A Top Mixologist Shares His Best Practices for Barkeeping
Professional mixologist PJ Smerechansky is a firm believer in mentoring. He not only works to inspire aspiring peers, but also everyday guests at The Edison in Disney Springs at the Walt Disney World Resort.
You wouldn’t think that the hustle and bustle that goes on behind a busy bar is synonymous with the curation and care that goes into creating craft cocktails — especially in a high-volume place like The Edison in Disney Springs at the Walt Disney World Resort. Located in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., near Orlando, The Edison is described as a “lavish Industrial Gothic-themed restaurant and entertainment venue” known for classic American cuisine and its signature handcrafted cocktails. The multi-level, family-friendly space features three bars and offers a range of nightly entertainment while still maintaining a 1920’s speak-easy vibe, the ideal setting for professional mixologist PJ Smerechansky.
Although not officially affiliated with Disney in any way, Smerechansky has learned a lot from working at this unique location, and in many ways, this small-town boy from Ohio has a Cinderella story of his own. We spoke with him the day after Smerechansky found out he made the top 100 bartenders in the U.S. for World Class, a global bartending competition presented by the United States Bartending Guild and sponsored by Diageo. His excitement was palpable, and he was eager to share his journey and insights behind the bar.
Hitting the Books
Hailing from northeast Ohio, Smerechansky had a challenging start. Based on a passionate interest, but lacking behind-the-bar experience, he was originally turned away at several venues when first applying for positions. Frustrated by the catch-22 situation that Smerechansky found himself in, a spark was born — and his viewpoint altered — when one particular interviewer asked him a set of questions he had no substantive answers for (as an example, one of them was related to types of glassware). Although the interaction seemed harsh at the time, it was the exact wake-up call Smerechansky needed.
“This person motivated me to go to Barnes and Noble, pick up a bunch of literature about classic cocktails, about bartending in general, and about interacting with people behind the bar,” he explains. “It ended up creating a great foundation for what is now my professional service career.”
Smerechansky ended up getting a job at a local bar where he built up the core components of how to be a fast, efficient bartender and have great customer service skills. From there he transitioned into fine dining, and later ran a craft beer bar as a bar manager. “Youngstown (Ohio) was a blue collar area,” says Smerechansky. “They didn’t really understand craft cocktails, but I knew I had an itch to make them.” He successfully rolled out a program and was able to sell out drinks at a $14-$15 price point in a town where there were $1 beer days. “People showed up to buy into what I was envisioning and making a reality.”
Two years later, Smerechansky relocated to Florida and read about The Edison. It was his dream venue. After applying online and getting the standard “thanks, no thanks reply,” he was not deterred. Instead, he became determined. Smerechansky went back in for dinner with his wife, and told them how much he loved the place. After asking if they were looking for any help, Smerechansky sealed the deal.
“I knew if I got in front of somebody, I could have a conversation, explain how passionate I am, and then I may be able to get something,” he says. “Sure enough, he talked to the beverage manager, got an interview with general manager, and was hired on the spot.
Now that Smerechansky is right in the center stage of the craft cocktail renaissance happening in the area, he is thrilled to be surrounded by like-minded people who want to shape the industry into something unique and wonderful.
“Being at The Edison, I have access to people who represent brands I have fallen in love with growing up,” he says.
Smerechansky started doing a lot of mixology for Maker’s Mark after showcasing some of his original cocktails for their local rep. He is now involved a range of the company’s events in Florida, and through them, Smerechansky was introduced to the United States Bartenders Guild (USBG). That has opened up the door to more education and a new network of contacts.
“Being in the USBG is an absolute must for mixologists. The amount of scholarly articles being shared on that platform is incredible. The Orlando USBG community is fantastic — I’ve never felt more welcome. For all the events they put on, they are bringing in professionals in different fields,” Smerechansky explains. “It’s important to share notes and talk to one another. There’s a great synergy between members, so if you want to polish up your beverage program, that would be a great place to start. You can choose to host events, you can have your bar host a tasting, and you can go to other venues to see what their beverage program looks like and what works for them and their space.”
The Bar’s Biggest Best Practice
In terms of building a bar list, Smerechansky says the number one thing is the bartending staff itself.
“You’ve got to have the aces in their places. You’ve got to have a solid interviewing process. A lot of people interview well, but once you put their feet to the fire … there’s nowhere to hide when you’re behind the bar,” he says. “The same is true with your service staff. I have several drinks that are featured on the regular menu at The Edison. I can make a drink that’s liquid gold, and at a perfect cost for my employer and full synergy across the board; but if the service staff isn’t behind it, doesn’t know how to talk about it, aren’t feeling invested in it, and don’t use adjectives that make the guest salivate and want that drink — the product will never move. That’s why it’s important to keep doing tastings with your staff, educating them, motivating them, and inspiring them to take ownership of things.”
Like most venues, The Edison shifts its bar menus seasonally and with each season comes the normal expected embrace of spice packages, flavor combinations, and synergy with the food menus. The bar menus feature two parts: the classic side (cocktails that every bartender should know coming in) and the signature side (a collaboration of all the bartenders there — it’s the fun side where the team gets to experiment, contribute, and share mutual respect). A firm believer in mentoring, Smerechansky says that his work isn’t limited to inspiring aspiring industry peers — it includes everyday guests as well.
“It’s educating people to have a higher standard of understanding cocktails. It opens up a great dialogue with a guest,” he says. “This whole craft cocktail movement may be in its renaissance phase, but for many people, it’s still quite new. There are a lot people who are curious, and it makes for a very memorable experience when there is a chance for a guest to hear a practicing professional speak about the drinks.”
Smerechansky also connects with guests on Instagram, too. While he was originally resistant to join, now that he has an account (@the_alcohol_alchemist), Smerechansky sees it as an increasingly important space for maintaining guest relations and as a resource to put him in touch with fellow industry professionals.
“It’s great for exposure. A lot of people use it to message me to see what events I am bartending at and where I am going to be,” he says. “I think it’s a valuable tool, and I think it’s a great community. People are viewing mixologists with the same level of respect as chefs —as culinary professionals — because we are. Mixologists have a mastery of flavor profiles, and we know how to create an experience in a glass.”
Stef Schwalb is a freelance writer who specializes in food, beverage, design, and business. In addition to contributing to Retail & Food Best Practices, Stef’s work has been featured on Honest Cooking, Thirsty Magazine, Enlightenment Magazine, and Workplaces. She holds the WSET Level 3 and plans to pursue ongoing educational opportunities in between her writing.