Behind the Bar: Maria Polise of Southwark

This week on Behind the Bar, we’re talking to Maria Polise of Southwark, Queen Village’s cocktail mainstay. Born in Baltimore and raised in Howard County, Maryland with a degree in Philosophy from William and Mary, Polise moved to Philadelphia after college in 2003, She’s been at Southwark since 2016 but was a regular before that, and even had her first Manhattan here, so we chatted about bartenders who have inspired her, her favorite types of customers, and the origin of the Hanky Panky.

Drink Philly (DP): Tell me a little bit about the place.
Maria Polise (MP): This is the first place in Philly that really started doing serious cocktails, pressing the state to buy better spirits, all while asserting classic service. - at the beginning they weren’t quite as modern level as we are now, but I feel like many bartenders coming up in the early 2000’s can point to Southwark as an example of the craft. it’s been an industry spot for a long time. Other bartenders came here to try their first Last Word or Red Hook and watched bartenders who were great at their craft. What I hope, is that we're keeping that spirit alive today. I learned the essential basics of the craft from watching Kip, George & Paul work. I also learned that the most essential part of bartending is knowing your guests personally and treating them like part of the family. It takes two sides of the bar to make a successful establishment.

DP: Have you bartended elsewhere?
MP: I started as a hostess, moved to server, and then to a bartender . I started as a daytime bartender at Oyster House. I actually competed in my first cocktail competition in NY while working there. I started my full time bartending career at Amada for three years, worked at Farmer’s Cabinet for two and a half years, and then I ran my first beverage program at Ela for another 2 and a half. Now I'm here working at my absolute favorite bar in Philadelphia.  

DP: What’s trendy right now?
MP: We have a dealer’s choice option here, which is very popular with the guests, and spirit forward and brown is still king.  Mezcal, Amari, and fortified wines like Quin-Quina and Sherry are hard on its heels.

DP: What are some trends you wish would die?
MP: I’m not a fan of this trend where bartenders are on display rather than interacting with their guests, which I think leads to this culture of a “star bartender.” A good bartender is nothing without the rest of their team, and I couldn’t do anything without every single person I work with - a truly great bar means everyone there is working as a unit to create the best possible experience. If I could have, I would have brought my entire staff in to take a photo! One of my favorite drinks on the menu right now is a creation spearheaded by our barback, who's only been in the industry for 6 months. He got excited, workshopped with everyone and came out with a drink I think is beautiful. That's the best sort of working experience. Collaboration and mutual learning. Every new palate and personality is important to the greater goal of the best possible experience for the bar as a whole.

DP: Any predictions about where the industry might go next?
MP: I think it’s going to simplify and we’ll see a return to social interactions between the guests and the bartender. Maybe you want a fancy cocktail, but maybe you want a shot and a beer at a comfortable place to have a good time at a place where it’s very social. It's the best when you can have both.

DP: One unexpected fact about you?
MP: I’m an open book. If you know me, I’ve probably already told you.

DP: Favorite beer?
MP: Wells Bombardier.
DP: Favorite liquor?
MP: Amaro and quinquina, to drink and work with. I don’t go out without having a shot of amaro.
DP: Favorite cocktail?
MP: A Vieux Carre - and since it’s my favorite, I’ve made a few adjustments to it over the years. I’m partial to my version, but I'm always open to a better version, bring it on!
DP: What’s your favorite kind of customer?
MP: One that becomes my friend over time.
DP: Favorite joke?
MP: Occasionally I try to tell a bar joke, but I always muddle up the punchline. I’m great with a pun.
DP: What do you think the essentials are for a good home bar?
MP: You need a dry vermouth, a sweet vermouth, a bottle of Angostura bitters, maybe a bottle of Peychaud’s (if you’re feeling fancy), and fairly-priced base spirits. Beefeater is a really versatile and classic gin, and Buffalo Trace is a great bourbon, for example. If you want to spend a little more money, I would recommend upgrading your vermouth and investing in interesting Amari and fortified wines.
DP: Where do you go for a drink when you’re not working?
MP: I love going to Royal Sushi & Izakaya to see Catherine Manning and going to Friday Saturday Sunday to see Paul MacDonald. I also frequent the Good King Tavern. In my neighborhood, I go to Abbaye and Standard Tap.
DP: What’s the secret to being a great bartender?
MP: You have to find the balance between being fast, personable and knowing when you have to prioritize. There are times when you can’t sit and talk to one guest for two minutes because you’re at risk of ignoring everyone else, but there are also times when you would never spend time cleaning up because you can have a conversation with a guest. Striking that balance is so important. Also, always hide when you’re upset, which is a skill I don’t have.
DP: If you could have a drink with any person, living or dead, who would it be and what would you drink?
MP: Ada Coleman, who created the Hanky Panky cocktail. She had to leave the cocktail culture in the U.S. to go to Europe during Prohibition, and of course, I’d want to drink a Hanky Panky with her! I hope she’d make it, too!

Photo via Drink Philly

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