Braving winter’s chill early on a Saturday morning is never easy, but a dozen bartenders and other food and beverage professionals did so last month, gathering at Restless Spirits Distilling in North Kansas City. They trickled through the door, shedding coats and eyeing a bar lined with vodka, gin and Irish-style whiskey.
Instead of drinking, though, they unfurled yoga mats, breathed deep and moved through downward dog, sphinx and other poses in the latest of Heather Rama’s monthly distillery yoga classes. The goal? To better manage the physical, mental and emotional challenges that come with a job in the hospitality industry.
“I thought this was a group of people I could really help,” says Rama, a therapeutic yoga instructor who also teaches service industry professionals yoga classes, also called SIPs classes, at Hagoyah in Waldo and bartends at Brookside’s Plate.
Certainly it benefited her husband, Ryan Rama, Tequila Ocho’s brand ambassador for Kansas and Missouri. Years of shaking cocktails left him with what she calls bartender elbow, or an arm so stiff and painful he couldn’t complete everyday tasks.
“He could barely pick anything up,” Heather Rama says.
He began practicing yoga and soon regained full use of his arm. That transformation spurred Heather Rama to tailor classes to industry workers’ needs, including everything from relieving wrist or lower back pain to adrenal fatigue. She also led a series of sessions at last August’s Paris of the Plains Cocktail Festival in Kansas City and regularly posts videos on BARMA, a Facebook group for bar, restaurant and spirits professionals.
“It’s not about being a pretzel,” she says. “It’s about working to help the systems in your body function better. You don’t have to change your whole life, but your life will change if you do yoga.”
Rama is not alone in her efforts. Wellness is a hot topic, in part because what was once considered a transitional job now offers long-term career opportunities both behind the bar and in marketing, management and consulting. Pros are striving to balance work and life as they get older, start families and confront the health issues that often come with a service industry lifestyle.
“Now that you can be a career bartender again, it’s really important to take care of yourself,” says Ann Tuennerman, founder of Tales of the Cocktail, held each July in New Orleans. “Bartending is mentally and physically challenging.”
That’s easier said than done, though. Standing for eight or more hours at a go causes joint, back, neck and other problems. Late nights make getting enough sleep, eating right and exercising difficult. Working evenings, weekends and holidays — when family and friends have time off — strains relationships. And the temptation to drink, smoke and indulge in other substances is ever present.
Tuennerman has watched countless friends struggle with it all. That’s why Tales (as it’s known) offers complimentary Mind, Body & Spirit sessions throughout the festival, plus seminars like one on how movements behind the bar affect your body, yoga classes and a 5K run.
The Tales website (talesofthecocktail.com) also includes a wellness section, providing year-round resources on everything from insomnia and burnout to sexual assault, hate crimes and addiction. The site’s editors routinely include voices like that of Jack McGarry, co-founder of the acclaimed Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog in New York, who shared his battle with alcoholism and depression in a post last fall and followed up with a live Facebook chat.
“I was expecting negative consequences from being so open about it, but everybody’s been extremely receptive,” McGarry said on Facebook. “The industry is mature enough now to have this type of conversation.”
And it’s taking place everywhere. Bridget Albert, a master mixologist and co-author of “Market-Fresh Mixology” (Surrey Books, 2008), often discusses work-life balance during Speed Rack, a women-only national bartending competition. Giuseppe Gonzalez, owner of New York’s Suffolk Arms, talked about sobriety in bartending during last year’s Bar Institute in New York, while “PDT Cocktail Book” (Sterling Epicure, 2011) author and Mixography founder Jim Meehan urged colleagues to acknowledge and address such issues during the P(our) Symposium in Paris in June.
Meehan “was one of the first people to come out and say things people didn’t want to hear,” says Laura Wagner, a bartender at SoT downtown and treasurer of the Kansas City chapter of the U.S. Bartenders’ Guild. “Denial is a huge thing.”
Role models are important, but so is local support, Wagner says. The USBG-KC health and wellness committee includes among its goals adding activities like a river or trail clean-up or climbing wall outing to its calendar, assisting members with health care services, encouraging responsible consumption and behavior and increasing programs like Rama’s yoga.
Wagner knows how important such changes are. She began working in restaurants when she was 14, and, after college, moved into management before becoming enamored with bartending. Stepping behind the bar was exciting, but it also meant working 14-hour shifts, often for days in a row.
“I didn’t have a good work-life balance,” Wagner admits. “My relationships suffered, and the ability to do normal things adults do became more difficult.”
Moving to SoT brought more manageable hours, but her definition of “manageable” might surprise folks who’ve never worked in a restaurant or bar. A weekend shift typically begins at 5 p.m., and, while the bar closes at 1:30 a.m., cleaning and other responsibilities mean she doesn’t leave until 3 a.m.
