For Charleston based Bar Manager Megan Deschaine, what started out as a fun way to earn tuition money for college evolved into a life-long and fulfilling career. Officially armed with a a bachelors degree in Spanish post graduation, Megan decided to try her hand at the art of making the perfect Manhattan cocktail instead.
Though Megan has made a name for herself at some of the most highly sought after cocktail bars around, her success didn’t come without its challenges. “For some reason, being a woman made me a less credible source for whiskey recommendations or less trustworthy to make a proper Old Fashioned. I would get quizzed frequently about mash bills, or told ‘I bet you don’t know how to make this or that’…Thankfully, it is likely due to those initial experiences that I have made so many commitments to my education. I have more books on cocktail history and technique than I do pairs of shoes (and I have many pairs of shoes).”
Megan is an exceptional role model for young women looking to make the most of every opportunity, even if you don’t know where it will lead you. Today, she shares how she broke into the competitive craft cocktail industry, her transition from tending bar in Baltimore to Charleston, and what happened when she faced off with her own personal hero in the Iron Mixologist Competition. (Spoiler Alert: Megan won!)
Name: Megan Deschaine
Location: Charleston, SC
Current title/company: Bar Manager at 492
Education: Bachelor’s Degree in Spanish from Towson University
Though your career is now in the bar industry, you studied Spanish in college. What sparked your interest in the bar industry?
Most people enter the food and beverage industry without many intentions to stay and make it a career. I was most people and started working in restaurants as a good way to earn tuition money. At that point in my life, I was very passionate about teaching and, more specifically, the great poverties of American education (thank you, Baltimore, for opening my eyes).
My passions became divided after I was offered a position at a new “craft cocktail” bar. Learning how to make a proper Manhattan may seem trivial to some, but it has made so many opportunities available to me that I could never have imagined before. I don’t regret my degree because who knows where life will lead? In the meantime, I could not be more excited about my career in the bar industry.
You previously worked at Rye Craft Cocktails and Mr. Rain’s Fun House in Baltimore, MD. What led you to the bar scene in Charleston?
The long version of why I moved back to Charleston is best told over a few drinks. The short version is for family reasons. At nineteen, with no savings account, or any idea how to have one, I moved to Colorado. I pledged I would never move back to South Carolina. Less than a decade later, I was packing up my Subaru with all my things and Gato, my cat, and made my way back home.
I thought that having worked at two of the best cocktail bars in Baltimore, I would have no problem finding a gig in Charleston. After five weeks of littering the city with my resume, I finally scored an interview. Charleston is far more competitive than I expected. Much like Baltimore, it’s a fairly small pond (at least compared to other markets like New York or Chicago), and there are a ton of super talented big fish. It was very intimidating to be the new kid in a town with dozens of seasoned bartenders. It’s still very intimidating even when you aren’t the new kid, but I would say that for both cities, the community of bartenders is very supportive.
You currently work as the bar manager of one of Charleston’s hit restaurants 492. Tell us how you found this opportunity and what the transition has been like.
The first job I landed in Charleston was behind the bar of a high end restaurant tucked away in the French Quarter. Unfortunately, a few months later, we learned that Tristan would be closing after 12 years of service. Not to worry, as a beautiful historic property at 492 King Street was being rehabilitated for a new restaurant concept for our group, and I was offered the bar manager role. In addition to being a visually stunning building, it is also led by one of the most talented chefs I have ever known. Chef Nate Whiting has the kind of quiet commitment to perfecting food with only the best ingredients; the most advanced tools and techniques to enhance flavors are used in his kitchen. And his presentation skills!
From a cocktail perspective, it’s incredibly inspiring. But I’d be lying to not admit that this transition has been challenging for me. Prior to this, for example, I had little understanding of inventory and pars management. And organization is not a strong suit of mine. There are still many opportunities for me to grow in these capacities, but every week, it is a little easier. And all the easier when you love what you do; it isn’t work.
Tell us more about 492. What’s the philosophy behind the cocktail menu? Where did you find inspiration when creating it?
For some, the cocktail culture can be a little stuffy. I think my philosophy is anti-stuffy. Besides, I look terrible in a bowtie and waxing my moustache just isn’t a good look for me. Cocktails should be fun; it is possible to mix with ingredients that for the average consumer may seem foreign (like pisco or genever) and still be lighthearted and whimsical. I love to use puns and to create cocktails that are interactive or surprising.
Inspiration usually starts with a unique ingredient, like asparagus or sweet potato. And as for our bar, we try to advocate hospitality first. Reciting the old expression that “we serve people, not drinks,” there has been a rule from the beginning that there are no commitments with our cocktails. We want to encourage our guests to break out of the vodka-soda comfort zone, be adventurous and order something even if they can only identify one ingredient. And if they don’t love it? That’s totally cool, back to the drawing board to find something they do love.
Have there been any unique challenges you’ve faced while building a career in an industry predominately made up of men?
At first, I faced more challenges from men on the other side of the bar. For some reason, being a woman made me a less credible source for whiskey recommendations or less trustworthy to make a proper Old Fashioned. I would get quizzed frequently about mash bills, or told “I bet you don’t know how to make this or that.” Or the alternative would be being sexualized and getting shouted at to “shake it faster.” I’ll admit, it was very discouraging at first, especially in the context of being a novice in the craft cocktail culture.
