Born in Bethany, Connecticut, near New Haven, Nicole Lebedevitch had plans for a music career. She moved to Boston to go to school at Berklee College of Music, studying music business and piano. Working in restaurants on the side, she loved the fast-paced, ever-changing environment and the opportunity to continuously meet new people. Then she started working at none other than Eastern Standard in 2005, one of Boston’s great restaurants and bars, working for and with Boston bar legend Jackson Cannon. That’s where it all changed. This was the early days, pre-Boston cocktail renaissance and at the beginning of that wave, she learned the craft and history of drink and was able to travel and learn from the best in business.
In the fall of 2011, she went on to be the opening bar manager at The Hawthorne, which fast became one of Boston’s cocktail destinations. She is now bar manager at Yvonne’s, a fantastically romantic, unforgettable space that opened fall 2015 and has quickly garnered raves. No surprise, at a restaurant/bar as unique as Yvonne’s, Nicole brings balance and expertise to the cocktail menu and an engaging, humor-rich, relaxed hospitality. With Yvonne’s being one of the oldest historic restaurant spaces in Boston, she attempts to embrace the past, married to today in a menu that showcases classics in new ways but also offers inventive house cocktails.
In her own words, Nicole talks about her bar style, what is exciting her now in craft spirits and how she gets guests interested in new spirits they haven’t tried before.
Q What led to your path as a bar manager?
I was lucky enough to start bartending in a place (Eastern Standard) where we created an amazing platform for teaching. This allowed us as bartenders to create and learn, which makes the job super fulfilling. I fell in love with the ability to make others happy through the art of bartending, while still engaging my knowledge and the knowledge of those around me. I do it because I love to teach and learn from the people around me, both behind the bar and in sitting down at it.
Q What do you consider your bar style and how does living in Boston determine or affect that?
Similar answer. I like to teach. Take an old recipe and educate, make it properly, then go from there. You first need to know the basics, then you can tweak recipes and create your bar style from there.
I love cooking so I try to incorporate small culinary tricks and recipes wherever I can. I’m not going to nerd out and tell you all of the ingredients and process as you sip your cocktail, but you will see flavors that you are familiar with and a welcoming bartender to make them for you!
Q What is your philosophy on deciding what brands to stock at your bar and what mix do you prefer of large and small brands?
Taste, taste, taste and taste. It really comes down to the quality of the spirit. There is no arguing that some of the big brands make some really special, high quality spirits—and yes, some do not. The same argument can be made for many small craft/boutique brands. Just because you can purchase/make spirit doesn’t mean that you have the same finesse and palate as someone who has been doing this for generations. At the end of the day, if you don’t taste everything [as a bar manager], you are not making educated purchases and allowing yourself the option of being happily surprised by both big and small brands.
Q How do you educate customers on brands they might not have heard of?
The same philosophy applies here: Taste them, too! Customers don’t often have the opportunity to taste through every spirit under the sun, so take a chance, ask them what they like and make them a drink that you know works with the spirit they are inquiring about. Often you’ll find them extremely engaged and as a result, trusting you as someone who’s truly looking to make them drinks they will enjoy.
Q What advice would you give to distilleries looking to be represented in quality cocktail bars?
Provide more than just a recipe book with your spirit substituted in classic cocktail recipes without changing proportions, syrup densities, etc. We know how to make the classics and we spend a lot of time mixing these drinks over and over again with different brands and proportions to know exactly what we like the most.
Q What are some micro-distillers/small-batch brands that are exciting you right now?
Locally, I enjoy what we have coming out of Boston for rum! Privateer makes a beautifully-distilled light rum, yet with the perfect amount of acidity to make anything from a traditional daiquiri to a more elegant stirred drink like an El Presidente.
Bully Boy, also local, makes a rounder, fatter style of rum. The kind I like swizzling or mixing with some mint and lime. I also have a love of brandy and was introduced to Arkansas Black Applejack (www.arkansasblackapplejack.com), a really amazing apple brandy out of Northern California.