Bottoms up! Bristol mixologist named Vt. Bartender of the Year

BRISTOL — For years, Martha Mack viewed bartending as a hobby. During summers while she was in college and graduate school, Mack would return to her native Bristol to tend bar and wait tables at her parents’ eatery, Mary’s Restaurant at the Inn at Baldwin Creek.
Mack, 30, has no formal education in mixology, but enjoys experimenting with new flavors and concoctions behind the bar.
She views bartending as more of a career choice now — after all, she was recently crowned Vermont’s first-ever Bartender of the Year. And it all came to be somewhat by accident.
Burlington’s Hotel Vermont hosted a cocktail-making contest in March. Days before the event, the organizers realized the entire slate of competitors were men, so they sought to find female bartenders to round out the field. The day before the contest, organizers reached out to Mack’s sister, Laura, who promptly volunteered Martha.
“I didn’t know anything about it — how it was structured or how it worked,” Martha Mack said. “It was kind of intimidating; most of all the other bartenders were from Burlington and they all knew each other. And on top of that, I was the only girl.”
She said she had no idea what to expect — she’d never been in a bartending competition and did not know how the contest would be judged. But she was pleased to find out, upon her arrival at Hotel Vermont, that the format of the competition was one in which she felt she could do well.
“It was not necessarily about technique, but it was about being timed and was about having to make up a drink on the spot, and that’s what I like to do,” she said. “I’m more about creativity and flavors than, ‘Make me the best Manhattan you’ve ever made.’”
The contest consisted of two rounds, during which competitors had to create cocktails based on a specified list of ingredients. After the first round, judges cut the field in half.
In the final round, competitors were tasked with making a cocktail by incorporating the same four ingredients: brandied apricots, kumquats, cardamom and Vermont Gold vodka.
“Everyone had the same ingredients, but you could add whatever you wanted to it,” Mack explained.
For her concoction, Mack added to those ingredients St. Germain, Cointreau, a fresh orange, nutmeg and an egg white.
“It was really easy to drink; smooth and refreshing,” Mack said, adding that the egg white gave the cocktail a full-bodied, milkshake-like consistency.
She’s not sure why judges picked her cocktail as the best, because the judges did not reveal contestants’ scores, and contestants didn’t sample each others’ drinks.
Mack won a stay at the hotel, and of course, the distinction of being Vermont’s inaugural Bartender of the Year. But, not content to bask in her newfound celebrity, Mack is back at Mary’s in Bristol trying out new drinks.
Though she’s never been classically trained in bartending, she said she is fascinated with the history of the profession and the evolution of cocktails in popular culture.
“I like to take a classic drink and modernize it,” she explained. “That’s my secret — to take a classic cocktail and tweak it.”
Mary’s changes its entire menu seasonally, which gives Mack the opportunity to develop an entire new offering of drinks. The current drink menu was inspired by the NBC sitcom “Parks and Recreation,” and the cocktails bears the names of its characters. There’s the Leslie Knope (gin, fresh lemon and orange juice), the April Ludgate (jalapeno infused tequila, lime) and the Ron Swanson (bourbon and candied bacon, of course).
Mack demonstrated her technique for a visitor recently by whipping up a Johnny Karate, her take on the classic Moscow Mule. Her version includes blueberry-infused vodka, muddled cucumbers, mint, lime and house-made ginger beer.
“It’s got all the same components, but it’s a different drink,” Mack said as she slid the drink, garnished with a lime slice, across the bar.
Though hesitant to editorialize, the Independent can confirm that it is an excellent cocktail.
Mack is intrigued by flavor profiles and combinations, an obsession that extends beyond cocktails. Since 2012, Mack and her sister Laura have co-owned lu.lu, an artisan ice cream parlor in Bristol. There, Mack enjoys experimenting with flavors much as she does behind the bar.
“It’s really the same, making ice cream and infusing liquor,” she said. “You take a base, like a cream or a vodka, and use it as a canvas.”
lu.lu uses ingredients from local food producers, like Monument Farms Dairy and the Vermont Coffee Co. Its diverse lineup of creatively named flavors include Calamity Jane (peanut butter, pretzels), Dorian Grey (Earl Grey tea-infused ice cream) and Legally Blondie (butterscotch base with blonde brownies).
Mack said she’s likes tinkering around with new ice cream flavors, even though it means juggling two jobs throughout the summer. She said the task is easier because lu.lu makes its ice cream from the kitchen at Mary’s.
“It helps that it’s all in the same place,” she said.
Someday, Mack hopes to open her own bar or restaurant, whether in Burlington or somewhere else in the country (Mack said she’s considered a move down South).
“I want to have a career, cocktail-wise,” she said. “I’m just not sure yet what it’s going to be.”
She’s also considering working as a consultant for other bars looking to enhance their drink offerings or move in a different direction entirely.
“All my co-workers keep telling me that I need to write all my drinks down and make a book,” she said. “When we change the menu, the drinks disappear after that. I want to try to keep them together.”
At Mary’s, which her parents Linda Harmon and Doug Mack have run for 33 years, Martha Mack said she hopes to impress the restaurant’s dozens of regular customers with new drinks and twists on old classics. She also wants to draw a younger crowd.
Contrary to popular belief, Mack said young people aren’t content to just drink beer, and have an interest in well-made cocktails. She’ll even be offering bartending classes for people who want to learn the tricks of the trade, and explained that she’s observed a re-emergence in the popularity of cocktails.
“A lot of people like to watch me make drinks, and ask ‘What is that?’, ‘How did you do that?’ because they want to know,” Mack said.
So what makes a good bartender? Mack said it’s a combination of things.
“To be a really good bartender, you not only have to make good drinks, but you also have to know how to talk to people,” she said. “A lot of it is just understanding what people want.”
Mack certainly cuts the grade.
Note: Mary’s Restaurant, on Route 116 in Bristol, is open for dinner Wednesday through Sunday, and also serves brunch on Sunday.

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