The team at Poppe’s 360 have always been known for their extensive martini list, making Poppe’s a favorite among area cocktailistas. But what had been a reliable bar before is now becoming craft cocktail central for our area. Their secret sauce is the consulting team of Unlimited Liabilities, which is owned by Russell Davis, and his associate, Kate Gerwin. Both Davis and Gerwin are regulars on Jon Taffer’s Bar Rescue (on Spike). Kate is famous for being the first American and first woman to become the 2014 Bols Bartending World Champion for her drink Brown Chicken Brown Cacao. In a smart move, Providence Hospitality Partners — owners of the Lakeway Best Western and of Poppe’s 360 — called in this star team to help them develop a menu of seven new drinks (including the Brown Chicken Brown Cacao), and to teach the crew at Poppe’s the finer points of good barkeeping. The event was not a bar rescue but a bar refresh.
Gerwin came into Bellingham two days before the staff showed off their new menu. She trained them on what makes great tequila, proper techniques for shaking and stirring, the importance of bitters, proper storage of spirits, not to mention advice on career development in cocktail service. The information she packed into their brief sessions was dense and fascinating, and demonstrated Gerwin’s deep roots in the food and wine industry, her knowledge on food preparation and history, as well as her extensive experience in proper bartending. Gerwin owns a bar in Albuquerque and is a partner in several bars in North Dakota. A former instructor at the Cordon Bleu in Arizona as well as the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont, Gerwin began her career in wine as a sommelier and moved to cocktails. “I opened a restaurant and did wine pairings, but cocktails are more creative.”She had been winning speed and other championships for years before beginning her new venture in consulting. “I love hitting smaller markets. There are craft cocktails on every corner in New York or L.A. But in a smaller market like this one, we’re really reaching more people. This is where the craft cocktail scene is really happening. Places like Kansas City and Portland and Omaha and here.” She pointed out that there was a time bartenders made huge salaries, and were seen as men and women of great responsibility and ability. “Bartenders used to make more than the President of the United States.” Over the years, the image of the bartender has dipped, but even that is changing again. The career bartender is coming back in a big way, and with the help of shows like Bar Rescue, and the great work of people like Gerwin, respect for the craft has returned.
After training with Gerwin, the staff at Poppe’s 360 practiced their cocktail acumen, unveiling their new menu on the 18th with Russell Davis overseeing them. Bar Rescue catapulted Davis into celebrity mixologist status, but he was well-known in the industry before he became a reality television star. This was the first project Gerwin and Davis have done together, and they are thrilled with the response they received. Davis said, “Sometimes I go into a bar to help out, and it’s hard. That’s not the case here. The staff, the management, the place here, everything was great, and everyone we’ve dealt with here in Bellingham has been amazing.”
Davis fell in love with the art of mixology when he saw the movie Cocktail in high school. “I built a bar in my college dorm room, and I got in trouble with my R.A. for all the bottles I dropped practicing moves.” He has worked security, back bar and bartended for years, and is known for his fire-breathing, bottle-tossing antics. “You gotta’ be good at three things,” Davis said, “You gotta’ be fast, you gotta’ be good, and you gotta’ look good doing it. There is a new standard for bartending, and it isn’t enough to just do the tricks. You have to make sure the drinks are good. You have to make sure the service is good. It all works together.”
Davis brought Gerwin on at Unlimited Liabilities just two weeks before she won the Bols competition. “The Bols happens slowly over several weeks, and my assistant and I watched Kate go through it. I knew she was going to win, and when she did, we were high-fiving and screaming. It was great.”
What’s Next: Ground Control to Don Draper
Gerwin plans to keep running her bars in North Dakota and New Mexico, and to keep consulting in smaller markets with occasional visits to Bar Rescue. Russell Davis has so many projects in the works, it’s hard to keep up with his list. Some of them can’t be mentioned just yet, but one that we can tell you about is his children’s book called Little Russell Makes a Stand. It’s a book about a little Russell Davis opening the neighborhood’s first lemonade stand. “All the proceeds from the sale of my book go to charity.” Davis is passionate about helping kids and families in need, and is a big supporter of the Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation, which raises money to aid families in financial hardship. Davis is also on a team working with NASA to create the first cocktail for passenger space travel. The Zero-Gravity Cocktail Project — sponsored by the Cosmic Lifestyle Corporation — is working on special equipment for building, mixing, shaking and stirring in zero-gravity conditions.
The VIP Treatment
On June 18th, Bellingham VIPs gathered to taste the new menu and meet Gerwin and Davis. Bar manager Juli Waveda and her team at Poppe’s 360 were on, lining up drinks, shaking and pouring with gusto. Each drink on the new menu came with its own set of challenges, from smoking thyme to flavor a citrus cocktail to heating orange peel with a lighter for limning a glass, but the team was up to the challenge. After all their pour tests, their experiments with balance, their taste tests and quizzes, the Poppe’s team was armed with knowledge about their new drinks. They looked more than just professional, more than just engaged, they looked empowered, inspired and absolutely ready. Poppe’s 360 is the only bar, other than Gerwin’s own bar in Albuquerque, to serve the Brown Chicken Brown Cacao, a combination of Bols Cacao Brown, Bols Natural Yogurt, spiced almond milk and walnut bitters. “It’s fun to make, and has a great presentation in a little milk jug.” Poppe’s now features a slew of new drinks, all of which the staff is specially trained to make. We recommend you try them all…but maybe not in one sitting.