Kate Frick fell into her own grueling pattern while managing John Brown’s Underground in Lawrence. She’d leave the bar at 3 a.m., catch a few hours of sleep, spend a bit of time with her then 2-year-old daughter and return at 8 a.m. to prep for the day’s opening.
“I was a disaster,” Frick says. “In order to be a professional bartender and a mom, I knew I needed something that looked different.”
She found it in Tonganoxie, Kan., where she and her former husband, Jesse Brubacher, opened the Myers Hotel & Bar in December 2015.
She serves cocktails on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings and during Sunday brunch. Frick calls that family day, thanks to the scattering of kids usually chasing and blowing bubbles in the garden on warm days or playing with the dollhouse, games and crayons inside when it’s cold. There are occasional special events, and the bar opens for limited service on Wednesdays if Ad Astra Yoga is holding a class in the ballroom.
Frick planted raised beds with French lavender, rosemary, basil and other herbs, as well as kale, peppers and other vegetables. Local apples and pears came from Crum’s Heirlooms, and she used it all in her ever-changing “garden juice.” The seasonal juice is a favorite among regulars, with spirits or without.
Her winter menu includes warm punches and drinks like the Milk Bath — a combination of egg, unfiltered nigori sake, matcha tea, vanilla and vodka that Frick calls a Japanese grandmother’s hot toddy.
“It’s been so wonderful, and it creates a different culture,” Frick says. “The intent is to be nurturing and to nurture myself.”
Anne Brockhoff is a freelance food writer and spirits columnist: ninmilefarm@gmail, @BlitheSpiritsKC
SIPs yoga: Heather Rama leads a class designed for service industry professionals Monday evenings at Hagoyah in Waldo. For details, go to hagoyah.com. For information about yoga classes sponsored monthly by area distilleries, follow Heather Rama or Hagoyah on Facebook.
Wellness resources: Visit Tales of the Cocktail’s wellness page, talesofthecocktail.com/wellness.
Brave new bartending
The second in an ongoing series. Part 1 examined bartender creativity and how it shapes our drinking. Coming: Meet entrepreneurs and artists and behind-the-scenes bar backs.
This drink was an instant favorite at the Myers Hotel & Bar in Tonganoxie, owner Kate Frick says. The combination of fresh grapefruit juice and honey liqueur is soothing, while the cayenne provides a warming kick.
Makes 1 drink
2 ounces vodka (Frick likes Woody Creek Potato Vodka)
Juice from half a grapefruit
1/2 ounce Bärenjäger Honey Liqueur
1/2 ounce Amaro Montenegro
Pinch cayenne pepper (to taste)
Combine all ingredients with ice in a cocktail shaker. Shake and strain. Serve up.
Sleeping on the Ground
Amaros, aromatized wines and other flavorful but lower proof ingredients are popular among bartenders, who increasingly feature drinks with less alcohol (or even no alcohol) on their menus. Laura Wagner of SoT created this one for a pop-up dinner she co-hosted in November and named it after a song written by a friend in the band Campdogzz.
Makes 1 drink
1 ounce Cocchi Americano
1 ounce Rittenhouse Rye Bottled-in-Bond whiskey
1 ounce Cardamaro
1 dash Hella Bitters Smoked Chili Bitters
1 coin-shaped piece of orange peel (for garnish)
Combine Cocchi Americano, rye whiskey, Cardamaro and bitters in a stirring glass with ice. Stir and strain into a cocktail glass. Flame the orange peel and add to cocktail.
The phrase healthy drinking sounds like an oxymoron, but using fresh, nutrient-dense ingredients can deliver some benefits via your cocktail, especially when consumed in moderation, according to “Zen and Tonic” (The Countryman Press, 2016).
Author Jules Aron swaps processed sugars for dates, honey and molasses; embraces superfoods like beets, kale and chia seeds; and incorporates all manner of fruit and veg. This drink includes chamomile, which has a centuries-long medicinal history, and can be enjoyed either hot or cold.
Makes 1 drink
4 ounces freshly brewed chamomile tea
1/2 ounce apricot syrup (see note)
1/2 ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 ounces gin
Orange twist, for garnish
Add syrup and lemon juice to a mug of the hot tea, then add the gin. Garnish with orange twist.
For apricot syrup: Combine 1 cup coconut sugar and 1 cup water in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Add 3 pitted and quartered fresh apricots or 6 ounces dried apricots and let simmer slowly, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes. Strain into a clean jar and refrigerate for 24 hours before using. Cover and keep refrigerated for up to 2 weeks.