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This week we're chatting with Sarah Ip.

Image: Peter Jahnke

Sarah Ip may be young, but she has been making an impression in the Houston bar industry through her diligent work at Tongue-Cut Sparrow. It was only a matter of time before we sat down to get her full story, from where she learned her skills to why she traded the medical field for bartending. 

Where are you currently working and how long have you been in the industry?

I’m currently at Tongue-Cut Sparrow and I’ve been there for little more than six months now, but I’ve been in the industry for seven years. I started right when I was 16 as a dishwasher at a Korean barbecue house with the intention of making a little bit of pocket money, and it took off from there.

Tell us how you worked your way up.

I went from dishwasher to front of the house, and through the years went from being a hostess to serving. Most people work their way up to bartending; I feel that I fell into it. I was working a place called Nara, now closed, but I was both a hostess and server and they needed someone to take up as a lunchtime bartender, if in case someone randomly wanted a cocktail during the lunch hour. That was when I made my first chocolate martini.

It was so messy. I did not understand the concept of rimming glasses, and we found this weird chocolate mixture we would do on the outside and it was running down the martini glass all the way down the stem. I did my best and gave it to the lady and I asked if she liked it and she said it was exactly what she wanted. I had to rim two additional glasses to get one that looked presentable.

Where did you go from there?

My Ninja Ramen boss, Christopher Wong, had been looking for someone to train as a bartender; he was looking for someone that was very green, specifically so he could teach from the ground up. That’s where I got my foundation, from Chris, and he did a good job, especially for someone who isn’t a regular bartender. Ninja Ramen is the majority of my bartending experience; I was there for two years.

How did you discover mixology?

Even if I wasn’t bartending, I had chosen to work at places that generally had a reasonable beverage program that was well-established and more on the mixology side of bartending. It might not have been a true classy cocktail program, but it was more than throwing a spirit in a mixer and into a glass. I feel like I knew a lot more about alcohol before I was old enough to drink it. I had no idea what Fireball tasted like until two years ago. I hadn’t even had Jäger until fairly recently.

Have you been involved with any competitions?

No, partially because I have zero competitive spirit. It’s like if we’re playing volleyball and I suck I’ll apologize profusely and ask you to carry the team. But maybe one day, just to see; I’d like a little more experience first before trying my hand in a competition.

What is your specialty cocktail and what goes into it?

I usually lean more towards gin-based cocktails. A Martinez is probably in my top three favorite cocktails; it's gin, vermouth, and bitters. It’s very simple and in that way it’s also easier to make very unpleasant, but that’s where bartenders come in. You hone in on that specific quality that makes it delicious.

What is a criminally underrated cocktail?

I’d have to say the Adonis, which is sherry and vermouth, or an Aperol Spritz. People tend to stray away from those in favor of a lot of whiskey-forward things because they’re delicious and wonderful. But between those two, definitely Aperol Spritz.

When you’re off the clock, what are your favorite places to go drinking?

I really like Hay Merchant, when I’m hungry and I want a pint. It’s great if it’s only one person or a group of friends, smack-dab in the middle of Montrose. I can’t count the number of times I wanted to go just because of a cider or mead they had at the time. It’s nice and casual, [and] everyone that works there is incredibly knowledgeable. Moving Sidewalk has a great cocktail program, although I don’t get to go enough even though they’re right beneath me and I am always working. It’s one of those places where you sit, have a cocktail and watch them work all the while making you laugh with how they interact with each other. 13 Celsius, if I’m in the mood for a glass of bubbles or looking for wine knowledge in general. There are bars that are impossible to not love; Houston Watch Co., Public Services, Bad News Bar and Lei Low are all fine establishments.

When did you realize you could make a career out of mixology?

Relatively recently, as far as a year ago, my original career path was in healthcare. I was in nursing wanting to become a doctor, because everyone wants to be a doctor. I did my internship at Baylor and sadly realized I did not like the hours and hours in a lab by myself, being very lonely and bored. As I came to the realization that healthcare wasn’t for me, I was accelerating in my career as a bartender. I was sucked into this career path and I told myself I’m going to finish it out, and what I do with my time afterward is up to me. It has taken a lot of explaining to my parents, but I think they’re starting to catch on; they can see I’m happy and that I’m not carrying sparklers to a table in a thong—which is fine, to each their own.

It’s the end of the world. What is the last drink you’re having?

The most expensive pour of scotch that I’d never reasoned with myself to afford. Or something with ice cream in it; if that’s the case and time is allowed I’ll go to Pépé Le Moko in Portland and have a Grasshopper. It’s crèmes de menthe et cacao, vanilla ice cream, Fernet Branca and sea salt. If I’m going out, I’m going to get something sweet before I go.

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