Lana Gailani's story does not immediately allude to a life spent mixing spirits. A scholar at heart, Gailani once pursued a Ph.D. in political science and is well-versed in post-conflict state-building in the Middle East. However, the complexity of mixology allows her to nurture the scholar within.
A self-identifying introvert, she shies away from the constant spotlight under which many bartenders operate. "It is very easy to lose yourself in hospitality," Gailani warns. After all, bartending is not merely about the creation of drinks. It's about pleasing customers through constant interaction. Gailani has developed novel coping methods, leaving her graciously elevated off the ground.
She faces internal battles that threaten to interfere with her craft. A struggle with depression led her to discover the art that now keeps her stable -- while dangling from silks hanging from a ceiling. Gailani is an aerialist, who secretly harbors dreams of running away with the circus. While mixology keeps her rooted, her acrobatic silk work has helped keep her depression in check.
Today, Gailani is the bar manager of Kiss + Ride and Big Trouble, two brand-new establishments located within Denver's Zeppelin Station (ZeppelinStation.com). Her journey into mixology has been anything but straightforward. Born in Chicago, she spent the first few decades of her life east of Los Angeles. In 2008, Gailani broke free of a political science graduate program in Seattle to enroll in pastry school. "I needed to get out," she recalls. After briefly working in Seattle's fine dining scene, she moved to New York City, the nation's culinary center "where it was all happening." The move was not smooth sailing.
The grueling hours, low-wages, and high cost of living quickly fatigued the 28-year-old Gailani. She started waiting tables, unconsciously setting herself up for a career in the front-of-house.
Working at Empellon Cocina, Alex Stupak's now defunct Mexican restaurant in the East Village, Gailani clamored for experience behind the bar. "I was like 'I worked in pastry, I know how to make things on demand, I have a background in mescal and my palate is good,'" she says. Her efforts proved successful. A career in mixology was about to begin.
The spirit selection at Empellon was tightly focused (one vodka, one tequila), encouraging the new mixologist to stretch her imagination. She had to recreate flavor profiles to mimic cocktails traditionally made with unavailable spirits. Equally, she needed to produce concoctions that would please a number of palates, while operating with a limited arsenal. By the time she started working elsewhere, access to a wide variety of spirits practically overwhelmed her.
Once entrenched in the cocktail scene, Gailani began slinging drinks at two of Manhattan's hottest bars: Seamstress (now closed) and Pouring Ribbings. But New York City changes at shocking speeds, and drinking establishments often collapse like dominos. Tragically, these were venues that Gailani says "had done everything right [but] could just not make it." With bar owners worried about the bottom line, mixologists couldn't take risks in the name of creativity.
Two years later, she made the decision to relocate to Colorado, where she says the work-driven culture that dominated N.Y.C. is conspicuously absent. The culinary scene is exploding -- and with the lower rents, she says, Denver allows for creativity.
At Big Trouble, one of the two bars Gailani now manages, she's crafted a cocktail program that reflects an East meets West theme. It's about viewing the familiar through a foreign lens. It's approachable, with the main tenants of the cocktails rooted in tradition, yet mixed with just enough novelty to spur excitement and curiosity.
Fortune Cookie Mai Tai Recipe
.75 ounce Bacardi
.75 ounce Appleton
Estate 50 Year Old rum
.25 ounce Cointreau
.25 ounce fresh
.75 ounce Fortune Cookie Orgeateat (see below)
1 dash Angostura bitters
4 drops toasted
Shake all ingredients with ice and strain into vessel with crushed ice. If you can't find a kitty glass, use whatever makes you smile. Garnish with a fortune cookie.
Fortune Cookie Orgeat
1000 gram simple syrup (1:1 water/sugar)
200 gram sesame paste (this is like peanut butter with the oil on top; make sure to mix in before measuring)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
Yield: Just over 1 quart
Blend all ingredients to emulsify. This will separate over time; shaking it will recombine.