Ever wish you could get to know some of the people around town who create and serve up your favorite drinks without it being a little awkward? Welcome to drink insider. We sit down with some of the biggest names in the craft beer, distilled spirits, and bartending scene in Little Rock and ask them some of the questions you only ask before the cab comes.
This time up, Malissa Calaway, super barlady of Good Food by Ferneau
What title do you like to go by – mixologist, bartender, barlady?
That’s a funny question. I think of the whole process as an entertaining thing. I always want to get to know my customer a little and give them the right drink, it’s like matching personalities with alcohol. I suppose barlady works.
Where are you from?
I’m from Little Rock, originally, although I’ve spent a lot of time in Texas. I moved there in 2008 just to get out of Arkansas for a while and I ended up in a small town outside of Arlington – Midlothian, Texas.
How did you first get into bartending?
When I was in Texas I got a job at a barbecue restaurant in Midlothian. I had never been in the food industry before and I waited tables. It was always super hectic because it was one of three restaurants in town. The guy who did all the bartending didn’t show up one night and so I filled in for him. That was my introduction … I made a lot of Jack and Cokes.
What was the next step for you?
I moved to Dallas and I originally got a job at a salon before I began working at the Belmont Hotel as a server. That was really amazing – the hotel was built in 1946 and it had some of that same aesthetic mixed in with a mod ‘60s vibe. … The people that were there were absolutely lovely. That was a great way to get into drink-making. It’s different than working behind a bar at a restaurant because you have to bring an even deeper level of customer service to the guests – you also get to know people on a deeper level … some of my regulars there were like family.
What brought you back to Arkansas?
I was actually talking to some friends and I got homesick. I knew I wanted to come back home so I moved in 2014. There are still things I miss about Dallas … but Arkansas has such beautiful nature and all the people I grew up with, so I came back and began working as a daytime bartender for the Fold.
After I did that for some time, I helped with Raduno’s opening as their head bartender. Shortly after I discovered I was pregnant and knew I would need to take some time off. Now I am back at Good Food at Ferneau which I have worked at briefly before, and I am so glad to be here.
The Owner/Head Chef Donnie Ferneau has made a point to respect and embrace my needs as a new mom and it’s like being home. I feel like I can get really creative here, plus the bar is gorgeous and I love my customers.
What’s your favorite part about bartending?
Learning from my guests/customers. One time this lady at the hotel had me make a drink with Malbec and Crown plus a little bit of pepper, and it was delicious, but it wasn’t a combination I was familiar with. Experiences like that always inspire me to make and try new drinks.
What’s your favorite spirit to work with?
I like working with spirits that I’m not a huge fan of myself. I’m always excited to take and pull a bit of a drink that has something in I might not like, to discover I like it. I also like working with cordials, herbs, and even beer. It’s fun to bring out new flavors in drinks. … Ninety percent of the cocktails I make are based on people I know or experiences I’ve had. I’m lucky to have met so many really talented, interesting people. For instance, I’ll often name a drink on my burlesque performer friends, something I love to do myself.
How has your experience as being a lady bartender been?
For the most part every woman I’ve ever worked with doesn’t have a huge ego, and that makes for smooth sailing. Since becoming a mother I’ve discovered that it’s so much easier to be honest with people. I don’t feel the need to prove anything to anybody and I can be straightforward. That’s refreshing, and it’s nice to realize that everyone always has a different perspective, and be respectful of that.
What do you think Little Rock needs?
I definitely would love to see a more active, good industry community, that was more about community than competition. But I also would like to see bartenders having more fun, taking themselves less seriously, and enjoying themselves. That’s what I like to see at bars. It’s fun for me to see someone, anyone in any field, really, having a good time and enjoying themselves. Even though it’s work, it can still be fun. I mean, after all it’s booze! It’s supposed to be fun