Michelle Baldwin: I want people to feel like they're part of my party

Michelle Baldwin: I want people to feel like they're part of my party
courtesy of Michelle Baldwin

In this week's Behind the Bar interview, Ghost Plate & Tap consulting bartender Michelle Baldwin -- who also goes by burlesque name Vivienne VaVoom -- weighs in on punch, a party that warped the floors and the ladies' organization that bonds over cocktails while doing good in its community.

How long have you been a bartender? What made you get into the profession? I've been in LUPEC [Ladies United for the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails] since 2004, and that's where I started my love of cocktails and the bar industry. LUPEC was formed by a group in Pittsburgh with this idea that as we grow older, it's harder to connect with your friends. Originally, they got together once a month to drink cocktails and talk about cocktails. But eventually, they said, "Since we're getting together and organizing in this way, we should do good things for our community." Now, LUPEC has morphed from a fun little club that raises money and does good in town into something most bartenders have heard of. I go to a lot of national events - Tales of the Cocktail, the Manhattan Cocktail Classic - and people say, "This is that cool women's cocktail group!"

A couple of years ago, I started working with Montanya Rum as a rep, and I started doing events with them; I was bartending and creating cocktails. Then I collaborated with Erin Behrenhausen to start Hula Moon. We were going to open a tiki bar, but it ended up being a catering company focused on tiki. After that, I was hired by the Denver Film Center to run their VIP lounge, and I was serving volunteers and people from the Film Center. Those were crazy parties. I made a lot of cocktails.

I was brought in to consult on the Coupe bar at Ghost Plate & Tap because that bar was really aimed at the LUPEC members and COBG [Colorado Bartenders Guild] members. Since I'm the president of LUPEC, Ghost Plate wanted to see what would work for us. But I will be at Adrift when that opens, and I started picking up shifts at Ghost Plate, too. It's really cool being a part of that -- Ghost Plate wants to be known for more than just beer even though it's part of the Wynkoop group. It wants to be part of craft cocktails and craft spirits and that bartending scene that's taking off here.

Through all of those bar connections, I've also done burlesque at Portland Cocktail Week. Much of the community knows me as "Vivienne VaVoom."

Bartending rule to live by: Make everybody feel welcome. When someone walks up to the bar, I want them to feel like I love them. I want to give them a giant smile and make them feel like they're part of whatever party I'm creating in that space.

Five words to describe your drink list: Crafty, nerdy, vintage, eclectic, accessible.

  Favorite drink on your list: My favorite thing to make is a Montanya cocktail that I serve as a punch at events. It's called the Freestyle, and it has all these flavor combinations that play off each other: clove simple syrup, pineapple juice, Montanya rum, lemon juice and basil to give it a savory note and because plays with those flavors. It's really beautiful, too; I float pineapple and basil in it. We served it at Tales of the Cocktail, and when people ask me to make a punch, it's my go-to. I've had people say it's the best punch they've ever had. Also, I have collection of eight punch bowls. I have an estate sale problem. But every time I think about selling them, I throw a party and use them all.

Favorite item on your back bar: Dancing Pines Chai Liqueur. It's lovely. It's really great in hot drinks, and it's really good at giving a little spiciness into anything from vodka to rum. It plays well with a lot of different flavors.

What was your craziest night behind the stick? Definitely when I was at the Film Center. Drinks were free, so people overindulged and fights were breaking out. It was 4 a.m. in November, and we had a rooftop bar we were trying to work, so we were all trying to switch out when someone's feet would get frozen. Those were really fun times, and I was working all night and sleeping all day. It was crazy every night. Plus, we were in a loft apartment, and we ruined their floors. They warped from all the spilled alcohol and beer. That's how you know it was a party.

Favorite Denver venue for a drink that's not your own and what you order when you're there: I love Williams & Graham. I go to New York once or twice a year, and I used to find all these amazing bars and then come back to Denver and be sad because they didn't exist here. Then places started opening. I love Green Russell, for instance, because they pair cocktails and pie. But Williams & Graham really feels like my favorite places in New York. The staff is wonderful, and everyone feels welcome. There's no snobbery -- there's dark wood and books everywhere, and that bar could have snobbery, but it doesn't. And I love the Rum Dandy. If I lived closer, I'd be there all the time. If I want to drink in my neighborhood, I go downstairs to my own tiki bar.

This weekend, you can find Baldwin at LUPEC-organized Speed Rack, where local lady bartenders will go head to head in competition for the chance to compete against national female bartenders in New York City. The event starts at 1 p.m. on Sunday at Casselman's Bar & Venue and costs $20 at the door.

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