The Bartender’s List- Heather Sang

If you’ve ever been to Pépé Le Moko you’ll know what I mean. Every time I descend the stairs, I feel like I’m walking into the bar from Inglorious Bastards. It’s darker and there are far fewer Michael Fassbenders, but it has a similar, old world feel. The first time I went it took my eyes a second to adjust to the darkness and as I pulled up a seat at the bar, I was greeted by Heather. Small talk lead to witty banter over one or two expertly made cocktails. And then I left. Months later I descended the stairs and there was Heather. And I remembered her and she remembered me. Witty banter lead to proper conversation and slowly I learned a few important things. Heather is from Wisconsin. She has a massive vintage t-shirt collection and she loves horror movies. She inspires me to stay hydrated. She hates having her photo taken and she takes her fictional heroes very seriously.

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Since our early encounters, Heather has moved upstairs to Portland’s living room (read: Clyde Common) and is right at home in the fast-paced, high-volume environment. We caught up with Heather over striped t-shirts and cocktails to talk Franzia, Brandy Old Fashioneds, jazz, funk and leaf blowers.

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What did you think you were going to be when you grew up?

That’s a hard one. I guess when I was a kid I wanted to be a dancer. I was in ballet for years and I even thought about going to college for it but then, ya know, you end up being 15 and everything goes out the window. You start smoking for 12 years and I was terrible.

Was there a specific moment, experience or conversation that made you decide to make a career of bartending? Or is it a career? Do you plan on leaving?

No! I can’t leave. I love it so much. I tried to leave and I couldn’t. That is actually what happened. I was probably 26 or 27 and I tried to do something else. I got a desk job and it was a nightmare. Every morning I woke up and I dreaded it. There’s been the occasional bartending job that I dreaded but I got out of those very quickly. I’ve always been excited to go to work. Everytime I go to work I’m happy. I think that’s kind of when I realized that I’m stuck in this. It makes me happy. I didn’t necessarily have a specific conversation. It’s just always been my direction.

What was your first bartending gig?

Lacrosse, Wisconsin. It was a place called the Casino. It was a small, little weird bar. It was an old man that owned it. He sat at the end of the bar with his oxygen tank. He was a Korean war vet. He had the best Jazz jukebox I’ve ever seen in my life. He had all of the jazz bootlegs from Korea and brought them in and put them in the jukebox. That’s where my love of jazz came from. All of these punk rockers and artists and actors hung out there. There was no domestic beer and we had an entire catacomb underneath the bar full of imported beers that he loved. We made the worst cocktails ever. It was one of my favourite places in the whole world. I loved that place. It was such a good start to bartending.

And it was a fluke that I got a job there. I met this girl at a record store and she looked really sad. I asked her one day what was up. She told me that a bartender of hers just quit and she had to hire somebody else. I said I’d do it. I hadn’t bartended before. I had just turned 21 and I loved going out. And that’s how it started.

How did you make the move from Wisconsin to Portland?

I wasn’t doing anything in Wisconsin except going out every night and working at The Casino. My mom had moved out here 4 years prior and our relationship was fairly rocky. She had divorced my dad and everyone was kinda bummed out about that. I kind of wanted to cultivate a relationship again with her. So I thought I needed a change and I moved out here.

I was living in Silverton with my mom and I needed some money so I got a job at this tiny, little bar called Mac’s Place. It’s right on the river and it was adorable. I knew everyone in the town within two months. It was wonderful. I had such a good time. I ended up house sitting for the people that owned the bar for like 4 months after that. It was great. They took me in as their own. I loved that little town. She still lives out there which is great.

After that I tried to get a job in Portland. I didn’t have a Portland address. They weren’t about to hire me. I had some friends from Silverton that were living in Eugene. I moved out there, got my own place. I was there for about 5 years. I managed a really popular club there for about 3 years. I worked all over town. But I didn’t want to live in Eugene anymore. I wasn’t going anywhere. Nothing was happening. Every time I came to Portland I had so much energy and I was so happy. I needed something bigger. So I moved up here with my then boyfriend and again, finding a job in Portland is hard unless you know somebody. And I happened to know somebody. One of the girls that worked with me at a bar I managed in Eugene- she got me a job at this tiny Vietnamese restaurant in The Pearl. I worked there for a number of years. Insurance is a beautiful thing. I was there for 3 or 4 years and then it was time to move on. I ended up moving to Holocene which is a club. This is kind of my MO- I go from restaurant bar, to dive bar, to club, to nice bar, to restaurant bar, to dive bar, to club. I don’t know why. I guess just for change, the pace of things. At Silk I left there because I saw the same people everyday for four years and it was exhausting. So Holocene was great- I knew how to manage a club and sling drinks. The stress of it is what I love most about bartending. Stress- I thrive on it. The busier we are the happier I am.

With Holocene though, I could only be there for so long. It was late nights and I couldn’t do it anymore. I’m old. I’ve been doing this for 17 years. And then I got a hold of Jeffrey one night. I knew him from Eugene. We always worked across the city from each other, never together. But I knew him since 2002 or 2003. I got a hold of him and asked if he needed anybody. That night he texted me and told me they were doing an open casting call the next day at 10am. They interviewed 300+ people for three spots at Pépé Le Moko. He brought me in. I talked to Nate. I talked to him. I talked to Donald and three weeks later I had the job at Pépé. And that’s where craft cocktailing started. I was there for about a year and a half. Then Beckaly moved to Hong Kong. Jeff, knowing my background, knew I could handle Clyde and that I was ready for something that wasn’t so slow-paced. He brought me up here and I’ve honestly never been happier. Everyone I work with is amazing. I feel respected. I guess respect is the biggest thing for me. Being a woman in this industry is really difficult. A lot of the time it’s really just a boys club and you have no freedom to put things out or put things on menus or do much of anything other than be the token girl behind the bar. Here you have a lot of freedom and respect.

