Jessi Pollak is a self-described witchy goth kid from Florida who never meant to stay in Minnesota. She's also the best bartender in the country.

Pollak moved here with her parents as a teen, and immediately began dreaming of a way out. But instead of packing up once her independence hit, she found work in the cocktail room at Du Nord Social Spirits in south Minneapolis. Despite being a novice in the hospitality world, she quickly fell in love with the art of working with seasonal ingredients, building flavor and serving guests. That job lit a spark that eventually propelled her to lead the bar program at the North Loop's prestigious Spoon and Stable restaurant.

But she didn't stop there. Just four years after starting at Spoon and Stable, she entered the U.S. Bartenders' Guild national competition, which pits the best of the best against one another for the title of U.S. Bartender of the Year. And she won.

Pollak beat 15 of the country's top bartenders after two days and four challenges at the competition, held in Nashville in late June.

"This is the underdog [who] shows up for the World Series. Not only do they throw a no-hitter, but they hit a grand slam," said Gavin Kaysen, chef/owner of Spoon and Stable, of Pollak's win.

To prepare for the competition, Pollak asked Kaysen how he and Team USA trained for the Bocuse d'Or, the world's most prestigious cooking competition. (Kaysen is team president.) She then took those pointers and got to work, coming into the bar early in the morning, pouring bottles filled with water to practice her speed and precision. She would speak to the wall, honing her cocktail presentations.

"I remember we would be in for prep in the kitchen at like 10:30 a.m., butchering fish, and there would be Jessi, practicing and working on her speed. It's like any athlete training," said Kaysen.

"It was so incredible to see someone work so hard for something and be rewarded for that hard work. That morning, she manifested it. She belonged there."

This fall she'll represent the U.S. in Sydney, Australia, where she hopes to bring home the title of World's Best Bartender.

We sat down with Pollak in Spoon and Stable's sun-soaked dining room to talk about all things cocktails and how an impromptu séance helped bring home the title. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: How did you come to work at Spoon and Stable?

A: Robb Jones [the previous bar director], who now owns Meteor, took an interest in me right away and saw that I was ambitious, thirsty and wanted to learn. Eventually he started preparing me to take over. I've been in charge of this program for nearly three years. But we did have the pandemic in the middle, which was a weird, elastic kind of time.

Actually, the way I got hired here was funny. I was in a competition against Nathaniel Smith [former Spoon and Stable barman]. And he won. Not long after that, he reached out to me and was like, "I won, but not by much. You should come work here." They had an opening. So, here we are.

Q: When did the post-pandemic tide really turn and you felt like you had the breathing room to really jell the team and bar program as your own?

A: Summer [2021] is when we got to a place where the team really came together. We had a little bit of turnover during the pandemic, but not much. Last summer we started to really find our voice, and honestly I just got more comfortable being a leader. Our program is a reflection on me, not just Spoon and Gavin [Kaysen].

Q: How did you become aware of this competition?

A: In 2019, the [Bartenders' Guild] Midwest regional competition was here. Through my involvement with the Guild, I worked the event and so I got to watch it. Everyone was so kind and so genuine and so talented. And it was the first moment that I looked at it and thought "Yeah, I could be part of that." This year, I just decided it was my year.

Q: How does one enter?

A: You have to make great cocktails, but many, many, many bartenders around the country can make really great cocktails. This is meant to test everything. So, it's also storytelling, ingredient creation, speed and knowledge of spirits.

You're actually submitting a mindful menu that's tied to your local community. And that one was purely conceptual. Thousands of people entered and then it went down to the top 100. We had more challenges that narrowed it down to 50. From there, we competed in Chicago for the regionals. Then we were down to the top 15.

Q: What was it like walking into that room with the other competitors?

A: It's the best of the best so no one's really making big mistakes. It's little tiny things. There's a lot of collaboration — we would help each other out. There's a production team that just sets us up for success, including like the world's most overqualified bar backs. I had the beverage director for the Dead Rabbit in New York as my bar back.

We were also paired up with an official mentor. I was paired up with Leo Robitschek, who created the cocktail scene at 11 Madison Park. It was just wild to be paired up with someone like that. I'm from Minneapolis.

Q: What were the challenges you faced?

There were four different challenges over two days. One challenge was to create two cocktails as an homage to Don Julio, man who created Don Julio tequila. I did one cocktail that was an homage to his childhood upbringing in Jalisco. Then for the second cocktail it's like, well, that was his legacy in life, but unfortunately, he passed away in 2012. So, we're going to commune with his spirit and we did a little séance. Each ingredient represented something to do with either his life or the spiritual realm and communing with it. It was a blast. I was very glad that the judges were down for it because they could have just thought I was crazy.

I know for sure the reason I was successful is because I choose to be myself. I've lost many more cocktail competitions than I won. And this was one where it was interesting to be myself — I'm just a weird, goth kid from Florida.

Q: And the other challenge was right in your wheelhouse of food pairing.

A: That was really fun because they wanted you to take local ingredients and use it to create two different cocktails. Then we had to use that ingredient in two different ways. I used Keepsake Cider, an amazing cidery in Dundas, Minn., and they make great stuff and Minnesotans are obsessed with apples. I made a flip with the cider in its natural state and then I also made it into a vermouth.

Q: How do you practice?

A: I love that puzzle of how can I get better? How can I get faster? The actual physicality of it. I've spent so much time fake shaking cocktails, getting my shake to be perfect and where I want it to be. But that's fun to me.

Practicing for speed, I did so many dry rounds. I would just have the caps on all the bottles and go through the whole process practicing exactly the order in which I was going to touch everything, timing the pour so you know exactly how long it's going to take.

Q: I really want this to be a movie. And I really want that to be a montage with a rocking soundtrack.

A: Actually, you can create your own playlist for that. Oh, I had music. I used that to my advantage. I had 10 different songs that were 1 minute each. And then that was a cue to me of where I was, how much time had gone by and how much time I had left.

Q: So, first you take over the USA, then the world. What's next?

A: They're sending me to Sydney, Australia. It's not a place I ever thought I would get to go to. It's the best of the best and I'll be representing us.

Q: What is a cocktail on your menu that reflects what you're excited about this summer?

A: The Oaxacan. It's a modern classic cocktail, came out of New York in the early 2000s. Traditionally, it's a mezcal Old Fashioned. We use a mix of mezcal and bourbon ... along with two different kinds of peach flavor. Then we mix in a little St. Agrestis Amaro that has cinnamon and Coca-Cola vibes. It's all blended together to make something that at face value just looks like a walk-in-the-park Old Fashioned, but actually has a ton of layers to it.


Makes 1.

Note: This take on the Old Fashioned is on Jessi Pollak's bar menu at Spoon and Stable.

• 3 tbsp (1.5 oz.) Banhez Joven mezcal

• 1 tbsp. (1/2 oz.) Old Grand-Dad Bonded Bourbon

• 1 tbsp. (1/2 oz.) Rothman & Winter Orchard peach liqueur

• 1/2 tbsp. (1/4 oz.) St. Agrestis Amaro

• 1/2 tbsp. (1/4 oz.) Demerara syrup

• 1 dash Regan's orange bitters


Combine everything in a mixing glass with ice and stir until chilled. Strain over a large ice cube, and garnish with an orange peel.