Try having a conversation about the D.C. cocktail scene without mentioning Derek Brown. But the bar tsar behind Columbia Room, Mockingbird Hill, Eat The Rich, and Southern Efficiency hasn’t found success without help: His right-hand woman, Angie Salame, serves as CEO of their enterprise, Drink Company. Despite being one of the top players in the local hospitality industry, Salame doesn’t see much limelight.
Perhaps that’s why almost no one knows her big secret: Salame doesn’t drink alcohol.
And she never has, not even while studying business at Carnegie Mellon University. “I went to college with both of my sisters, and they would all hear stories of me getting wasted,” Salame says. But that wasn’t actually the case. “Did I have to be drunk to Jell-O wrestle? Hell no, I still did it because I never needed the social lubricant.”
She’s not alone. A handful of bar industry professionals abstain from drinking—a practice that comes with its share of struggles but also some advantages. Many report being more present behind the bar and more attuned to customer service. It’s the energetic atmosphere and interactions with patrons that keeps them in the bar industry, despite the fact that many are former addicts who are, in some cases, risking their sobriety.
Salame, however, isn’t a teetotaler because of addiction. Rather, she doesn’t like alcohol because she’s a “super taster.” The topography of her taste buds is different, and even a sip of alcohol feels like swallowing fire.
“It tastes like burning, like when you were a kid and you snuck into your dad’s liquor cabinet and stole whatever he made his drinks out of,” she says. “That never went away for me.” She can’t sense subtle notes like the peat of a Scotch or the grassiness of an agave spirit because the alcohol overwhelms her palate.
It was Brown who identified this unique quality when they first met in 2008. Salame was working for local CBS affiliate WUSA9 when she tagged along with her colleagues on a story about the D.C. cocktail scene. She met Brown, who inquired about her drink of choice. Back then it was Coca-Cola or pineapple juice if she was feeling fancy—typical preferences of a super taster.
Tim Hanni, an Oregon-based researcher and master of wine, defines Salame’s aversion differently. The certified wine educator divides palate sensitivity into four “vinotypes”: tolerant, sensitive, hypersensitive, and sweet. “Sweet have the most taste buds—up to 11,000 or more—and they typically have an intolerance for alcohol,” Hanni says. “This is where Angie fits.” This group shows other signs of hypersensitivity, like a need to cut tags out of clothing. They’re also more likely to have rescue pets as a result of spending years not fitting in. Sure enough, Salame took Hanni’s vinotype quiz and got “sweet.” Her rescue pup is named Teddy.
Despite Salame’s disinterest in consuming alcohol, she went into business with Brown in April 2010. “Meeting Derek and seeing how talented he was, I knew he had something huge, and I wanted to help him unlock it,” she says. Salame handles business and development, while Brown masterminds the drinks. He doesn’t mind that she doesn’t imbibe. “She sees the reasons beyond drinking that people go to bars, and that helps us focus in on not just the drinks, but the whole picture,” Brown says.
If Salame takes a drink, what results isn’t serious—she makes a twisted face—but for veteran bartender Xan Calomaris a sip can be the difference between life and death. “I love alcohol, I love the taste of alcohol, but I ended up having chronic pancreatitis, which I got as a result of drinking,” she says of her 2011 diagnosis and hospitalization. “Basically if I drink, it’ll kill me. So it cut my drinking career short.”
But not her bar career: Calomaris has made stops at The Guards (now closed), Bourbon, and Jack Rose Dining Saloon. She is one of a handful of bartenders who overdid it and persevered, but couldn’t give up bartending—even when common sense screamed career change.
Daniel Mann Barnes, the newly appointed cocktail and spirits director at Osteria Marzano in Franconia, Va., couldn’t give up the job either. He began drinking in restaurants at age 16, and things spiraled downward until he was 28.
“What struck me is that I would never be able to bartend if I continued on that path,” Barnes says. “The drinking part was easy to give up. If I had to give up bartending, I don’t know where I’d be.” He’s been sober for 11 years.
