One of the best bartenders I know doesn’t drink alcohol. You might not believe it, but it’s true.
I know Ashley Mac better than many of my interview subjects. A proud Philly native, she lives just across the freeway from me in Baltimore. Her baijiu program at NiHao is as good as any in this hemisphere. The cocktails are superb, but she also serves baijiu flights with an array of spirits and the occasional huangjiu, baijiu’s syrupy-sweet ancestor. Recently she started a shop, allowing patrons to take home bottles with their leftovers.
Mac infuses everything she does with creativity and enthusiasm. She is hospitality embodied, relentlessly positive and welcoming, unflappable in the face of skeptics. On the one occasion I was foolish enough to attempt helping her serve baijiu, I resigned myself to just marveling at the delight she and her drinks imparted on everyone who approached.
As much as I love her drinks, I love her story more. She’s overcome much to master two emerging trends in the drinks industry: baijiu and nonalcoholic cocktails. She is an outlier in an industry crowded with people who prize uniqueness.
How does all of this work with sobriety? More easily than one might suspect, but it’s a story better told in Mac’s own words. What follows is longer than my typical interview, but I urge you to stick around for her unique perspective on sober bartending, baijiu, and where the two intersect.
DB: Tell me about yourself and how you got into bartending.
AM: It may sound silly, but even since a young age I wanted to be a bartender. I remember being at a Ruby Tuesday-style restaurant with my parents and seeing the bartender and being like, “Oh, that person runs the show. And that show seems like fun. I want to get into this.”
I’ve been working in the restaurant industry since I was 15. It’s all about the hospitality and taking care of others and meeting new people and hearing people’s stories. That keeps me there.
And when I got into cocktails, that was really the nail in the coffin for me. I love creating things, delicious things, for people—like being a chef, but I don’t know how to cook very well, so it works out.
DB: You identify as a sober bartender, how long have you been sober?
AM: June 6, 2016, is my sober date. I was a late-stage alcoholic. I was drinking a fifth by myself, if not more, every single day, with a single can of ginger ale as a chaser, from morning ’til night. Other people do it for health reasons, or might be having some sort of problem—maybe not on such a grand scale as the one I just described—but everyone who wants to get sober has a different reason for it. Mine was because I wanted to live.
I ended up going through what most people consider the most extreme process of getting sober and I went to rehab. I highly recommend rehab—I know that sounds scary for a lot of people. Rehab is a place where you switch your life around and get better, with all of the resources you can possibly get.
So I got sober because I needed to—I was killing myself. But I did not want to die. I had a strong motive to not die, and I wanted to live my life in a way that I didn’t feel like a prisoner, like I did when I was drinking.
“I didn’t know a single sober person, not one.”
I had an insurmountable amount of bills to pay, going to this rehab and being hospitalized in intensive care for eight days due to a seizure from alcohol withdrawal. I still had to pay my rent. I just had an insane amount of bills, so I needed to work.
I remember promising my parents that I would never bartend again. And I called my mom in tears one day. I had spoken to my partner about how the hospitality industry is all I had ever known and come to love, and how I was heartbroken over the possibility of having to leave that forever. It was the easiest thing for me to get back into, but I was scared because I didn’t want to put my sobriety at risk.
At this point I didn’t know a single sober person, not one. Not in the industry, not ever. I met people at AA [Alcoholics Anonymous], and that was great to meet people who were likeminded in that sense, but I didn’t know them. And I wasn’t confident enough in myself or in my sobriety to ask someone at AA, “Hey, do you think it’s cool for me to bartend again?” Because I feel like they would laugh at me in my face. I don’t know. Now I can approach it differently, but then I thought they would kick me out of AA and arrest me or something.
So I called my mom and talked it out with her, and she was like, “Hey, if you put your sobriety first.” That was the only thing on my mind at the time, that I stayed sober. If I was broke and homeless, that was fine, as long as I was sober.
I was very fortunate to be with my partner who was managing a bar owned by a gentleman who was also sober. I started out serving popcorn to the guests at the bar and was able to leave if I needed to, to go to an AA meeting or call my sponsor, if I was feeling not okay.
Once I was there serving popcorn, I realized this is my life. This is what I do, this is what I do really well, this is what I want to do. I want to go to work every day.
And I had the support of the owner and my partner and the rest of the staff, and once I got comfortable after six months of doing that, I decided I wanted to bartend again. My very first mentor in cocktail bartending was my husband (then partner), and he taught me how to really build a cocktail.
It just escalated, and as long as I keep putting my sobriety first, it just works for me.
DB: You say you didn’t know any sober people at that point. Have you met many in the industry since?
AM: SO MANY! There are so many. I was very blind to it for some reason.
DB: What kind of support systems are in place for people in your situation?
AM: Obviously the standard that everyone’s heard about is AA. That can be a little daunting, to go into an AA meeting in a room full of sober people and be like, “Hey, I sling alcoholic drinks for a living.”
