Episode 9: Jennifer Colliau, a true believer, a passionate craftsman, and a prolific cocktail enthusiast

From being a 12-year-old fatherless child,

To owning ‘’Here’s how’’, the glamorous bar in downtown Oakland.

 

Jen shares the story of her life with us. She tells about her highs and lows and everything in between. Her childhood, her baby steps towards craftsmanship, and her extraordinary success story, everything feels like a movie script when written down.

 

After the death of her father, Jen rebelled against education. She stopped studying, despite her advanced placement, which consequently led to poor grades.

 

It was her history teacher who recognized her faltering potential.

 

One day, Jen’s history teacher took her to lunch.

As Jen sat with her books and copies, ready to get a typical ‘’ motivation session’’ from her teacher, she was shocked when nothing of that sort happened. Her teacher treated 14-year-old Jen like an adult. She asked Jen about her life, how’s everything going and had a very cathartic conversation with Jen. They didn’t talk about homework, she didn’t bring up anything related to class or Jen’s poor grades. She basically showed up for Jen in a way that no other adult was. All she got previously were lectures from her teachers about how important it is to study and do well in life. But they could never really convince her.

 

It was a pivotal moment that changed Jen’s relationship with education and history forever and the trajectory of her life.

 

Jen still doesn’t like history but what it did to her was, it made ‘’cocktail history’’ relevant to her.

 

She finds it weird how she remembers so much cocktail history.

 

Creativity was ALWAYS ingrained in her. She looked for challenges from a very young age. When it was very normal for kids of her age to buy candies, she used to MAKE them herself. Not because of any other reason, but for the sheer pleasure of being able to make something. She used to make a lot of candies when she was young.

 

Imagine a small kid, 12 years old, going to the drugstore to buy glycerine for making salt water taffy.

 

Making cocktails, developing bars conceptually, making furniture, making candy, making syrup, all of it fills the same CREATIVE NEED.

Making anything creative keeps her happy. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it’s creative and has a purpose, it feeds her needs.

 

Coming back to her knowledge of cocktail history, she explains how Lachlan Rose, a man in the mid-nineteenth century used sulfur to create a non-alcoholic citrus juice to protect the British Royal Navy from scurvy while also providing refreshments. This is why modern-day lime has a kind of funkiness to it.

 

Lachlan Rose’s creation gave birth to preserved lime. Bottled lime juice isn’t supposed to ‘’taste fresh’’. This is exactly why when you go to a bar and ask for a gimlet, what you’re going to get is a gin akori. It’s gin fresh lime juice and simple syrup. An absolutely delicious drink.

 

But that’s not a gimlet, says Jen. Gimlet is made with a kind of cooked lime flavor and from the oils of the lime peels.

The drink is royal. Jen’s team uses Navy strength gin. They use limes, lime zest, lime juice,  and lime sugar. They combine it in a couple of different ways and then they filter it. It takes a couple of days to get the combination to separate.

 

It’s a slow, tedious process.

 

They don’t use any advanced equipment. Jen’s team just runs it through coffee filters, takes the time that’s needed and then puts them in bottles.

 

And when you order a gimlet from Here’s how, they stir the bottled drink down to 25 degrees. Specifically because that drink doesn’t have any added water due to the way they batch it out so it needs extra dilution. It’s strong, it’s sweet, and it’s rich in the bottle.

 

As you can guess by now, Jennifer is not secretive about her recipes and cooking processes.

 

In fact, Jen offers to write down her recipes for you, if you want them from her!

 

‘’Why?’’ You may ask. A good chef never gives away his secret recipes, a magician never reveals his secrets, then why does Jen give her recipes away so altruistically?

 

The answer is simple. To Jennifer, the magic of bartending is not in the recipes, not in the cocktails only. Jen believes that the magic of bartending is in the hospitality, the service that she and her team provides. Helping people have a good time, giving away recipes to people so that the customers always get something extra from her bar, that’s what she finds happiness in.

 

The respect that Jen has for the bartending industry goes beyond just good drinks.

Jen believes wholeheartedly that making good drinks isn’t that hard. She can sit and come up with interesting things to put together. She can step behind the bar and make a couple of versions of the drink, tweak the proportions and VOILA! It’s that easy for her. She doesn’t find it THAT interesting. The gimlet that you can get from Here’s how, is only made of three ingredients and it’s one of the best drinks that Jen has ever produced.