Do you remember your first sip of alcohol?

Yes! It was Franzia. So embarrassing. My parents went out and my mom always kept a box of Franzia White Zinfandel in the laundry room. So me and my friends thought it’d be cool if we grabbed so dixie cups and drank some Franzia. It did not go well. I was young. I grew up in a very small town in Wisconsin and we were bored. I was probably 14 or 15.

If you could only have a 5 bottle bar, what would your 5 bottles be?

Stoli, Rittenhouse Rye (makes the best Manhattan I’ve ever had in my life), Fortaleza Tequila- it’s got this salt to it. It’s delicious. Some sort of sherry, like an Oloroso and Lagavulin 16. That’s always been my favourite. It’s like sitting in the wrong spot at a camp fire.

What would be your death row drink?

Either Topo Chico or a dirty Stoli martini, ice cold, Star Queen olives. I love it.

One cocktail book that should be behind every bar?

I guess I should probably say Jeff’s. But somewhat related- I love the Playboy Host and Bar Book. It is the best book. It’s my favourite.

One non-cocktail book that should be behind every bar?

Maybe a dirty joke book cause I’m terrible at telling jokes. I always end up screwing them up. There’s only one I know. Why did the monkey fall out of the tree? Because it was dead.

If your best shift behind the bar had a theme song, what would it be?

Probably Prince or something funky. I love funk. I love Kool and the Gang. Or the whole first side of Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall.

What’s your favourite word?

Vacation

What’s your least favourite word?

Oh the “P” word….pussy. I hate that word.

What turns you on?

Confidence

What turns you off?

Arrogance.

A sound of noise that you love?

The ocean.

A sound or noise that you hate?

Leaf blowers. I hate that. They always wake you up in the morning.

What’s your favourite curse word?

Fuck.

A profession other than your own that you’d like to attempt?

Private detective.

A job that you would hate to do?

Anything in a cubicle. Anything having to do with paperwork.

If God exists, what would you like him to say when you arrive?

We have a 24-hour taco bar.

Which talent would you most like to have?

Dancing.

Who’s your favourite fictional hero?

Gelsomina Verde from La Strada. So tragically beautiful. Or Laurie Strode from Halloween….yeah, probably Laurie. Makes more sense.

Which historical figure do you most identify with?

Maybe Rosie the Riveter. I feel that way sometimes….at least back in the day. I mean I remember the third bar I worked at I was a cocktail server. I had bartending experience and I wanted to be a bartender. They told me that no woman had ever been behind the bar and there never would be. I started getting back behind the bar and making my own drinks for my customers. After a while they finally gave me the job. I was just like “Oh hell no. I’m not leaving this bar until I get back there.” This was in Eugene in 2000 or 2001.

What is your most treasured possession?

My t-shirt collection. I have a huge collection of vintage rock t-shirts because my boyfriend buys and sells vintage clothing and that’s what I get for presents. My John Lennon Rock ‘n Roll t-shirt is probably my current favourite.

If you could only be known for one drink you’ve ever made, what would it be?

I made it for this blog and it was their Halloween edition. I love horror movies. It’s one of my favorite things ever. And this is called The Langenkamp after Heather Langenkamp from Nightmare on Elm Street.

This drink is kind of me because it’s my twist on a Brandy Old Fashioned. Brandy Old Fashioneds are one of the most popular drinks in Wisconsin. I have people coming in from Wisconsin and asking me if I know how to make one and they’re so excited when I know. That’s why I’d wanna be known for this drink.

Is there anything that I didn’t ask that you wish I would have?

I absolutely love working in Portland. I think the community is really amazing. We all root for each other and there are so many new people and places coming into town. I feel like we’re all really supportive and there’s not a lot of cattiness. I love that about this community. And I’m so proud to work here . This and Pepe are the first bars that when somebody says “Well what do you do? What’s you’re real job?” I say “No this IS my real job.” I’m really proud of this and I just think this is fantastic. It makes me so happy that I’m able to stand up and say this is a job. This is a career. And it’s really cool that that’s starting to happen ‘cause when I started bartending it wasn’t like that at all. I’m mean 16 or 17 years ago people would ask what I was going to do. Was I going to go to school? What do you do really? I’m really happy that it’s gone this way and that I’ve stuck through it. You can keep learning. Every time I come to work I have so much to learn. And it gives you a creative outlet as well.

The Langenkamp

1.5 oz Pierre Ferrand Cognac
1/2 oz Averna
1/4 oz Amaerna Cherry Syrup
2 dashes Orange Bitters

Stir and strain over a large cube. Garnish with a flamed orange zest.

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  • Michael Knott

    This is a cool article that details the life of a bar tender. For the most classic, handcrafted cocktails in the Miami area, check out Miami Cocktail Co. (miamicocktail.com). These original drinks will soothe you on the warm beaches or hot Miami nights.