Words by: Sammy Hemmings
“I’m not a real writer, yet, I have published 16 books,” says Cheryl Charming, the bar director at Bourbon O Bar in New Orleans, who has just released her latest cocktail book, The Cocktail Companion, which shares the trivia and history she’s been collecting over the past 38 years.
Not only is Cheryl a bar director and a successful author, she’s enjoyed a hugely entertaining and diverse career, from bartender to bar magician, to jewellery maker and graphic designer, plus a stint as party clown. Cheryl’s varied résumé is admirable, although her career has not always been supported, she says, “I was looked down on for tending bar my whole life.”
Growing up in her father’s hometown, Little Rock, Arkansas, USA, Cheryl found her first job working as a pizza parlour waitress, which was when she also started going to bars and ordered her first ever cocktail, a Tom Collins. But her introduction to professional bartending would come later when she picked up a gig as server at a John Barleycorn’s Vision restaurant.
“One day the manager came up to me, and said, ‘the cocktail server is sick, I need you to go up and be a cocktail server tonight’,” Cheryl recalls. “I went up there, and the bartender was one of these who had to have been tending bar 20, 30 years. She just had that real jaded look about her. She said, ‘All you got to do is listen to what they’re saying, write it down. I’ll help you and make the drinks for you.’ I went and got the order. I got tipped more money than I would have downstairs waiting on a table, filling up waters, picking up silverware, getting more bread. That was the moment I went: This is the place for me.”
Cheryl then found a gig at cocktail bar Cabaret. “Within six months, I moved from cocktail server, to bar back, to service bartender, to bartender, to head bartender,” she says. At having hit the top, it isn’t surprising she had the itch to find her next challenge soon after.
“I just wanted to get out. So, I applied for cruise ship jobs,” Cheryl explains. “I got hired for this Caribbean one. Within about a year, there were only about two of us left because these girls came onto the ship thinking, ‘oh it’s a ship, what a glamourous life’, but you’re working 18 hours a day.” Cheryl enjoyed almost five-years tending bar on cruise ships before another opportunity came calling, this time at Walt Disney World.
“I worked for Disney for 17 years on and off,” she says. “I was working the beach pool bar at Grand Floridian Resort and Spa, and I got a shopper’s report. They saw me doing bar tricks, and they approached me and asked me to teach bar tricks and magic to a class for servers and bartenders all over. That’s what led me to my first book.”
“I wanted a new adventure,” Cheryl says. “I was approaching 40 years old and thinking, ‘what am I going to do?’ At this point, I’m either going to own a bar, or I need to do something. And I never had a desire to own a bar.”
Miss Charming’s Book of Bar Amusements was published in 2000. Although she had collected 1,000 magic tricks over the years, many simply scrawled on napkins, 80 made it into the book. “The real deal is, even with all those tricks, there’s basically a top 10 that I do over and over and over. They’re tried and true, cream of the crop, really good tricks.”
"The very first bar amusement I learned,” Cheryl explains, “I call it the cherry challenge. Today I use an olive. You have two glasses, and what you have to do is get that cherry into the other glass. The way you pick up the cherry is you use Centripetal Force, and the shape of the brandy glass picks it up.”
No doubt, you can find Cheryl behind the stick in New Orleans bewitching customers with great brain-teasers long into the night.
“After the first book, I didn’t know there was another one in me. Then there was a second, then the third,” says Cheryl, having now published her 16th cocktail book which is no easy feat. She spent three years researching the Cosmopolitan alone. “There’s a lot of people who lay claim to the Cosmopolitan, but no one knows the story. So, I started contacting these people, and pretty soon they figured out I was pretty serious when I started asking for names. I located co-workers, managers, owners, chefs, bartenders…”
Cheryl claims a number of firsts, including:
“I’m always doing something… I don’t want to hang out at another bar and waste my money like that. It’s not my thing. I was always doing something, teaching myself something. I’ve always had a thing where I want to learn something new every year,” Cheryl says. On top of her achievements in publishing and bartending, including being named Mixologist of the Year 2014 by New Orleans Magazine, Cheryl also pursued an education in design.
“The age of 40 thing. I’m thinking ‘what can I do?’ Wouldn’t it be amazing if I could learn graphic design? Anything I wanted to create I could create myself, and not rely on somebody else,” she says. Cheryl got her degree in Graphic Design, and she now does the graphics and creates the menu at Bourbon O Bar. “I choose regular paper, black and white, so its super cheap. It’s like a little booklet. I want it to be something guests can steal, a souvenir.”
Yet, you have to wonder how she balances writing books, crafting menus and managing the bar. “I just focus on me and what works for where I am and what I’m doing. You can’t get all bogged down with what other people are doing and measuring yourself up against other people. That’s a big life lesson,” Cheryl says. “Twenty-five was the age that I finally realised: wow, wait a minute. People have a tendency to point fingers: ‘I’m this way because of my parents, I’m this way because of my teachers’. Once you understand it has nothing to do with anybody else, you realise: I get to paint this picture however I want it.”
Whilst Cheryl has access to all manner of spirits, beers and cocktails, we wanted to know her favourite. “I’ll lean towards Aviation American Gin,” she says, Ryan Reynolds’ latest acquisition in the drinks industry. “My plan was okay how do I get him in my bar? I become the number one bar in America selling his gin, and I did! The Cocktail Companion has the very first published mention of him owning Aviation American Gin, and his wife is included in it too,” Cheryl says. “They want me to sign a book and they’re going to give it to him. I’m going to be giving him an autographed book, isn’t that crazy…”
And despite Cheryl's busy schedule, she's contributing to a revamp working as a consultant for one of the largest bar supply store's in the world, BarProducts.com. Her upcoming plans include a feature on Celebrity Bartender influencer products and an international product design contest.
“I’ll probably be in New Orleans for four more years,” she says, and it came as no surprise Cheryl will be on the move once again in the near future. “I’m going to buy a small RV and make America my own back yard.”
You can find out more about Cheryl Charming at MissCharming.com, an online resource where she compiles the majority of her cocktail tricks and trivia.