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Know your bartender: Mike Ryan at Sable

We have six questions for the Sable's head bartender.

Photograph: Nick Murway
Sable Kitchen and Bar head bartender Mike Ryan shakes up a drink.

During his time in the cocktail world, Mike Ryan has taken on many roles: head bartender at the wildly popular Sable Kitchen and Bar; ice maker at his new ice company, JustIce, which provides clear ice to bars; overseer of the batching of thousands of cocktails during the Tales of the Cocktail held in New Orleans, Vancouver, and Buenos Aires; and, most importantly, a mentor to many in the industry.

It’s hard to imagine that his start in the industry began as a routine rotation into the bar while he worked as a cook at moto

At Homaro Cantu's modern gastronomy dining spot, the cooks take turns working in different areas of the restaurant. Cantu asked Ryan to work at the bar, which turned into a full-time gig heading up the bar at otom, Cantu's casual spot next door (now housing iNG).

Ryan readily admits that he probably ran the bar quite "amateurishly” but it jumpstarted his interest in cocktails. He began studying on his own and drinking cocktails at various establishments around town and in other cities. Eventually, he was asked to join the then year-old Violet Hour, where he trained under Michael Rubel.

In 2010, he left Violet Hour to start Sable's bar program. "We want Sable to be a place where you can have a casual shot and a beer experience as well as an in-depth conversation about esoteric spirits and cocktails," Ryan explains. "We want to take the craft cocktail experience and make it approachable and accepting."

We asked Ryan six questions about his style and what he sees as future cocktail trends.

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What is your approach to making cocktails?

I come from a spirit-forward, ingredient-focused, crowd-sourced cocktail background, so that's the style we run with here. We try to keep the cocktails fairly minimalist, no crazy garnishes, three to five ingredients, not a ton of kitchen stuff in every cocktail. We also take input from our entire bar staff on the menu, taking submissions every quarter for the cocktail list.

What is your cocktail-making style in in three words? 
Balanced, approachable, integrity.

What is the most important skill a bartender should have?
People skills. Know when to talk, when to fade out. Know when to serve, when to deflect. Know how to read people as soon as they open their mouths. 

What do you see as a trend in cocktails? 
I really see a trend toward lighter and lower alcohol cocktails. I don't mean skinny drinks; those are silly and vain. I mean using things like sherry and vermouth as a base. The bar community has been doing this for a while now but pretty much just for each other. I think the general public is starting to catch on.

What was a drink that you made where you thought it would be a hit but it didn't catch on? 
When we first opened, we had a drink on the menu called the State Street Smash, a fairly straightforward smash with calvados, rye, lemon, honey and mint. We sold maybe two. I think maybe we didn't know how to sell those drinks back then, and also maybe our guests weren't ready.

Complete this sentence: Malört is… 
a Swedish bitter. I'm not really pro or con. Jeppson’s isn't really enjoyable. [Letherbee's] R. Franklin’s is. And it's made in Chicago.