How Caitlin Laman Cultivated a Love of Mezcal into a Career
After giving up competitive rugby and moving to California in 2009, Caitlin Laman was working at a wine bar when one of her regulars told her that she should be bartending in a San Francisco cocktail bar instead of focusing on wine. She asked if she that was something she might be interested in, and she was. So, the customer took her around to several bars and introduced her to people. At one, she found she clicked with the general manager and ended up with a job after, perhaps, exaggerating her experience a bit.
“I’d kind of been lost since I’d stopped playing rugby,” Laman says. “I hadn’t found anything I’d loved, and it was something that really interested me.”
Turns out, slinging cocktails behind the bar was where she belonged. But it wasn’t just craft cocktails that stole her heart — she also developed a love for mezcal.
And while mezcal (in particular) in the U.S. tends to be dominated by male faces, the entire spirits and bartending industry can be something of a boys club. But now Laman is helping to pave the way for women in mezcal. While she didn’t have many female role models, she’s hoping that over the next 20 years or so she’ll look around and see more women — that it will feel a little less like a boys club. “[W]e’ve come a long way in the bartending industry in the last five years, to be sure, a long, long way, but it’s just that is how life is for us as women, that’s really common,” Laman says. “And a lot of times it gets to a point where you don’t think about it anymore and then you’re like, ‘I shouldn’t not think about this anymore,’ you know? And I think we have come so far in so many places, but we need to keep doing the work.”
Laman first got into the spirit while working at Lolinda, in San Francisco’s Mission district. While she’d tasted mezcal before, at Lolinda she learned that the category has grown exponentially. She began to get both excited and curious. After leaving Lolinda and moving over to Trick Dog, Laman’s mezcal education intensified further.
“My owners did some work with some people in Mexico, I had been down to Mexico a number of times and started checking stuff out and, yeah, got really into it. I mean, I love all spirits as a bartender, but there’s something particularly special about mezcal, and there’s really not much I would rather drink most of the time,” Laman says. “Sherry and beer are things that are just a part of my life, but mezcal is special.”
At Trick Dog, Laman learned how to be quicker and more confident behind the bar. After becoming manager, which meant new challenges seemingly everyday, she learned essential lessons about how she works best and how to handle anything that comes her way.
Laman’s next logical step in San Francisco was to open her own place, but she knew that she didn’t want do that. As difficult as it was to make the choice to leave Trick Dog, Laman decided to take the guys at Licorería Limantour up on their offer of a consulting gig and headed to Mexico City.
“I had done a guest bartending shift down there and I’d seen them at, like, World’s 50 Best and a couple other events and we were buddies, and I literally was just like, ‘Yep, I’m in!’” she says. “I fell in love with Mexico City when I went the year before. I’ve always loved Mexico, I’ve always spent a lot of time down there, but it’s an incredible city, it just seemed like a really good opportunity and it was. I was supposed to be down there for two months and it was extended to four months.”
Her time in Mexico City was vastly different than previous industry jobs. Normally organized, punctual and a bit of a Type A personality, Laman had to learn not just a new city and country, but a new culture.
“[I]t was good for me to be kind of shook up, you know, not only in a work environment, but in a totally new country,” she says. “They are the sweetest, good-hearted people around, it’s pretty cool. I would get in a cab in the middle of nowhere, and obviously I stand out down there ... wherever I was going to run an errand for the bar, and they would always ask, ‘are you okay, are you meeting someone, are you by yourself?’ People would just really want to take care of you down there.”
After her months in Mexico City came to an end, Laman spent some time traveling before moving to Chicago.While searching for bartending jobs in her newly adopted city, a friend of a friend approached her about about becoming the new beverage director at Mezcaleria Las Flores, a mezcal bar in the Logan Square neighborhood.
While she wasn’t initially looking for a management position, she quickly came around to the idea. “Mezcal bar two blocks from my house? Yeah, I guess I can manage something again, that’s fine,” she says.
Laman has only been at Mezcaleria Las Flores since early January and she’s spending any time she can to explore the surrounding neighborhood and the rest of the city. “[T]here’s a ton of neighborhoods that I haven’t even been to yet and I’m currently on a long dive bar crawl where I’m trying to go to all these places I keep hearing about that are cool,” she says.
Her first big custom stamp on the bar will land in mid-February, when her first cocktail list is released. Laman plans to incorporate some spirits other than mezcal, so that even those who don’t particularly like mezcal can feel more than welcome. But with a name like Mezcaleria, mezcal will obviously still be the focus.
For Laman, it’s pretty exciting just to be in one spot again. “I mean, the last year has been incredible, but having your own bar is, for me, something that’s very grounding,” she says. “And I’m sure I’ll do a lot of different things in this industry, but I hope that at the end of the day, I’m still behind the bar, at least a few days a week, because it’s very stabling for me and it is why I do this.”