Good bartending is about so much more than just “making drinks.” The best bartenders are not only experts in hundreds of recipes, spirits, and ingredients; they’re also masters of entertaining and managing people. In recent years, the bartending profession has finally earned the global respect and reputation it deserves — fitting of the years of practice, dedication, and discipline that many bartenders pour into their craft.
With 16 years of experience in New York City’s highly competitive cocktail industry, Lucinda Sterling stands out as a multi-talented bartender, business woman, and beverage consultant. Having worked closely with the late cocktail revolutionary Sasha Petraske for many years, Sterling was named managing partner at his speakeasy Middle Branch in 2012. And in 2016, following Petraske’s passing, she helped open his posthumous final bar, Seaborne, in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Today, Sterling continues to oversee Middle Branch (temporarily closed due to the pandemic) as well as Seaborne. She’s also now a mother to a young daughter, Zeta.
Sterling says she didn’t initially plan on becoming a bartender: she majored in business information systems and psychology while attending university in her native Colorado. But life had different plans for her: in 2005, Sterling drove from Denver to New York on a whim. One night, while at Petraske’s bar Milk & Honey, she was offered a job. That fateful gig as a server would turn into a bartending position at the East Village staple Little Branch.
Having worked in New York City during the key years of the Craft Cocktail “Revolution,” Sterling’s success has no doubt helped create more opportunities for women in the bartending world. Vietcetera had the opportunity to sit down with Sterling to discuss her career journey, her secrets to good bartending, and how she maintains her connection to her Vietnamese heritage.
Introduce yourself to our Vietnamese readers.
My mother was born in Bac Lieu, and met my father in Saigon during the war. Since then, my father developed a love for the culture there, especially in Dalat. When he returned to Vietnam in 2000 to become an English for tourism professor at the University of Dalat, I quickly became an avid traveler to Vietnam. I fell in love with the country as well, and decided that I would become a frequent visitor. It was easy to feel at home there, because my father opened up V Cafe in Dalat, which catered to Western tourists. Many familiar American comfort food dishes from my childhood were served there.
After conversing with tourists at the cafe, I met two ladies from NYC, who recommended that I live in Williamsburg if I decide to move there. Months later, I made the decision to leave Colorado and travel cross country to the Big Apple with reckless abandon, no job and no place to live yet.
One night, I stopped in at Milk & Honey with a friend, and was offered a job, and simultaneously, an apartment to sublet (coincidentally in Williamsburg!).
How and at which point in life did you realize your passion for bartending?
Tending bars always seemed very intimidating to me when I lived in Colorado. As a consumer, I never drank more than wine, shots of tequila and champagne. My first cocktail was an Amaretto Sour, then I gravitated to a Midori Sour.
As a very shy person, I found it challenging to navigate drinks behind the bar while also entertaining multiple guests at the same time. The hours always seemed to be long, and there never appeared to be a shortage of hard work. As a young barista at Java City in Denver, my exposure to customer service was limited due to the low volume.
It was when I was brought on board at Milk & Honey that I was exposed to the incredible talent and quality of bartenders in NYC.
What is your proudest achievement in your career, and how did it shape who you are today?
To this day, I will always remember the first day that we officially opened for business at Middle Branch in August 2012. It was a long and arduous buildup as we awaited permits and cut through all of the red tape. At that moment, I knew that this was going to be the most exciting ride of my life so far.
What’s your favorite cocktail to make and why?
My favorite cocktail to make is the Sazerac. It’s a simple cocktail, but with a lack of precision, it’s easy to end up with incorrect results. I am a perfectionist when it comes to making my favorites. Additionally, the Sazerac is a great sipper.
Can you share the most important traits for a bartender to succeed in the industry?
Efficiency: Getting the job done quickly with as few resources and movements as possible. Don’t be afraid to ask for help to guarantee this is the case.
Accuracy: Ensuring that your work is done correctly and according to specifications set forth by you and/or your guests, and/or your affiliated organization.
Punctuality: Time is money. The early bird gets the worm. Performance is weighted heavily by preparation. When you show up late, it becomes easy to fall behind playing catch-up.
Organization: Ensure that you know where your tools, ingredients, menus, supplies and replacement items are located. Also, know what to do in the event of an emergency, and who to contact on your immediate team in the event you are working with others.
Execution: Know what is required to deliver the best experience to your guest, which includes, but is not limited to, quality of product, presentation, service excellence, knowledge of the bar and cocktails, and ensuring satisfaction along the way.
Consideration: Understanding the needs of the bar, owner, guests and co-workers. This may involve a little compromise, but believe that the kindness will be reciprocated.
Having gone from a bartender to a managing partner, how would you say the jobs and responsibilities compare?
One thing that stands out the most about being a bartender and manager is understanding what it means to manage people. Anticipation of any type of event or encounter must be at the forefront for both types of work. I believe a manager must have experience across all facets of the business — including barbacking and even cleaning bathrooms. Alternatively, bartenders may be able to focus solely on the guest experience and assisting their co-workers.
What does Vietnam mean to you? How do you maintain your personal connection to your Vietnamese heritage?
In my opinion, Vietnam embodies natural beauty, which is expressed in its terrain, people and cuisine. In that regard, I have focused many of my cooking styles on the type of food that my mother used to cook when I was a youth. I was too young to learn her cooking techniques, but thank you for YouTube and Google these days.
If you could describe Vietnam through a specific liquor, what kind would it be?
My memories of going out in Vietnam revolved mostly around cognac. I assume that was a residual of the vast French influence.
The cocktail scene in Vietnam is booming. What would be your advice to the young Vietnamese people who are looking to pursue a career in bartending?
Humility is often lost in the cocktail industry. One should not hesitate about the opportunity to learn from others — younger and older than ourselves — as individual experiences can be limited.
As a successful and visible Vietnamese-American woman, what is your advice for all young Vietnamese women? The advice can be related to identity, cultural pride, or career.
Maternal instincts are key to the process of coworker and nurturing guests in customer service. Formulation of bonds is imperative, especially between females. Keep goals in mind. The right men can aid in resources and protection. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Don’t let people be negative towards you, but welcome constructive criticism.