The tender: Trudy Thomas
The bar: BLT Steak at Camelback Inn, a JW Marriott Resort (5402 E. Lincoln Dr., 480-905-7979)
The pedigree: Thomas' bartending career began as a matter of convenience -- she got her start in working in a bar attached to her apartment complex in Kentucky. In 1999, she moved to Chicago, where she had the opportunity to train under and work with Wolfgang Puck. Thomas took her skills to Phoenix and the Camelback Inn in 2008, where she now designs all the drink recipes for the resort's plethora of bars. She also helped form the bartenders guild here in the Valley.
What was it like working with Wolfgang Puck?
I learned so much from Wolf, like that I'm only as good as the next event or the next cocktail I create, and I should never look backwards on the things I've done; always push forward. He taught me a lot about blending flavors, keeping it simple, using a base ingredient and just two or three more flavors, not to muddy it up with a ton of elements in the drink. I took a lot of what he was teaching the chefs in the kitchen and applied them into developing my style of bartending.
How would you describe your bartending style?
My style is focused on fresh, seasonal, handcrafted. Putting out the most balanced cocktail I can put out. I like to focus on building balance.
Now that you mostly manage the bar, do you miss bartending at all?
It's hard to wean yourself off of bartending because the money's so good and the interaction with people behind the bar is so different. You can't get that when you're managing. I miss bartending to some degree, but now I have the ability to work with so many different concepts that I don't have a chance to really miss it, because I'm so challenged with everything.
What's you're approach to creating a new drink recipe?
I actually write out my recipes on a pad and paper. I look at what's seasonal and try to incorporate what's in season. I've been a spirits judge and a wine judge for years, so I have a really good profile of flavors in my head, of what will work with what. I just write the base ingredients on paper, and then I'll come behind the bar and tweak the proportions to make it balanced. I haven't come up with a drink behind the bar in a while -- it's always on pen and paper. It can't be on a computer either. It's a weird ritual.
What was your most memorable experience as a bartender?
Working with Wolfgang Puck was an amazing experience. You can't pay to have those four years of training with him. I did an amazing event with him and Bill Samuels from maker's Mark once. One of my favorite pictures has Wolf holding a glass on his head and Mr. Samuels pouring bourbon into the glass. It's a really cool photo.
What's your favorite drink right now?
Usually I'll do a manhattan, bourbon-based. Being from Kentucky, I always gravitate to bourbon.
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Are you picky about drinks other bartenders make for you?
I have a very hard time and getting a cocktail that I'm not analyzing. I guess it's no different than a doctor who goes in for a checkup. I'm always judging drinks as too tart or too sweet, and I don't mean to do it. There are fantastic bartenders in town whose drinks I truly enjoy, and I know I can go there and have a good experience, so I get really picky about which bars I go to.
If you weren't working in this industry, what would you be doing?
I don't know. I can't imagine my life without the spirits industry. Maybe something around horses. I love horses, and we had some growing up in Kentucky. But that's a very expensive hobby, and I can't imagine doing anything outside this industry. It's not what I do; it's who I am.
You do a lot of bartender training these days -- what qualities make a great bartender?
I have three criteria for bartenders. One, make a quality drink every time. You're the last stop before it hits the guest. If it's inferior, it's your responsibility. Two, consistency. Every drink should taste the same from bartender to bartender, shift to shift, day to day. That's why we measure everything here. Everybody uses jiggers here; there's no free-pouring. Three is passion. I can train the other two, but I have to either hire or inspire that passion. If you're passionate about your craft and continuing to learn, you'll succeed as a bartender.