Nikki Worley’s dress code at Ballard Ave bar The Gerald is a little more relaxed than the Prohibition-era attire she sported when she served and managed the door at cocktail hideaway Knee High Stocking Co. Though Worley wasn’t behind the bar there, she soaked up knowledge from barmen Gregg Holcomb and Kevin Langmack, on both making a good cocktail and regaling customers with the story behind it. “That to me speaks more about being a bartender than just filling drinks,” said Worley.
Worley went on to serve at Canon, then bartended at BalMar and Rob Roy, where she “learned a whole hell of a lot” and learned it very quickly. In September she arrived at the Midcentury-inspired Ballard lounge as spirits director and can’t say enough good things about her new place of business, where her new fall drink menu just kicked in. And, says Worley, “I can still wear my fascinators” from the Knee High days (Men, this is what she’s talking about).
Here, a few of Nikki Worley's favorite things.
Cocktail to make at home: Honestly, I prefer a straight pour of whiskey for myself—something along the lines of Scapa 16 Scotch or Red Breast 12 Irish whiskey. My husband, Dave, has a sweet tooth so I'll occasionally treat him to an Old Fashioned made with Zaya 12-year rum.
Cocktail to impress guests: Lately, I've really been liking a cocktail called Grand and Central. It's 1¼ ounces rye, ¾ ounce applejack, ½ ounce Dubonnet, ½ ounce Cocchi Americano, and orange bitters. It's spirit forward, but sweet in a subtle way.
First drink: My favorite first drink story is my first time trying and appreciating Scotch. I was out with Kevin Langmack, my Knee High co-worker at the time, at Tavern Law. He ordered Nathan Weber's 30th Century Man—Ardbeg, Creme de Cacao, Cointreau and lime juice, with a dash of absinthe. I knew there was something special about it when I could smell the drink from a few feet away. From there, we went to Vessel and I was able to try a flight of five variations of Ardbeg. I've been enamored ever since.
Liqueur: I've really loved Liquore Strega for a while. It can be just the subtle, sweet balance in a spirited drink, and in larger pours the mint can really shine through. I've made one hell of a tequila julep with the stuff.
Bitters: I've been experimenting with my own, but Angostura is a godsend. I really love drinks that call for a heavy pour of the stuff (it is 44.7 percent ABV, after all)—a Trinidad Sour may be my favorite drink right now (1 ounce Angostura, ½ ounce rye, 1 ounce Oregeat, ¾ ounce lemon).
Brand of tonic: Fever Tree, without question or room for argument.
Fernet is . . . : … funny. It was the first "acceptable"/ "cool kids shot" that I was introduced to when I started working in the industry. I still drink it straight from time to time, but generally prefer Ramazotti as my end-of-the-night digestif.
Mixer: Oregeat. I love the mouthfeel it lends to a drink, and the flavors seem to round-out the edges of a cocktail. Though I prefer homemade to store bought any day.
Special-occasion drink: A Seelbach (1 ounce bourbon, ¼ ounce Cointreau, 7 dashes Angostura, 7 dashes Peychaud's, top with sparkling) is something I really enjoy with a big chunk of meat. The drink has depth, and the effervescence from the sparkling helps to cleanse the palate. Really the special occasion part is the big chunk of meat, but that's when I enjoy that drink the most.
Secret ingredient: Vinegar. I love using sherry vinegar, apple-cider vinegar and drinking vinegar/shrubs. A little goes a long way there, and it adds depth, complexity and wonderful savory notes to cocktails.
Banned from the bar: Mixtos, also known as less than 100-percent agave tequila. There is no excuse for stocking the stuff.
Day drink: I always feel very sophisticated drinking a gin martini with orange bitters. It's strong and dignified, but crisp and dainty.
Local spirit: Sound Spirits makes tremendous products. I really enjoy the crisp, clean taste of Ebb and Flow gin. And their liqueurs are exceptional. I'm really looking forward to the release of their crème de cacao.
Guilty pleasure: Fireball. Don't judge me!
Hangover remedy: Sleeeeep. Glorious sleep.
Place to drink on a day off: Oliver's Twist is in my neighborhood, and I love their tomato soup and grilled cheese. The bartenders there are exceptional. I had a fantastic huckleberry shrub concoction the other day, courtesy of Robert.
Place to eat on a day off: Home. I guess it's pretty lame, but my husband and I have been trying to learn how to cook for each other. And really, he spends more time in the kitchen than I do. The things we end up with range from barely edible (those are mostly from me) to semidecent-but-something's-off.
Recently splurged on: Homebrewing equipment. Dave is learning how to make beers and ciders. We have some ideas for flavor combinations we want to explore, but we're just learning the basics for now.
On the wish list: Time—that's an acceptable answer, right? I am at the phase in my career where I am trying to soak up as much information as possible. I dedicate so much time to reading books, magazines, websites on the subject of bartending or the history of the trade or new/old recipes to try out, making tinctures and syrups at home, and of course going out to bars to try new products and talking with other bartenders in the city that know WAY more than I think I ever will. And I want to do all of those things all of the time without stopping to actually go to work or sleep or think about anything not cocktail-related. There is never enough time. Or maybe I should be wishing for patience?
Can't live without: My notes. I take them everywhere with me and write down every recipe or idea for a future cocktail or just for my own reference when I'm out drinking at other bars.
Work outfit: If your job requires that you stand for eight to 12 hours at a time, you know the importance of quality footwear. My favorite ones finally gave out a few months ago, and I have been on the search for an upgrade. I've been forced into wearing some practical (read: ugly) shoes that make me look like I have clown feet.
Breakfast dish: Breakfast burritos! I'm from Texas and there is a local chain in San Antonio that makes the best tortillas in the whole world. Some days I miss them more than a rational person should ever miss a tortilla.
Lunch spot: Red Mill Burgers. I love the one in Ballard! I can't get enough of the barbecue burger.
Underappreciated bar: Paratii. They have an incredible liquor selection, knowledgeable staff, the best beer I've ever tried (Irish Lass!), and top-notch food. I really don't know why people aren't banging down their doors. It's on Leary in Ballard, so just a block off of the main Ballard Ave strip. I personally think that ups the appeal. It's a nice little getaway spot, while still being close to a host of local attractions.
People I'd like to drink with: I'd love to drink with Ernest Hemingway. He could drink me under the table—with drinks he inspired or invented (see the Hemingway Daiquiri or Death in the Afternoon)—and still come up with some piece of classic American prose.
Liquor store: DrinkUpNY.com
Glassware: I have an eclectic cocktail glass collection that I've gathered over time from Goodwill. At first I wanted a matching set, but house parties are much more fun when everyone has a different glass. Plus, I don't have to feel bad when the 99-cent stuff breaks.
Story of patrons behaving badly: I'll just say that it's in everyone's best interest if, when the bartender makes the decision to not serve you, you accept the fact. There is no argument or negotiation that is going to get you and/or your buddies another round.