If you’ve been to Sportsman’s Club, chances are you’ve seen bar manager Jacyara de Oliveira behind the bar, furiously making cocktails. Her precision and speed, which she’s honed while working various positions at Folklore, the Drawing Room, Perennial Virant and BellyQ, has paid off, twofold—she’s representing Chicago at the national Speed Rack finals this weekend in New York, and this week, Sportsman's made the long list for Best High Volume American Cocktail Bar in this year’s Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards.
In the Speed Rack competition, top female bartenders compete to see who can make cocktails the fastest, and the event raises money for breast cancer research, education and prevention. The national competition is on June 14, and for the first time there’s a Summit, a weekend full of events like parties, lunches and bar takeovers (New Yorkers can catch de Oliveira at Rochelle’s on June 15 from 6-9pm). We caught up with de Oliveira before she headed to New York to talk about her path to bartending and her favorite places to hang out.
How did you get into bartending? I worked at a bar in Brazil, at my boyfriend’s bar, a little venue run by a bunch of his friends. It was a way for me to hang out with him than actually work, and when I moved back to the U.S., I wanted to get into bars and restaurants because I didn’t want to go to school right away. I wanted to make some money, and I could see my brother [Daniel de Oliveira] and sister have so much success with it…. I applied to be a hostess at a little restaurant that was opening, but I knew that I wanted more—I wanted to get behind the bar. When the Drawing Room was hiring for a new barback, my brother recommended I apply, I had an interview with Charles Joly and that was it. I was dumped straight into the middle of it… When the opportunity came to open Sportsman’s, I hounded Wade [McElroy] and Jeff [Donahue]. I live six blocks from the bar and I was like “Guys, I live right here and it would be cool if I could live here and work there.” I loved the idea of opening something in the neighborhood.
How do you balance roles with Wade McElroy and Jeff Donahue? It’s been very collaborative from the beginning. Wade and Jeff have taken on a larger role with Heisler Hospitality [Ed. Note: they’re Directors of Operations, though they still bartend each week] and directing beverage operation for the entire group, so [General Manager] Graham Heubach and I have taken up larger roles.
Sportsman’s Club is a little different from other bars, since the cocktails change daily. How do you keep coming up with new drinks? I originally thought it would be a lot harder than it is. The good thing about our industry is that there are new products and inspiration and something fresh every week. Also there’s weather, changing seasons—there’s a never-ending source of inspiration. The fact that we work with… some of the best bartenders in the city, who have different ways of making cocktails than I do, lets me reinvent and revamp.
Are there any ingredients you've been into lately? I’ve been working a lot with matcha, which has been one of my favorite ingredients to work with over the past couple months. It just has a nice savory note. I like to work very simply, three or four ingredients, and keep them tight and tasty. And in order to do that, you have to have really good ingredients.
What is the most important skill a bartender should have? Multitasking. I think that’s probably the toughest one to master. It’s not the idea that you can shake and stir cocktails at once, but that you can shake and stir with a guest in front of you, see who is walking in the door, and know what you’re making after that. It’s not working two things at once; it’s working two things at once and thinking three steps ahead.
Where do you drink on your night off? I’ve really been enjoying Presidio. The program is really cool, the burger is fantastic, and the traditional pisco punch—one of my favorite cocktails—is particularly good there. The other night, I got out of here on the later side and said, “I’m going to sip on rum with a couple of friends,” and popped over to Aviary. It’s one of my favorite places to hang out. La Sirena Clandestina is always phenomenal.
What’s your favorite spirit to work with right now? Lately, agave has been my major focus… and I’m seeing new mezcals come to market and it’s booming. Some are being produced sustainably and others are not. But when I see mezcal on a back bar, I want to check it out.
Are you doing anything to practice for Speed Rack? I feel like every night of service at Sportsman’s is practice. When it gets busy in here, we make a lot of drinks and work efficiently… It’s not necessarily about how great the drinks are, but how fast you make them. I did a lot of practice on the speed round to make sure I had a good system and was moving quickly and efficiently. That helped me out and calmed me down.