Talking to Clair McLafferty is a challenge, and not an unpleasant one. She’s bright, engaging and loaded with witty responses for any conversation. She’s equally well versed in whiskey facts, modernist literature and physics theorems, meaning that she’s basically the ideal balance in left-brain logic and right-brain creativity and has the banter to prove it. You might say she’s the perfect bartender. You might be right.
Clair’s path hasn’t been straight. She moved to Homewood for third grade, then switched to Creative Montessori, then back to Homewood for middle and high school. She attended Wake Forest before transferring to Birmingham-Southern to complete degrees in both physics and English. She lifeguarded at Homewood’s Central pool. She learned how to bartend at Octane in Homewood. She poured at Marble Ring. She’s been a full-time freelance writer since 2015. She tutors local kids in math and science. She wrote a book, The Classic & Craft Cocktail Recipe Book: The Definitive Guide to Mixing Perfect Cocktails from Aviation to Zombie, in exactly seven weeks to meet a publisher’s deadline. It’s rumored that she may even sleep, on occasion.
But Clair, who grew up on Hambaugh Avenue, isn’t interested in giving you her life story. She wants to know yours. “I’m a huge nerd,” she says. “I’m not really capable of pursing anything in half measures,” something made clear in her responses to the quick questions we asked her in the sidebar. When asked about her favorite spirit, she talks about tequila at length, bubbling about agave, repasado and blanco with such passion that it’s easy to forget that you’ve only tried it in a margarita. But what she most wants is for you to feel more comfortable at any bar you choose to step into, even the ones that feel a little fancier than your local favorites.
“At Octane, we learned not to take ourselves too seriously,” Clair says. “We had to find a way to connect with people who come into the bar. Making drinks is fun, but the most important thing is providing guests with a good experience.”
The best way to do that, according to Clair, is to ask questions. “If there’s no menu, ask questions,” she said. “If you don’t understand, ask. Go on off peak hours and with an idea of what you want. If you can describe the flavor of a drink you liked somewhere, bartenders can be very helpful.” One example she used was to say, “I really like whiskey sours. Can you make me something like that that isn’t just a whiskey sour?” That, according to Clair, gives the bartender enough direction but also plenty of freedom for their artistry in the cocktail. “It can be scary to ask the first question,” she allows. “But once you do, you can find that they want to share their knowledge, and bartenders have an amazing wealth of knowledge.”
Clair’s cocktail knowledge runs deep and wide. It’s easy to picture her behind the bar, mixing, pouring and chatting as she garnishes. She can provide the history of most any spirit laced with a few “did you know” facts before mentioning how alcohol historically overlapped with apothecary and medicinal uses, all the while drawing out your preferences and aversions. She works her story into yours in a way that’s compassionate and welcoming, a dynamic combination coming from a bartender. “But it’s not about me,” she says. “Often it’s not really about the cocktails!”
When she’s not pouring or writing, Clair consults with local bars, serves on the WBHM Junior Board and acts as the secretary of the local chapter of the US Bartenders’ Guild. “I’m fortune to have met many people who are generous with their knowledge and time,” she says. “Being a writer has gotten me a lot of access in the industry, but the writing is very difficult because there’s so much nuance, and also you’re talking about alcohol.”
Recently, several industry veterans have quietly gone sober. “There’s an inclusivity movement to make everyone who’s 21 and up comfortable at bars,” says Clair, who welcomes the shift. “The nonalcoholic drinks on the menu taste just as good.” Bartenders are no longer just about pouring drinks into glasses, “It’s about the hospitality,” Clair notes. “And it’s leading to more talk about health and wellness in the industry.”
What’s next in the craft cocktail world? Clair would, of course, know. “I think cocktails will follow some of the culinary trends and revert to simpler drinks. Getting the classics right. Returning to basics. Remaking dive bar drinks like the grasshopper with craft ingredients and techniques.” As for Clair, she’s working on a second book, continues to freelance for various publications, tutors kids in math and science while sipping Briar Patch tea at O’Henry’s, and consults for various local bars on technique and the customer experience. Perhaps also, a nap.
Where to Find Clair?
Your local library! Clair is teaching quarterly cocktail classes at the Homewood Public Library. “It’s a wonderful, low pressure night,” Clair says. “It’s a great environment to come ask questions about cocktails.” She serves the cocktails before she shows you how to make them so that you can engage in a little “taste memory” of how to make it while it’s being made.
Harry Potter’s Adult Potions Class
Friday, July 13
Vodka: A Spirited Seminar
Friday, Nov. 9
The events are for ages 21 and up. Tickets, $12.50 each, include two adult beverages and light refreshments, and can be purchased at homewoodpubliclibrary.org.
Quick Questions for Clair
Favorite Homewood treat: O’Carr’s chocolate cheesecake
Favorite glass: Whatever makes you comfortable! Glencarin or neat glasses are my favorite, but at home I’ll drink out of whatever you give me.
Must-have bar tools: Shaker and a jigger or shot glass. If you use a shot glass, fill it to the brim so the measurements are exact.
Underrated cocktail ingredient: Herbs! Try rosemary with gin or whiskey, or any combination of plain sours, citrus, and booze.
Best drink to order out: Try a new bar’s Old Fashioned, then you can decide what to order next. An Old Fashioned tells me a lot about a bar’s technique.
Favorite Homewood memory: Riding bikes with neighborhood friends to get milkshakes at the diner where JoJo’s is now.
Favorite cocktail to make for friends: Something easy! Combine lavender, simple syrup, lime juice and rum.
Best ice for cocktails: 1 ¼-inch cubes—they’re standard, uniform, and I know how they melt. Bigger cubes require more water in the drink. With smaller cubes, don’t add any water because they’ll melt faster.
One thing you should never do: Make a cocktail if you think you’ll hate it. Food, drinks, and flavors have such a psychological phenomenon that if you think you’ll hate it, you will.
Favorite spirit fact: Agave is not a cactus, it’s in the artichoke family.
Clair’s Cocktail Tips
“It’s okay to make bad cocktails!” Clair says. “Here’s how to rescue them.”
Too bitter: Add the tiniest bit of salt to tamp down your perception of the bitterness.
Too sweet: Add a dash of bitters to tamp down your perception of the sweetness.