There’s a group called Ben’s Friends, started by a group of people in the restaurant industry who lost their friend due to addiction and suicide. They are a 100% judgment-free zone. You can get local resources from going to [Zoom] meetings, and they work very much like AA meetings with, from my personal experience, a lot less God talk.
My favorite support group out there for restaurant-specific industry folk who are dealing with sobriety or even just mental health issues is HEARD. During the pandemic a couple sober bartender friends and I started talking about how we should have a Zoom support group just for people who want to vent about everything that was going on. We saw a huge spike in addiction happen amongst our peers here in Baltimore when the pandemic hit. We were all out of a job, we all had bills to pay, rent was still due and we didn’t have any income. We wanted to offer a safe space for people to just kind of talk it out.
About two months into doing that, we found HEARD. We reached out to [founder] Joel Rivas for advice [and] ended up becoming friends with Joel, and our industry check-in meeting became HEARD Online, it meets every Monday night […] It pertains to sobriety or just mental health, we have people in the room who are not sober, and we just talk it out and it really, really helps to know that you’re not alone, especially from people who are working the same job and going through the same struggles as you.
DB: Do you ever feel stigmatized for not drinking in a boozy industry?
AM: All of the time. Much less so now from my peers and those in the industry. I think that this pandemic has driven that in the right direction and a long way. But the stigma really lies [with] the public.
I see a lot of things when I tell someone that I’m sober. I’ve had reactions from guests that are like, “So, none of your cocktails are good?” That one’s always fun.
I tell them, “Well, why don’t you drink them and tell me yourself.”
DB: And on the flipside, they’ve never had a bartender who drinks who has made them a bad cocktail?
AM: Right! Right? You’ve had terrible cocktails from people who love drinking.
Or I have guests who ask, “Will you do a shot with me?” I usually say that I’m at work—professionalize it—but one time, I told them, “I actually don’t drink.”
They said, “I don’t trust you anymore.” And I was like, “Okay. With your money? I mean, I don’t know what you mean by that, but okay.”
A lot of times I do get really awesome positive reactions from my guests as well, but there is a huge stigma out there for people, which is the worst only because I think that’s what gave me anxiety when I first got sober.
If people were more open about battling addiction and recovery it wouldn’t be quite as daunting or scary. I thought I would never get a job ever again, because they could find out in any industry that I had been to rehab, so no one was ever going to trust me. Instead of looking at it as adversity, “Wow, this person’s been through a lot and come through it in a really great way. That’s a really great quality I’m looking for.”
DB: Hard transition. Let’s talk about baijiu.
AM: Yes! Let’s talk about this beautiful high-proof alcohol.
DB: When was the first time you tried baijiu, and what was that experience like for you?
AM: I can tell you the exact date, which is kind of scary. I believe it was August 8, 2020.
DB: I should clarify for our readers that you taste but don’t drink.
AM: I will straw-taste things, or very tiny, tiny sips, and I immediately spit them out. I’m comfortable doing that.
DB: Back to August 2020.
AM: A friend of mine reached out and said, “Do you know anyone who wants to run a bar program?” And I said, “Yes, that has been a dream of mine for quite some time. I want to be that person.”
A day later, I was meeting with Lydia Chang and Pichet [Ong], owners of NiHao in Baltimore. Once I got hired, Lydia gave me one direction about where she wanted her bar program to go. She said, “I want you to have baijiu.”
I said, “Okay. In what way? This is really cool. Baltimore does not have this. I don’t know anyone who has this. We could go in many directions with this.”
She’s like, “Just try it. Here’s the kind I like [Guotai Legend, a sauce-aroma baijiu], and here’s some websites you should read about it.” That was the start and the end of our conversation.
I have for a long time made cocktails with ingredients that I consider to be very weird, strange and/or unique. I like to make cocktails where when you write out the ingredients on paper, you might be like, “This is going to be really weird or not for me,” and then you drink it and you’re like, “Wow, this is one the greatest cocktails I’ve ever tasted.”
For me, I tasted it, and was like, “This is so darned cool”—unlike anything I had ever tasted. I was finding it hard to describe in anyway. It was very unique and very fun, and I was really excited to dive into something that I knew so little about.
DB: How has your understanding of baijiu evolved?
AM: How much time do we have? I honestly feel like I have thrown myself into the world of baijiu, and I constantly want to know more. I get very excited when I start talking about it, and I think other people can see that in me.
“I’ve researched baijiu and learned about a country. ”
I think it’s something that’s very beautiful and unique, and it’s something that we know very little about in the Western world. So it has an exclusivity to it, which to the outside eye is appealing, but it’s also ancient and historically pertinent. Its distillation process is unique and nerdy and awesome. Just everything about it is really great.
It’s honestly helped me learn more about Chinese culture as a whole. I’ve researched baijiu and learned about a country.
DB: What’s the philosophy behind how you present it to the public.
AM: NiHao is a modern take on classic Chinese cuisine. When I first tried it, I really felt the need to step up our cocktail game to match the food.
