Q&A: a Chat with Spoon & Stable's Jessi Pollak, the 2022 U.S. Bartender of the Year

For the 10th year, the United States Bartenders' Guild (USBG) Presents World Class Sponsored by Diageo tested the skills and talents of the nation's top mixologists – from the country's Northeast, South, Midwest, Southwest and West regions – at the National Finals in Nashville, Tenn. The event took place June 19-22.

After two exhilarating days with 15 of the best U.S. bartenders competing in four individual challenges, Jessi Pollak of Spoon and Stable from Minneapolis, Minn., came out on top as the 2022 U.S. Bartender of the Year.

Pollak awed the judges with her expansive knowledge, engaging presentation and innovative craftsmanship, to ultimately represent the United States at the World Class Global Finals, which will be held in Sydney, Australia this fall.

U.S. Bartender of the Year 2022 - Jessi Pollak
Jessi Pollak (Photo: Courtesy of USBG Presents World Class Sponsored by Diageo)

The recent U.S. competition featured bartenders facing off in four ambitious challenges. Day one of the challenges kicked off with “Spirit of Don Julio,” where competitors developed unique serves paying homage to the brand and its founder, followed by “Taste the City,” where finalists created a signature cocktail pairing with an iconic Nashville dish. The second day pushed the mixologists in a “Home Brew,” challenge where they created two cocktail styles using Ketel One Family Made Vodka, inspired by a unique type of brew, in addition to “The Showdown,” where competitors raced against the clock to create eight different cocktails in eight minutes.

“As a first-time competitor in the USBG Presents World Class Sponsored by Diageo, I am completely stunned to be named this year's U.S. Bartender of the Year,” said Pollak. “There were so many people who inspired me and guided me along the way that helped make it such a rewarding and unforgettable experience. I am truly honored to be able to continue my journey and represent the U.S. at the Global Finals in Sydney!”

United States Bartenders’ Guild Executive Director Aaron Gregory Smith, noted, “It's incredible that we're now in our 10th season of the USBG Presents World Class Sponsored by Diageo program. The resounding excitement from the bartending community to participate in this acclaimed competition demonstrates that the skill and desire to grow in this industry remains strong, and we are extremely proud to contribute to the transformative opportunity this program provides for bartenders.”

Bar & Restaurant chats with Pollak to get her thoughts on the competition, how she prepared, what she loves about the bar and restaurant industry, and what she’s paying attention to in the bar world, among other topics.

Question: Hi, Jessi – thanks for your time! How does it feel to be the 2022 U.S. Bartender of the Year?

Answer: Over the course of my career, I have looked up to the winners of World Class as the benchmark of great bartenders. Finding myself among that group is astonishing and wonderful. I'm so excited to share what I have learned with future competitors for years to come.

Jessi Pollak - USBG Presents World Class Sponsored by Diageo
Jessi Pollak (Photo: Courtesy of USBG Presents World Class Sponsored by Diageo)

Question: What are your thoughts on the other competitors? What or who were you inspired by?

Answer: I was really blown away by the level of camaraderie and collaboration among the competitors. We helped each other, we lamented our mistakes together and we celebrated each other's successes. I was most inspired by everyone's willingness to support each other. Going into the Top 50 competition I reached out to several competitors and asked for advice. They were so willing to share their wisdom and their kindness with me. World Class isn't just a competition, it's also a community.

Question: You were a first-time competitor in the competition, so what’s the secret of your success as both a competitor and as a bartender/bar manager in general?

Answer: The two lessons I really internalized over the course of this competition were that I had to be myself, and I had to ask for help. It's easy to think that you need to be a certain style of bartender to win these competitions, but the judges can quickly assess if you're being yourself or trying to be someone else. I like casual bartending and I like witchy-goth-punk vibes, so that's what I leaned into for my challenges. I also asked for help from a lot of people – current and past competitors, judges, and just generally great bartenders.

Question: How did you prepare for the competition?

Answer: Everyone prepares in different ways for this type of thing. Personally, I practiced and trained extensively. For the cocktail challenges, I wrote and rehearsed my speeches or stories several times. For the Speed Rounds, I mapped out exactly how I was going to execute all the cocktails, and then practiced the rounds many times as “dry runs” – that is, with the caps on the bottles. This allowed me to memorize the flow of the round without spending a lot of money on product or wasting resources. And again, I prepared by asking for advice from smart people!

