By Adam Joseph | Photos by Carol Oliva
About 10 years ago, while working at the newly opened Oakland, California, eatery Homestead, Olana Sullivan learned about European wines, craft beer, and food and wine pairing. Then one night, a customer solicited her recommendation of a Greek wine, and Sullivan had a moment of clarity: she could describe the depth and flavors of the wine with a certainty she’d not previously had. “There was this taste of salty air in the grapes from the island they were grown on,” she recalls. “It was a crisp wine, but you could also taste the minerals.”
During the craft cocktail boom, Sullivan visited the new spots in the Bay Area to sample the drinks. “I noticed menus with cocktails that had a lot of interesting ingredients, but there was no rhyme or reason; everything was just thrown together.” She left Homestead for a position at the Monterey fixture Tarpy’s Roadhouse. There, she invoked her instinct and experimented with a “garden-to-glass” cocktail program.
Pour Girl Bartending—a craft cocktail catering enterprise—was born when Sullivan craved mobility. After a decade, Pour Girl maintains a five-star rating on Yelp. It has become the go-to operation for events of all sizes and types, from Big Sur to San Francisco and beyond.
The self-taught Carmel Valley native’s cocktail creation process is deliberate freestyle. It’s similar to listening to a talented bebop musician filling in the empty spaces with bursts of improvisational bliss. Sullivan can develop exciting, highly touted cocktail menus without needing to taste anything first—and she hits all the right notes. “It just makes sense to me, thinking about what’s in season and then covering all those different taste points,” she says.
One of her strategies involves putting a twist on a known classic by replacing ingredients with similar ones, resulting in something exciting or locally focused. Sullivan makes a Oaxacan old-fashioned using mescal instead of rye whiskey. Then she replaces the simple syrup with agave nectar, a sweet component that comes from the same plant as mescal. “It’s cohesive,” she says. “Instead of using Angostura® bitters, I use lavender bitters, so you have this floral quality coming in, and lemon zest instead of orange peel, because lemon and lavender go so well together. If you’ve learned about flavor profiles in food, you can apply it to beverages.”
Another essential component she considers is the weather. If it’s nippy outside, she offers something with a little more heat. “I want to feel like I’m covered with a warm blanket,” says Sullivan. When it’s cold, she uses ingredients such as cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, pomegranate, other dark fruits, and warming spices.
During the pandemic shutdown, she retrofitted the model year 1977 horse trailer to serve as a fully functioning pop-up bar, dubbed Bar Bella, and taught online mixology classes. Her courses—with themes that included Valentine’s Day cocktails and mocktails—were well received, and she currently offers them in person. Sullivan provides the ingredients and tools and usually makes three cocktails per class. She is drinking in the creativity of mixology while keeping the art form alive.
For more information, visit pourgirlbartending.com.