I feel very fortunate that when I started at NiHao we did not have a liquor license, because we were trying to get it in the middle of a pandemic. I didn’t know how much time I had, but I wanted to do what I felt Lydia and Pichet were doing with their food program, and that was marrying Chinese culture and cuisine with Baltimore. I wanted the bar program to be Chinese but also have all of our beers be [local], and use local spirits as best as I possibly could, and marry these two ideas together.
It took me a little bit longer of a time to start ordering baijiu in, because I knew so little about it and I didn’t want to just get anything for any reason. So we started with your core bar program and of course we had a stellar nonalcoholic cocktail program to start, because we didn’t have a liquor license and I’m a sober bartender.
I wanted to do a baijiu tasting flight for our bar program for many reasons. One, I thought that was a really great way to introduce baijiu to the Baltimore public. My goal was to get one from every aroma [style]. I didn’t think anyone would order them, and they have taken off. It is wild.
DB: How have you gotten through to an audience that has mostly never tried baijiu before?
AM: First baijiu drink we had on my menu, I just threw a baijiu Negroni on there. That cocktail did not sell very well. In the neighborhood we’re in, people don’t like to drink bitter stiff drinks to begin with, and then I threw baijiu into that mix. But I also couldn’t tell anyone about it. So that did not gel.
Once I started educating myself and feeling confident in myself and with my staff, educating them, they could get excited about baijiu and we could pass that onto our guests. I think the fact that there wasn’t a great Chinese food place in Baltimore actually worked to our benefit in this scenario, because we got to not only show off this unique and delicious food that people were tasting, we had this great add-on of this exclusive ingredient that most people had never tried before, and we got to present it how we wanted to present it to them.
DB: It seems you had preselected the audience you wanted.
AM: Absolutely. The thing we got when we first opened up, and we still get it a lot, is the, “Oh, I’ve been to China and this is a lot like China,” or, “This is not like China at all.”
We get the same thing with baijiu. People would come in and say, “I’ve had baijiu and it is not for me.” Or, “That stuff is disgusting,” which is a lot of people’s reaction, but I could not disagree more. I truly believe that if you say you don’t like baijiu, it’s because you haven’t found the right one.
DB: How do you get through to those people?
AM: I tell them just that. If you don’t like peaty Scotch, that doesn’t mean you don’t like whiskey. It just means you don’t like peaty Scotch.
If they’re still against it, I’m like, “Why don’t you just remind yourself of China. It’s great.” Or, “You can try it in a cocktail, because it is really great in a cocktail. We have baijius that are used with familiar things, if you want to try it that way. You can’t get baijiu anywhere else. I wish you could, but you can’t, so why don’t you try it here.”
And it’s been working. People love it.
DB: I’d like to bring our two threads together. How would you create the flavors of baijiu in a nonalcoholic drink, and have you tried?
AM: I have thought about it in many ways. I’ve made drinks that I want to drink, because I am someone who wants to drink that can’t drink.
The one thing that I can’t mimic is heat. Not spiciness, but the alcohol heat, that ethanol burn. I think that is one of the beautiful staples of a baijiu: You always get that little burn to it.
But what I like to focus on is when people ask me what you can compare baijiu to, I quickly tell them nothing—it’s probably not like anything you’ve ever had before, unless you’ve had baijiu—but what I most closely compare it to is a very high proof rhum agricole. Something that is made with the root of the sugarcane instead of the sugar inside it, giving it a vegetal earthy funk.
I have started playing around with that funk, and that is where I think the strong suit of getting a nonalcoholic baijiu will come from. I haven’t gotten there yet, but I’m trying.
DB: How would you advise someone looking to start a baijiu program of their own?
AM: Taste an array of baijius. I would also recommend doing what I did with the Negroni. Make a classic cocktail that you love, and put baijiu in there instead. It helps you dissect it a little bit, and know how the flavors react to other cocktail ingredients. I also recommend infusing baijiu for the very same reason. It can make it more palatable, so you can taste it and over again and more easily break down its flavors.
DB: What do you think are the futures of baijiu and nonalcoholic drinks in the US? Will either hit and, if so, which do you think will hit first?
AM: Nonalcohlic cocktails are going to hit first, because they’re already hitting. It’s great, if for no other reason than to end the stigma. Also, selfishly, I don’t want to be handed another ginger beer with lime juice when I ask for a nonalcoholic cocktail.
It will hopefully help end the [notion] that you don’t have to drink to have a good time. You don’t have to drink at a business dinner. You don’t have to drink at a wedding. You don’t have to drink at someone’s birthday party. You don’t have drink at a bar—I go to bars all the time, I don’t drink and I have a great time, but I tip my bartender, obviously. Always tip your bartender.
For baijiu, I see this becoming a thing. It’s just so cool in so many ways.
I think maybe five years maybe might be a good mark. I hope it’s much sooner than that. And I’m certainly trying to get it there.
Ganbei to that!
For those who drink, check out Mac’s welcome cocktail for Bar Convent Brooklyn 2021, the Hai Seas, or the simple and complex versions of her Year of the Tiger cocktails. For those who don’t drink, or would like to explore drinking less, please find links to the support groups discussed in this story here:
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