Local bartender beats the odds

If you are looking for Melissa “Inky” Kim this week, you will not find her mixing drinks behind the bar at Spiral Dance Bar. Kim, 39, will don a red coat to represent Lansing in New Orleans at the Tales of the Cocktail’s 2017 Cocktail Apprentice Program.

From July 17 to 24, Kim and 39 others will learn alongside bar industry superstars as they mix alcoholic beverages for the 20- to 30 thousand attendees of the cocktail festival.

“It’s a five-day-long convention that brings bartenders, mixologists, bar owners, brand ambassadors and distillers to come and attend tastings and seminars,” said Kim. “It started 15 years ago, and after the first five years it quickly grew. And that’s when they formed the Cocktail Apprentice Program.”

The training will give Kim experience in something she has never attempted before.

“They bring all the bartenders and the cocktail experts together. And we work the seminars and large-scale events behind the scenes, batching all the drinks in five-gallon buckets,” said Kim. “It’s something I’ve never really experienced before, doing large-scale batching. We pretty much work as the fastest prep team of bartenders for that whole week.”

The program gives participants access to a network of Cocktail Apprentice Program alumni across the globe.

“What I’m most looking forward to is meeting all the different degrees of masters of all skill level bartenders,” said Kim. “All of the ‘redcoats’ they picked this year hail from 19 states and ten countries, and I’m one of two from Michigan. They select their team to promote global diversity. It’s just a big melting pot of different experience levels.”

Applicants come from everywhere from Israel to Ghana to the Cayman Islands.

“They get over 1,000 applications.

They were looking for a personality that could mesh well and not have an ego walking into it, because we’re all on the same slate when we get there—whether you’re a mentor or apprentice,” said Kim. She noted that applications are “more about getting to know your personality than your experience.”

But that doesn’t mean everyone makes the cut.

“It’s a very exclusive program,” said Kim. “There’re only 400 people in the world that have had this training.”

In 2010, Kim won the City Pulse Banzai Energy Drink Cocktail Wars mixology contest, and just a few months ago entered the United States Bartenders’ Guild “Make it Exotico” Cocktail Competition. Unfortunately, Kim had to turn down her acceptance into the semi-finals because the contest would coincide with Tales of the Cocktail.

“I go with my gut when I do stuff,” said Kim on her cocktail-making strategy. “Any bartender starting out, you have to have a good handle on the classics. Any great drink should be derived from the classic cocktails. I have a good base on that so I can fly off the handle and do some crazy stuff, but it ends up usually working out.”

Kim said that grasp of the basics makes her mixology style versatile. She is all about doing the unexpected.

“I like to have fun while I’m creating cocktails,” said Kim. “I step out of the box sometimes. I use a lot of ingredients most people wouldn’t. I like to pair different things that people wouldn’t think go together.”

Kim said that she is thankful for this opportunity that she would not have been able to earn less than a century ago.

“It’s kind of incredible for me, personally, to be experiencing this,” said Kim. “It wasn’t long ago that women weren’t allowed to work in bars here in Michigan. In 1945, they passed a law making it illegal for women, unless you were the wife or the daughter of a saloon owner. That was actually a law for 10 years in Michigan, that if you were a female, you couldn’t be behind the bar.”

With that barrier broken down, Kim welcomes new opportunities her way.

“For women in this industry, you definitely have to fight your way to get to the top,” said Kim. “But I feel like [Tales of the Cocktail] will give me a leg up in that situation.”