4 ounces of lemon juice, shaken and topped with club soda. So, that’s the recipe for a Tom Collins. But there are all these variations. Once you kind of learn the basics for the families, you can just plug in ingredients. When I understood that, it made learning all the cocktails so much easier and I was able to retain so much more.

So, when it’s a dealer’s choice cocktail, you draw on those formulas?

Yes. Though, I get teased because I’m always the one who does—they’re called “cowboy cocktails,” where I kind of make stuff up on the fly right there for a customer without testing it first, which is kind of a no-no. But my justification for it is, well, I know this is going to work, because I’m going to take this same classic cocktail that I know is really good and I’m going to do this and this. So, I might not have made it before, but there are little things I’m going to sub out and I know it’ll be balanced because of the formula.

So, tell me about the dirty martini on the new menu.

We did not carry vodka at Noble Experiment, then we brought in Absolut Elyx, which is this incredible Swedish vodka—it was the first vodka we thought had a strong enough base to work in a cocktail. On the new menu, we have seven different classic cocktails and we give you the original recipe for that cocktail—so, in the martini section, we’re giving you the original recipe for a classic Plymouth gin martini. Then, for the modernized version, what’s the most called-for martini? It’s a dirty martini with extra bleu cheese olives. We decided, let’s take a dirty martini and make it really good. We got these really fancy Elyx glasses and we pickled cherry tomatoes and cocktail onions and these fancy olives and put a big dill sprig with it and made our own brine. It’s onion brine, olive brine, and just a tiny bit of pickle juice with Serrano extract. And, instead of vermouth, we use fino sherry, which, in Spain, people drink with olives—they go really naturally together. So, just a tiny bit of that and it’s so delicious. It’s insane how good it is—we can’t make them fast enough.

"It’s OK to have a drink that you like. You don’t need to put a gender on it."

What’s your favorite cocktail on the new menu?

There isn’t one that I’m not incredibly proud of. But, I think the drink that really shines is the classic Mai Tai. That’s the one when we were testing the new menu that was, like, Oh my god, it’s so good. It blew my mind how good it was.

Mai Tais are such a misunderstood cocktail.

It’s in with the dirty martini. I remember when I went to Hawaii, I was, like, “I’m going to drink Mai Tais on the beach!” The first thing I did when I got there was go to a bar and order a Mai Tai, and I was, like, This is terrible. I was so bummed out. I’ve had some seriously butchered Mai Tais. A Mai Tai should be fresh and juicy and a little bit boozy. Same with Margaritas—I love classic Margaritas. That’s why, when we made this menu, we took a lot of cocktails that are really butchered.

Any spirits or liqueurs you’re currently excited about? Any new discoveries?

I’ve always been completely, madly in love with agave spirits, particularly mezcal since the first time I had it. Over the years, working at Rare Form especially, I got really into eau de vie, which is like an Eastern European-style brandy that’s un-aged and made from whole fruit. I’d put eau de vie into everything. I’d take a daiquiri and sub out part of the rum for a peach eau de vie. Brandies and mezcals are the things I enjoy working with the most and am most inspired by. I love all the Giffard [fruit-based liqueurs]. I use those a whole lot.

Fill in the blanks: I wish people would stop ordering ___________ and instead try_____________.

I wish people would stop ordering cocktails based on their gender and just order what they like. That’s my biggest pet-peeve: “Make me a manly drink,” or “Make me a girly drink.” I’ll hear someone say it across the bar and I’ll stop what I’m doing and say, [whispers] “It’s OK to have a drink that you like. You don’t need to put a gender on it.”

When you’re not here, which bar are you at?

I like Sycamore Den a lot.

And what are you drinking?

A shot of mezcal with a Pacifico with salt and lime juice in it.

What’s with all you bartenders preferring a tequila shot and beer when you’re not working?

I think our palates get so blown out. I’ve tried hundreds of cocktails and all I do is talk about cocktails. Periodically, I’ll get an Old Fashioned, but I feel like a lot of us crave simplicity. I love mezcal so much. When I can just go sip on a really nice mezcal and talk to my friends, it’s something I really enjoy. I always get a Pacifico and Chichicapa. Just keep it simple.

When can folks find you behind the bar?

Thursday through Sunday and sometimes other days, but always Thursday through Sunday.

Got suggestions for a future column? Write to 2kellydavis@gmail.com.

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