Thankfully, it is likely due to those initial experiences that I have made so many commitments to my education. I have more books on cocktail history and technique than I do pairs of shoes (and I have many pairs of shoes). As far as being a female in a male dominated industry, there are likely more advantages than disadvantages. It’s certainly easier to stand out when there is one of you and ten of them. That’s not to say I still don’t have to work harder to earn some people’s respect, but I’m OK with that. Thankfully, there have been many amazing women who have pioneered the way already (Julie Reiner, Lynnette Marrero, Pam Wiznitzer) that it’s far easier to be a woman behind the bar in 2015 than it was in 2005.
I have more books on cocktail history and technique than I do pairs of shoes (and I have many pairs of shoes).
What advice can you give women looking to work in the food and beverage industry?
Stay true to yourself. Less is more (both in the context of cocktail flavor nuance and in cleavage). And be professional and nice, your reputation is everything.
Are there any misconceptions you find people have about working behind a bar? What advice would you give someone looking to break into the industry?
Bartending School is not a thing. Like most trades, to break in, you must be willing to start at the bottom and earn your stripes. A lot of time and effort must be invested in order to advance. Find someone that you admire and study them.
Take advantage of all the opportunities to learn, whether it’s through studying cocktail books, attending enriching programs like Camp Runamok (Bartender Bourbon Summer Camp is a real thing), or any one of the great Cocktail Weeks across the country, to joining professional networking groups like the United States Bartender’s Guild. There are many ways to sharpen one’s blade.
Jackson Cannon, Boston-based bar owner, has made great commentary on this subject. If you are interested, look up “Letter to a Young Bartender” which really could just be a letter to any young professional. You won’t regret the read.
Bartending School is not a thing. Like most trades, to break in, you must be willing to start at the bottom and earn your stripes.
What is a typical workday like for you?
A lot of my time is monopolized with keeping the bar properly stocked. We have more than a dozen different vendors from whom we order all of our produce, spirits, beer, napkins, skewers, etc. After completing the bar team schedule and answering emails, it takes nearly two hours to open the bar. One of the most critical parts of executing a good cocktail program (outside of making good cocktails) is using the freshest ingredients so every day it’s back to the juicer. And at 5 p.m., it’s show time.
I’ve said before that bartending to me doesn’t always feel like work (despite the long hours and labor intensity) because I am so gratified by the interactions I have with my guests. Even if you are just passing through on vacation, we will make a bond, and it will be whiskey-flavored. I truly love people and this avenue of service has afforded me many opportunities to make friends with some amazing people.
Where do you hope to see yourself in five years?
Man, what am I going to do in five days? In five years, it would be great to own my own bar. It would be small and double as a shop for bitters and bar tools. Or maybe I’ll be traveling the world working behind bars that would have me. Or maybe I’ll make a career in consulting or event planning. Or working in a whole other capacity. I’ve never been very good at planning ahead.
Best moment of your career so far?
In 2014, I was privileged to be a competitor in the Iron Mixologist Competition, which takes place during Charleston Wine and Food Festival. Following the Iron Chef format, I, along with the 3 other competitors, faced three timed rounds with mystery ingredients and one by one, competitors were eliminated. In the final round, I was left facing Hallie Arnold who is a personal hero, although she didn’t know it at the time. Seriously, one of the best bartenders and personalities around, y’all. It could have been anyone’s game.
This time it was mine, and it was such a surprise and so humbling and so exciting. In a lot of ways, it represents a chapter start for me. It afforded me a once-in-a-lifetime experience in New Orleans for Tales of the Cocktail, where I met so many influential people in my industry. It was through those interactions that I have continued to participate nationally in some of the best bar industry events around. I have friends in every city, and that day at the Iron Mixology Competition was the first day of it all. More than anything it helped to validate what I was doing and who I want to be. That sort of confidence is hard to come by, and I am so very grateful for it.
What advice would you give to your 23-year-old self?
Don’t sweat the small stuff.Pay your bills on time. Keep a calendar. Start a savings account. Take more pictures of and with the people you love. Call your family more.
Megan Deschaine is The Everygirl…
Go-to beverage to serve at a dinner party?
I wish I had more time for dinner parties. I would definitely make a punch for my guests so that everyone can sip with ease, and no one has to labor over a cocktail shaker. And for dinner, wine, all the wine. I’m certainly not a wine savant but I do enjoy the ways in which certain flavor profiles of food dance differently with different varietals. And to finish, probably some amaro on the rocks with a twist of orange.
Best advice you’ve ever received?
In eighth grade my Spanish teacher signed my yearbook, “Never sign a check with your mouth that your butt can’t cash.” I like that one.
Favorite part about living in Charleston?
Have you been to Charleston? Our beaches are wonderful, I love the climate, and there are more than one million different amazing restaurants and bars to enjoy. Mostly for me, nearly every member of my family is within a 20 mile radius, and it’s been wonderful to reconnect.
If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and what would you order?
Dorothy Parker. In 2011, Allen Katz, distiller at New York Distilling Company, hosted a small group of bartenders from the Baltimore Bartender Guild. There, I was introduced to one of his delicious gins named after this legendary woman. She was a broad, not a lady, famously remembered for her literary prowess and quick wit. She smoked cigars with the men, and challenged social norms. And for lunch? We’d have a gin martini, but two at the most.