In Kenmore Square at 3:15 a.m. on a Thursday, urban silence had more or less descended. It was about five hours after the Red Sox trounced the Yankees, 5-1, and around the corner at Eastern Standard, the only sounds were the hum of the dishwasher and the clatter of bottles and clean glasses. Naomi Levy, the assistant bar manager who also tended bar that night, was sifting through credit card receipts. There was still restocking to be done.
Long after guests had taken the last sips of their sidecars and stouts, the bright lights came on and the work continued. It was the last of a stretch of home games, three days after a buzzy Easter brunch, two days after a frenzied Marathon Monday, and a week and a half before Levy would depart for Moscow to compete for the United States in a global cocktail competition called the Bacardi Legacy. She wanted a massage.
Bartending showdowns don’t involve flying bottles, pyrotechnics, or parlor tricks. Contests showcase what’s best described as elite bartending. Competitors are judged on technique, presentation, style, and the ability to design a novel cocktail with familiar flavors. The finals of the Legacy event are Thursday. After 10 years in the restaurant industry, Levy has developed a cerebral approach.
“Being vegetarian has helped. I have to describe meat [to customers] all the time — things I’ve never tasted. Practice conceptualizing flavors helped me with cocktails,” she said. “I understand flavor on an intellectual level. . . . That transfers to cocktails.”
Levy — at 27, a veteran on the competition circuit — has won several national challenges, which have earned her prizes like trips to Berlin, Peru, and elsewhere. Moscow will be her first international match. Every competition has a theme, a challenge, a gimmick. At the Legacy, where Levy’s representing the US after coming out on top at regional and national heats, participants must create a Bacardi rum drink that could become a modern classic. It has to be innovative. It must be easy to re-create. No pressure.
The rum, which has Cuban roots, was the first brand featured in published recipes for drinks that are now considered timeless, like the stirred daiquiri and mojito. In designing their own “legacy,” judges put emphasis on how contestants formulate and present the story of their drink’s origin.
“Bartenders have to show they have a great way of connecting what they do with who they are,” said David Cid, Bacardi brand master who oversees the competition. “It challenges them to look at what they value and what conjures emotions.”
‘I understand flavor on an intellectual level. . . . That transfers to cocktails.’
That got Levy thinking.
“I started Googling and looking into Cuban cuisine, as that’s appropriate to the rum. I found guava is a staple. Growing up, guava juice was always in my house,” said Levy, whose mother is Israeli. As a child, she spent time with family outside Tel Aviv. “Another connection between flavors of Middle East and Latin America? Coffee.”
The result: Guayaba Arabica. Bright notes of cilantro and a simple syrup with hint of coffee reign in the tropical fruit sweetness. It’s currently on the menu at Eastern Standard and proceeds go to the Anti-Defamation League’s World of Difference Institute, an anti-bias education program. Levy is raising money for the nonprofit because it ties into her cross-cultural message. She’s rallied bartenders across the country to put the drink on their menus and do the same.
Typically, the drink earns a bartender a slot in a competition, but it’s the performance that can make or break her. Levy has been honing her skills since she started at a Ruby Tuesday’s in Maryland 10 years ago. She worked as a waitress, but co-workers brought drinks to tables because she was too young.
When she moved to Boston in 2006 for an MFA at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, she got a job at a pizza and beer joint in Brigham Circle before becoming a server at Hungry Mother in Cambridge, which she credits for sparking her interest in craft cocktails. That’s where she met Jackson Cannon, then Eastern Standard bar manager, while waiting on him and his wife. That encounter ultimately led to a shot on the bar.
And if there’s anyplace to train for the demands of a competition, it’s Eastern Standard.
“On top of the sheer knowledge an ES bartender needs to have, you have to put it in place at a fast pace at a 41-foot, 21-seat bar next to Fenway,” said Kevin Martin, who worked there for seven years, the last two as bar manager, before leaving in February. “On top of that, whether you’re at work or presenting to judges, people expect bartenders to be social. Despite all that pressure, Naomi makes it look easy.”
Those who’ve known her longest say Levy was made for the role.
“She’s always been very good at initiating conversations with people,” said her father, Warren Levy, a cardiologist and president and chief medical officer of Virginia Heart. “ I’ve learned to appreciate how much mixology is about creativity. She’s always been interested in arts, fashion, and sculpture. But there’s also tradition and historical perspective.”
And there’s the physical exertion of the business. Time takes a toll. She has golfer’s elbow, a form of tendinitis, from years of shaking drinks. She wears a brace off-the-clock and gets cortisone shots every six months. She’s learned to shake with her left arm.
In some ways, it’s tempting to call bartending a sport. Many deem it an art. Levy has another view.
“I think what I do is craft. It’s a honed skill; it’s about process. Art is something bigger than yourself. It’s subjective. It’s on a higher conceptual level than putting booze in a glass. Calling it ‘art’ is an insult to visual and performance artists and musicians,” she said. “Is it creative? Yes. Skill? Yes. But it’s a craft.”