 

Jen has always been this creative. When she first started ‘’small-hand foods’’, she also taught woodwork at the crucible. In her words, you can’t buy lumber for how much it would cost you to buy a Finnish table at Ikea. 

It always costs more to make a piece of furniture for yourself. But it gives Jennifer peace. 

 

Jennifer tends to make big things. This one time, she got annoyed by her pillows falling off from her bed. So, she built a headboard! She was also a cabinet maker for a good period of time. 

 

Jen is very detail oriented. She keeps emphasising on the fact that bartending is not only about remembering cocktail recipes. You need to draw a mental map. You need to know what needs to be done next.

 

How is she different from other bar owners?

She takes in green people and nurtures them to become amazing at what they do. She never lets any of her workers do something that she’d never do.

 

She started off pretty slowly. When she first started making orgeat, she’d get whiskey bottles in return!

 

She gathered vast knowledge about this industry by reading books and researching online.

Jen can also be termed as a bibliophile. The number of bookshelves in her house keeps  increasing very frequently.

 

She’s a learner. She knows all about the chemistry that works behind the scenes of syrup and cocktail making. Jen has a decent amount of knowledge which helps her know what ingredients to use, what the proportions should be, how to mix them and whatnot!

 

Jen did not have to wait for long to find her passion. Once she gathered enough knowledge, researched enough about cocktails, and combined these with her memory of all the historical cocktail tales, she knew that it was the right industry for her to step in.

 

It happened two years after she started small-hand foods. She just made a decision and hung on to it.

 

You’re never going to know if your decision is the right decision.  

Jennifer knew she had a passion for making things. She wasn’t sure if it was the right thing to do. But she did it anyway. Only because it gave her happiness

 

She went to CCA (California College of the Arts). As she was going through the furniture program there, she realized how important it was to keep her audience’s preferences in mind. She learned the idea of ‘’concept’’. She took away something very important from her course there. If an artist or a sculptor decides to make a piece of art or furniture or painting, he needs to think about what his audience will feel when they interact with his piece.

 

If your audience doesn’t feel the way you want them to feel, then you have failed at your job as an artist.

 

This is how commerce comes into play with art. There’s a lot of people who hate this idea. People say that their art is all about themselves and they don’t need their work to be loved by others. But that’s just pure B.S. Jen says that if you want someone to pay you for your work, then you have to take that ‘’someone’’ into consideration. He needs to be fed what he wants. That does not make your work artless, neither does it make the art corrupt. It just means that you, as an artist, are having a relationship with the person who is giving you money for your art.

 

People who make art just for themselves are just jerking off.

The best art considers its audience.

 

This is how Jennifer approaches her business, her bar. She doesn’t think about how she wants to make a drink or how she wants her place to look. The primary concern in her head is always about her audience. How are the guests going to interact with her bar or her drinks? How are they going to interact with Jen if she’s hand curving ice? These are the things that go through Jen’s mind whenever she thinks of approaching something.

 

When you step into ‘’Here’s how’’, you can literally see everything that’s happening behind the scenes, starting from cutting the ice, to making the drink. Jen wants you to witness all the magic that’s happening.

 

She wants her audience to feel like a part of her family.

 

She doesn’t like the approach that most of the bars have nowadays towards their guests. Bartenders tend to think of their drinks as the main attraction. But, in reality, that’s not the thing.

 

People go to bars for the experience.

 

But that doesn’t mean that you can’t make good drinks.

 

This is another thing she learned from CCA. California College of the Arts was formerly known as California College of Arts and Crafts. They changed the name to CCA while she was already studying there. When the college dropped the word ‘’Crafts’’ from their name, it gave rise to a lot of debate. Mainly because, it had been there for so long and the people in and around the Oakland campus were so good at crafts. The Oakland campus mainly featured all the crafty things like sculpture, textile, and printmaking. The problem with the word craft was that by that point it couldn’t get away from its connotations. It was like this very solitary thing that had to do with the maker and not about the receiver, not about the audience.

 

The ‘’craft’’ was already implied. People were being taught about long grain to long grain gluing surface. But the connotations to ‘’craft’’ wasn’t necessary.

 

The same thing applies in the bartending industry. In the case of bars, you’re obviously going to make good drinks, that’s implied. There’s plenty of knowledge out there on how to make good drinks. You need to step up and do something that makes your guests feel good about coming to your bar. This is what Jennifer took away from this incident.

