How Lynn House Forged a Path to Bartending Greatness
Lynn House, national brand educator for Heaven Hill Brands, is arguably one of the best in the business. She’s served on the Tales of the Cocktail seminar selection committee, been inducted into the Dame Hall of Fame, and worked as the beverage director and mixologist for Michelin starred and James Beard award-winning restaurants. In between her cross-country traveling schedule, House still develops new cocktails, and right now, she’s working on a menu for the Pre James Beard Foundation Awards All Star Bash. Oh, and she also once was awarded a best actress award. Recently, House sat down with us to share details on her extraordinary career.
Did you ever imagine yourself to be where you are today?
Oh my gosh, no. I started working in restaurants when I was in college. I was a theater major. I started as a hostess, was able to move up to server, and then, when I was 21, I brought more of the bar into it as I could get catering gigs. I had no idea this would become my career, let alone my professional, driving force.
You were a working, professional actress in Chicago. Tell us about that.
I was only going to do this until I won my Academy Award. And I did, actually, win a best actress award from the Black Theater Alliance. I was in The Gift Horse (at the Goodman Theatre), and I was up against a very well known actress in a T.V. show. I thought she’s definitely getting it so when I beat her — I call it my Sally Field moment — I looked at the woman sitting next to me, who said “That’s so fantastic, Lynn House won.” I said “I’m Lynn House.” I had no speech prepared, and I don’t remember one moment of it.
How did you move into bartending?
I was working at this James Beard award-winning restaurant called Spring in 2002, and we had this amazing culinary and wine program, but our spirits program was caca. That made no sense to me, so I went to the owners and said "I don’t know why we invest so much money and training just on wine and food. I really think we also need to pay attention to spirits." They told me, "If you really feel that, then you do it." I did do it, and I found I had a passion for it. Because of my strong wine and culinary background, I had a real understanding of the chemistry of cocktails. Before long, I was sitting on in meetings with the bosses, buying spirits, and it escalated from there.
Who encouraged you along the way?
I went on to the Pump Room, and there, I met Debbi Peek, who had just finished going through Southern Wine & Spirits’ The Academy of Spirits, and she said “You need to take this class.” I was the valedictorian of the class, and Bridget Albert sat me down personally and said “I know bartending has been secondary to your career, but if you don’t pursue this full-time, you’ll do yourself a disservice.” I went on to become one of the original master bartenders at The Drawing Room, and there, theater and liquor came together. I found my voice. My first cocktail there got huge recognition, and my second cocktail received national recognition, and I haven’t looked back since.
Tell us about those cocktails.
The first cocktail was tequila inspired. Instead of just thinking of a margarita, I started thinking of the flavors of Mexico and the flavors of tequila. I used hibiscus flowers, tangerine juice and chilis. Cocktail writers from Time Out Magazine came in and decided to make it one of their featured cocktails of the month. The second cocktail I got assigned to do was a cocktail with Ketel One Citron vodka, and I didn’t want to work with a vodka, I wanted to do a gin cocktail. So I decided to create a cocktail that invoked the flavors of gin, even though I had to use a citrus vodka. It was called Almost Summer, and that launched me on the national scene, and it became on a top selling cocktail and stayed on the menu six months after I left. I love gardening and rosemary syrup, and I muddled cucumber and eggs. I used ingredients we weren’t used to seeing in 2008. I took this cocktail with me to Graham Elliot, and I renamed it to Almost Paradise when I opened Graham Elliot, using Belvedere Citrus, then I brought this cocktail to Blackbird. For that, I grew my own rosemary at that point, only fortifying it with store-bought herbs if I had to. The original inspiration was one of those first, crazy warm days in June, where you mow the grass for the first time, and you have all these herbaceous aromas. The first time I was put in the box, I did what I had to do, but I went on to create something I really loved. I’m interested to recreate it again, this time using Deep Eddy, a beautiful, all natural vodka we have.
As a woman in the industry, did you face any specific challenges because of your gender?
Those cocktails and that recognition was incredibly validating because at that time, there weren’t a lot of women in the craft cocktail or mixology revolution. In a high profile place like The Drawing Room, we still had people walk in and say “Oh, we need the bartender to make us our cocktails.” Debbi and I would say “We are the bartenders. We helped design this menu.” I have a very strong voice, and I’ve always worked very hard to be true to it. I didn’t cave into whatever anyone else was telling me or what was expected.
What’s on your bucket list?
I still would love to win an Academy Award. I would love to be back on stage again. I love singing and dancing and theater. Maybe I’ll do another production at some point. I would love to write a book. That’s on the bucket list. My grandmother was a well-known poet. I actually had 34 poems published as a child so I’d love to get back and write, but you need the quiet space to do that.
Try Almost Paradise, one of House's most celebrated cocktails.