Award-Winning Bartender Pamela Wiznitzer Mixes Things Up With the Circus

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Pamela Wiznitzer
Pamela Wiznitzer (Photo courtesy of Big Apple Circus)

Being in the bartending world, Pamela Wiznitzer said, is a lot like going to Chabad. Bear with her for a second.

In her professional world, the one where she’s been among the top 10 finalists for “American Bartender of the Year” three times and was the “2014 Bartender of the Year,” as decided upon by the Village Voice, she finds that she can go anywhere in the world and find a community of like-minded folks. She knows that all she has to do to find a friend and maybe a free drink in any city in the world is ask another mixologist in her circle if they know anyone there.

So, too, has been her experience with Chabad. When she was last in Honolulu, she walked into the local Chabad house and felt at home immediately.

“The parallels are uncanny,” she said.

Wiznitzer is in Philadelphia for the Big Apple Circus, a one-ring circus that put some extra juice into its food and beverage program this year. Wiznitzer, who knew of Big Apple through some friends who used to work for the company, will lead the cocktail program for the VIP tent, serving drinks like “Swing Time” (Flor de Caña rum, lime, hibiscus, pearl luster and bubbly wine) and Howl at the Moon (Tullamore Dew Whiskey, lemon, cinnamon, chai, honey and bitters). The circus will be in town through June 16 at the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center in Oaks.

Wiznitzer was born in New York but grew up in Cleveland, where her father was a doctor and her mother was a part-time teacher. She remembers her days in the tight-knit Cleveland Jewish community fondly, where Jews of all stripes lived together happily.

“There’s a place for everyone,” she said. “It’s judgment free.” Most importantly, “it was just a place where you could be Jewish and you weren’t afraid to be Jewish.”

However, she did find herself looking for a little bit more; after attending Jewish day school until seventh grade, she felt that she needed to expand her horizons beyond the Jewish community.

“I was living a very homogeneous life,” she said, “and it made me very uncomfortable.” She started to going to public school in Shaker Heights, a notably diverse area, and remains thankful for the decision.

It was a similar rationale that brought her to Barnard and the Jewish Theological Seminary, schools she chose partially for their Jewish population, but also because, simply enough, the Princeton Review ranked them as especially diverse schools. It was at these schools where she was first introduced to mixology.

Sort of. Her first encounter with the world of serious bartending happened as it does for many students: making drinks for her friends before heading out for the night.

“All of us played bartender in our dorm room at some point, right?” she said.

Her junior year, some of her friends at the Columbia Bartending Academy enticed her to sign up with the promise of developing good skills, but also with the idea that they could take home some of the leftover alcohol at the end of the evening to be used for their own purposes.

“It was kind of like a joke to do it,” she said.

It elevated to more than that soon — she was mixing drinks and getting occasional bartending gigs to make extra cash. Then a recession came and suddenly there was nothing jokey about it all. She became a bartender full time, working at a sports bar in Murray Hill during day shifts. Wiznitzer found quickly that not only did she enjoy the work, she was actually “really good at it,” as she said. She rose quickly, especially after her parents asked her when she would get a “real job”; what better way to get a “real job” than to turn the one she had into something “real?”

She began attending the Steinhardt School at NYU, where she pursued a master’s in food studies. At the same time, she began to apply to prestigious cocktail bars. A friend set her up with an interview at The Dead Rabbit in the financial district.

The Dead Rabbit became known widely, in no small part, thanks to the drinks being created by Wiznitzer. In her 2½ years there, she found herself getting noticed; she appeared on television, and was featured in articles everywhere from The New York Times to Bar Business Magazine.

How did she handle that?

“I’ve been prepared my whole life for anything that comes my way,” she said. “You just kind of do it.”

She took off from The Dead Rabbit in summer 2014, and went on a fact-finding mission across the country, to “teach myself how America drinks,” she said. She eventually returned to her old stomping grounds, but decided she wanted to take her work up a notch, and became the creative director at an Upper East Side bar called Seamstress, a place typically devoid of cocktail culture, she said.

For a time, it was an absolute joy, taking on a level of responsibility she hadn’t previously had; in the end, Seamstress closed, but she’s grateful for the experience, and finds that her independence as a beverage consultant for large companies allows her some added flexibility.

But it all comes back to what got her into the business in the first place: making drinks as creatively as she can.

“It’s a great outlet to just let your wildest dreams manifest themselves in a creation in a glass,” she said.

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