 

You need to know that people have different taste pallets and different needs. You need to train yourself enough to make sure that your drinks are balanced, says Jen.

 

Jen always makes sure that she knows who on her staff is a supertaster, a normaltaster or an undertaster. She is nowhere near being judgemental. Jen does this just to create a sense of understanding within her team.

 

Jennifer is a supertaster herself. 10 different versions of martinis with different proportions of gins and vermouths sounds fascinating to her. But, that’s not a cocktail for everyone. And it’s very normal. Just because she likes it herself, doesn’t mean others will love it too.

 

Different people, different opinions (and taste pallets!)

 

For Jennifer, that’s the difference between her being a solitary artist and a conceptual artist. Jennifer is a conceptual artist. She takes her audience into account.

 

This is what she enjoys. To her, this is the magic of the bartending industry.

Interacting with guests, keeping them happy, the comradery amongst co-workers- this what the bartending industry is supposed to be.

 

As a bartender, the rule of thumb is to make good drinks. Of course you’re supposed to make good drinks! That’s like the first brick of the platform. You’re not even supposed to open up a bar without crafting good drinks. Yet, many bars think this is what the whole game is about.

 

They couldn’t be more wrong. This industry is about crafting people’s experiences. Making good drinks is just the first step. Once you have your drinks ready, you need to be entertaining.

 

You need to give your audience a purpose, an incentive to keep coming to your bar over and over again.

 

Personality and Persona can overcome a lot of things.

Jen wishes that more people paid more attention to the experience of the guests, and not their experience as bartenders.

 

What brings people back is good service mixed along with good food.

 

Jennifer brings in green people to work for her. She teaches what it really means to be a great bartender. Her way of teaching is very simple and easy going. She says that she always used flashcards to remember drink recipes, but she also understands that flashcards don’t always work for everyone. She figures out a way to make her staff function properly within their own comfort zone.

 

What’s important for Jennifer is that her workers know how to make the drinks,

And that they are really nice while making them.

 

Other than that, she is ALSO in a book club with some of her staff.

 

Jen owns a syrup company. Consequently, she has been tapped to make non-alcoholic drinks for a lot of events. She has written a lot of mocktail chapters and articles for different books and publications. 

 

Fun fact- Jennifer doesn’t drink much. 

 

Not that she doesn’t drink at all. It’s just not a daily activity of hers. When she drinks, she either goes for tequila or wine. 

 

Jennifer believes that one does not have to drink to have an enjoyable experience in a bar. 

 

Jennifer talks at and goes to a lot of seminars. She has to deal with different audience every now and then. 

When she goes to seminars that are for the bartending industry, she has to go with one approach. On the other hand, when she goes to seminars that are for home enthusiasts, she has to keep a different approach. 

 

In seminars, she talks about real deep profitability spreadsheets, conceptual development, empirical dilution, ecology. She always meets people who ask for a conversation with her. 

Naturally, it’s mostly women who want to know more from Jen and she’s also more inclined towards women. She wants to help people in every way she can.

 

Although it was never the intention, Jen ends up being many green people’s mentor. She feels like anyone can do what she’s doing. But she knows that women look at her as being a very successful and ideal woman in a male dominated field. She has made things easier for up and coming young women in this industry.

What Jennifer finds hard to accept is the bartending industry being insular.

For four years, Jennifer was the only female night bartender. 

 

People say that they’re just hiring the best applicant, doesn’t matter if it’s male or female. Jennifer disagrees with this and she feels like these people are having a very narrow definition of what best means. And there’s a lot of things that are awesome about people who aren’t like these sexist and racist bunch that affect their customer base in ways that they don’t even know.

 

One of Jennifer’s friends who runs a bar did not realize how white her customer base was until she hired a black bar manager. She immediately noticed diverse her customer base turned into. How good it felt to have people of all castes and creeds in her bar. 

All in all, Jennifer is an amazing employer, an altruistic bartender, and an innovative soul. She loves challenges. She loves helping her staff and being friendly with them. But most importantly,

She loves and enjoys doing what she does.

 

If you’re in the Oakland area across the Fox Theater, you MUST stop by and pay a visit to ‘’Here’s how’’ and watch the magic happen right in front of your eyes. She has a totally open backspace where you can see them using centrifuges, cutting ice, and making these amazing drinks for you!

If you’re interested in the bartending industry or if you’re wondering how Jennifer is living the life that almost EVERYONE wants to live, then listen in. 

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