Mark Reyburn, who completed six months of rehab in 2010, agrees. “When there’s something that you enjoy and that you love, you have to do it,” he says. Reyburn is a sous chef at Clyde’s Gallery Place, but the majority of his experience is behind the bar, including stops at Bistro Bohem, Shaw’s Tavern, Jaleo, and Kushi, where he transitioned to the back of the house.
He didn’t trade a jigger for a knife kit to escape handling alcohol; he’s just putting his culinary degree to use. Reyburn isn’t tempted in the back of the house or behind the bar—he says he’s barely tempted at all.
“It comes into my mind every once in awhile, but it’s fleeting,” he says. “It’s like a chapter, and the chapter of that book is over.”
Salame doesn’t struggle with temptation, and Calomaris’ health condition is so dire that she would never take a sip, but—perhaps surprisingly—other bartenders aren’t drawn to drinking, either.
“Only the first year was it a real problem. After that, I didn’t care anymore,” says Todd Wuehrmann, a bartender at Alexandria’s Jackson 20 and Rumors. He had his last drink on April 14, 2008 after being booked for two DUIs in his early 20s. He likens avoiding alcohol to skipping a food he hates to eat, like stinky cheese.
Sober bartenders say they aren’t tempted by peer pressure from colleagues after a shift or at industry events either. Some manage to keep their sobriety a secret; others are met with respect. “I never got pressured, it was really just cool,” Reyburn says. “Even when I was hanging out with fellow bartenders, they would order me a Coke—it was the opposite of pressure.”
There are some advantages to being a bartender who doesn’t drink. Before, Calomaris would connect with patrons by sharing a shot with them, but that is no longer an option. After her diagnosis, she began using her intellect and sense of humor to connect with guests, rather than slugging booze together. “It made me work a little more at my job, and I’ve come to really enjoy making deeper connections.” It helps that bartending has evolved. “There’s a lot more involved, and I like that it’s become a much more intellectual pursuit.”
Barnes agrees that abstaining can give her a boost with customers. “Some people are weird about it. They’re like ‘don’t trust a bald barber,’ but what’s happened a lot for people is they get caught up in the mechanics of building a cocktail. The smile gets lost sometimes,” he says. “You can be present while you’re doing something. That’s what has gotten lost.”
Then there’s the obvious. “The advantage to not drinking at work is you don’t wake up feeling like you got hit by a train,” says Brandon Brothers, a bartender at Eighteenth Street Lounge who has been bartending for 10 years and sober for about nine. Remembering patrons when they return is also a plus.
Sober bartenders may even be attractive to employers. “I’ve worked with a lot of people that drank behind the bar that couldn’t handle their alcohol,” says Wuehrmann. “At the end of the night when we’d cash out, we’d be missing well over $100 from the cash drawer or they would have misplaced their tips. Management knows I won’t mess my drawer up, drink a bunch of their booze, or give away a bunch of their booze.”
Tasting—a critical step for makers in the craft cocktail scene—is a more formidable barrier. Some dry bartenders, like Calomaris, are willing to sip and spit when they encounter an unfamiliar flavor. Others are not. “That just opens a gateway of negative possibilities,” Wuehrmann says. Not being able to sample puts him at a considerable disadvantage: He doesn’t know if his drinks taste good, and the drinks at Jackson 20 are complex. Take the “Birds Eye View” with tequila, Thai chilies, celery vinegar, Triple Sec, and lime.
Being a sober bartender was easier, he says, when drinks were simpler. “When I first started doing this, a house cocktail list would have a Manhattan, Rob Roy, Cosmopolitan. You learn to make them and a handful of shooters, and you’d know what you’re doing.”
Wuehrmann employs multiple strategies to address this challenge. He relies on his sense of smell, asks other bartenders to try his drinks, and sometimes makes a virgin version of a cocktail that’s heavy on the juices and syrups.
Brown says he wouldn’t hesitate to hire someone like Wuehrmann. “They might have to nose spirits or be willing to bolster their knowledge in another way, but certainly, I would hire a sober bartender,” he says. “Truth is, there were a few drinking bartenders I’ve met that would have been better bartenders for laying off the sauce.”