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Know your bartender: Justin Anderson at La Sirena Clandestina

The bartender talks about how he got into cocktails and what he's learned during the restaurant's first year.

Photograph: Martha Williams

Justin Anderson at La Sirena Clandestina

Photograph: Martha Williams

Cusco cup at La Sirena Clandestina

Photograph: Martha Williams

Tricks of the Trade at La Sirena Clandestina

Photograph: Martha Williams

Pisco sour at La Sirena Clandestina

Like the cocktails that they create, bartenders are the sum of many parts—every place they work and other bartenders they work with help shape their techniques and passion for the craft. Justin Anderson from La Sirena Clandestina went to college at San Diego State and started bartending at a high volume, live music venue in the area. A few day shifts turned into working four nights a week and he was soon a full-time bartender. Along the way, he worked with some of the best California bar owners and bartenders like Nathan Stanton from Consortium Holdings (parent company to 7 notable bars and restaurants in San Diego), Trevor Easter from Rickhouse and Anthony Schmidt from Noble Experiment.

After seven years of bartending in San Diego, Anderson moved to Chicago and met the Fountainhead's Chris Kafcas, who introduced him to John Manion at Branch 27, where he started bartending. Last year, he helped open up the Latin-inspired La Sirena Clandestina with chef/owner Manion. We sat down with Anderson to find out a little more about him and his approach to bartending at the "hidden mermaid."

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What is your approach to making cocktails? 

I try to always improve on things that are familiar. I base cocktails off of what people are familiar with or I have a grasp on.  

What were your goals when you started the La Sirena Clandestina beverage program? 
Consistency. Keep it simple. Stay true to keeping the menu Latin without it being too cheeky.

It's been a year since the restaurant opened. What have you learned in that time?
I learned quite a bit about human beings, that the human body doesn't require much sleep, apparently. John has helped me acclimate to Chicago and the industry and has taught me quite a bit from the culinary side of things. The trust we have here is inherent and having full autonomy with the bar has led to a very unique program. 

What is the most important skill a bartender should have?
Humility. Remember, it's not about you or the cocktails directly. Hospitality is a lost art. It's easy to become jaded. I've definitely had my moments. But then, there are those defining moments that you remember why you chose to do this as a profession and not as a means to an end. Seeing the satisfaction on someone's face after their first sip, turning the vodka drinker onto gin, or the overall experience we provide from food, beverage and service defines exactly why I can continue to do this. Also, take the time to explain things to guests at your bar in plain text. Keep it short and sweet. No one wants a 10-minute dissertation about your simple syrup. 

Which cocktail on the menu should people should drink now, why?
Still think our daiquiri is the most overlooked—it’s pretty delicious. 

Complete this sentence: Malört is…
not what it used to be, allegedly.