A hotel bar might seem like a strange place for Jen Queen to land.
Only 31, Queen, on her own and with business partners Lucien Conner and Ian Ward, has created cocktail menus for 17 restaurants, including spots like Searsucker, PrepKitchen and Monello. Most of her work has been as a consultant, but her new role as principle bartender at SaltBox at Hotel Palomar (1047 Fifth Ave., Downtown) is a full-time gig. That it's a hotel bar is precisely why she wanted the job.
"Any of the bartenders who are published or have created this game started in hotel bars," she says. "So I thought it was kind of a cool chance to bring that tradition back."
Plus, Queen's a social person, and despite her credentials (she's a tequila expert and is a couple months away from being deemed a Master Mezcalier by the Mexican government), she has no problem chatting up the guy who simply wants a Jack-and-Coke.
"I have a huge variance in what my clientele is, and that's a beautiful challenge for me. Can I make Jack-and-Coke guy love a craft cocktail? Maybe not. But I can make him think about it, or perhaps appreciate what I do and maybe try something else down the road."
Hospitality trumps cocktail knowledge any day, she says. She learned that from her mom (whose favorite cocktail remains a Long Island Iced Tea), who managed a dive bar in Columbus, Ohio.
"Every person who came in there would consider her a friend," Queen says. "It was like a big family, and some of that is lost under arrogance and pride and a lot of egos."
That doesn't mean Queen doesn't go all-in on every menu she creates. In her back pocket she carries a folded piece of paper full of notes on the new menu she and her staff are working on (plans are to roll it out on Sept. 20). She approaches cocktails with a chef's mind. Right now, she's making her own blackstrap rum for a variation on a Corn N' Oil and a poppy-seed orgeat for a drink she's calling Random Screening. Her take on an espresso martini, called Eyes Wide, will include julienned vanilla beans frozen in ice. As work-intensive as it sounds, it actually translates to a better value for the bar and its guests.
"I'm learning to make things myself so I don't have to pay for your labeling, your marketing, all your fluff and lies, the bottle itself," she says.
And there'll be a take on a Long Island Iced Tea called the African Nectar, made with rooibos-tea-infused vodka.
"I try to make sure I have a little something for everyone," Queen says. "Some really dorky things, some clean classic lines and then some culinary concoctions.
"And you can see which section will be the biggest," she says glancing at the new menu. "It's all the culinary stuff that really pulls my heartstrings the most."