Bartender of the Year - Jessi Pollak
Jessi Pollak (Photo: Courtesy of Spoon and Stable)

Question: What can you tell us about the cocktails you created for the competition?

Answer: The cocktails on their own were not life-changing or extremely difficult to make. However, each one was well-balanced, tasty, layered, and it had a great story behind it. I think bartenders often forget how much an engaging story can get their judges or their guests excited about a particular cocktail. The bar program I direct at Spoon and Stable has a menu of unexpected twists on classic cocktails, so I went in that general direction for several of my cocktails.

Question: What advice do you have for other bartenders who want to compete in the competition in the future?

Answer: My advice for bartenders thinking about entering World Class is do it! Before the judges announced the winner, I had already decided that I would be returning next year. The friendships and connections you make in this type of competition are invaluable. My more practical advice is twofold... Look at the grading rubrics carefully and make sure you are setting yourself up to score as many points as possible, and have other bartenders or chefs taste your drinks.

Question: What can you tell us about Spoon and Stable in Minneapolis, where you work as the bar manager?

Answer: Spoon and Stable is a restaurant by James Beard Award-winning Chef Gavin Kaysen. The cuisine is focused on the seasonality of the Midwest and the roots of the local culture; it's technically inspired by the French cuisine for which Chef Kaysen is known. The bar program features imaginative takes on classic cocktails, with an emphasis on thoughtful ingredients and precise technique. It also happens to be my second home.

Question: What makes Spoon and Stable unique?

Answer: Spoon and Stable has been one of the best restaurants in Minneapolis since it opened in 2014. It has always been known for great food and fantastic hospitality, but I've spent the last several years trying to make it just as well-known for cocktails. We provide our guests with exceptional classic and signature cocktails in an environment that feels welcoming and fun. I love that my bar team takes cocktails seriously, but they don't take themselves too seriously.

U.S. Bartender of the Year - Jessi Pollak - 2022
Jessi Pollak at the recent competition (Photo: Courtesy of USBG Presents World Class Sponsored by Diageo)

Question: What’s your overall beverage philosophy?

Answer: Start with good ingredients. Whether it's the spirits, fresh vermouth or seasonal produce, building a cocktail with high quality ingredients is the easiest way to ensure a great beverage. Also, have fun. If you're not having fun, there probably shouldn't be alcohol involved.

Question: What trends are you paying attention to in the bar world?

Answer: I'm so excited by the current focus on self-advocacy and workers' rights within the hospitality industry. Workers are being more clear and outspoken about what they need, and the hospitality industry is slowly beginning to adapt to meet those needs. We're at a turning point where the hospitality industry will either adapt or it will be replaced with more forward-thinking concepts.

Question: What do you love most about working in the bar industry?

Answer: No day in this job is ever the same as the one before it. I love how you can always keep growing and learning. I really don't think there's a ceiling on hospitality or bartending. Even the best of the best need to keep adapting and learning to stay relevant in this industry.

Question: What’s next for you?

Answer: I'll be traveling to Sydney, Australia, in September to compete against 50 of the best bartenders from around the globe in five distinct challenges. Here in Minneapolis, I'll continue my work behind the bar at Spoon and Stable – running around, teasing my coworkers and slinging delicious cocktails.

Jessi Pollak - 2022 U.S. Bartender of the Year
Jessi Pollak, the 2022 U.S. Bartender of the Year (Photo by: Shannon Sturgis)

Question: Thanks for your time. Last question: What’s your favorite drink or flavor profile?

Answer: Give me a good bitter cocktail any day. The Negroni, the Hanky Panky, anything with a little red bitter or amaro is likely to get my attention.

Wondering what it takes to be crowned the U.S. Bartender of the Year? Applications are open now through December for the 2023 USBG Presents World Class Sponsored by Diageo. Visit WorldClass.USBG.org and USBG.org.

Aaron Kiel, based in Raleigh, N.C., has worked in the beverage, tea and coffee industries for nearly two decades. He’s a journalist and writer at heart, but he also wears a PR hat through his consultancy, ak PR Group. He works as an editor with Questex’s Bar & Restaurant Group, including editor of World Tea News, and he’s served the tea community through Questex’s World Tea Conference + Expo (co-located with Bar & Restaurant Expo) since 2010. Contact him here.

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