Shannon Ponche

Words by Theodora Sutcliffe

Shannon Ponche image 1

First name(s): Shannon
Last/Family name: Ponche
Originally from: St. Louis
Profession: Head bartender
At: Brooklyn, NYC

It was coming out as LGBT that led Shannon Ponche, now head bartender of Brooklyn’s pan-Latin cocktail bar Leyenda, into the bartending world. She was on a soccer scholarship in Warrensburg, Missouri, a small town several hours’ drive from her childhood home in St. Louis, when she realised that playing football professionally was no longer her top priority.

“I had just come out to my parents and realised I needed to be in more of a city to try and meet other queer people,” she recalls. “I wouldn’t say there was a lot of homophobia but Warrensburg was just really small, and there were only a handful of folks that were out. But a lot of Missouri is very homophobic still, unfortunately.”

So Ponche came home, moved back in with her parents and got a job in a restaurant to put herself through community college. “There was one cocktail bar in St. Louis at the time. I went and was just really amazed by the craftsmanship of making cocktails and decided that’s what I wanted to do,” she recalls. “It was a lot of fun, it was really creative and it was something that I wanted to learn, so I went there a bunch.”

As luck would have it, the bar she loved, Taste, was about to move to a larger venue. Ted Kilgore, now best known for his award-winning bar and restaurant Planter’s House, was happy to take Ponche on and teach her to cocktail bartend.

Within a couple of years, however, Ponche – and a playwright friend who is now her partner – was ready for the bright lights of New York. “New York was – when I read the cocktail books – where all the action was happening at the time,” she says. “I kept reading about all these famous New York bars.”

For a newbie, Ponche got lucky – with a little help from Kilgore. On a research trip, she’d worked through a list of New York’s top bars, and found something very different about Mayahuel, Phil Ward’s now closed East Village Latin American bar. “I instantly knew it was special when I walked in,” she recalls. “It was kind of like a subterranean agave den – you’d definitely miss it if you weren’t looking for it. The bartenders were really nice and the cocktails were better than any of the other cocktails I’d had on my visit.”

She resolved to learn more about the bottles on the backbar, most of which she couldn’t even recognise, and Kilgore emailed Ward to ask if he had an opening for her. It was the start of a love affair with agave spirits. “Phil has, like, this slide show. He’s been to a lot of palenques [mezcal distilleries] and seen a lot of mezcal and tequila production,” Ponche recalls. “So when he hired somebody new he’d sit down and taste through some of the bigger mezcals and go through the process and just get you hooked pretty immediately.”

Stints at venues including Booker and Dax, Nitecap and the NoMad followed, before Ponche came apparently out of nowhere to win the 2013 Speed Rack women’s bartending competition. “I get really nervous talking to people or public speaking, so being on stage and having a huge crowd of people screaming and having to explain your cocktails to the judges and having to be the fastest one on stage, there’s a lot of nerves that get in the way,” she says. But she overcame stage fright and eventually talked her way into a role with Julie Reiner, who co-owns Leyenda with Ivy Mix.

“I watched Tom [Macy] over at Clover Club pretty closely and Ivy was the head bartender at Leyenda,” Ponche explains. “They both kind of took me under their wing and showed me the ropes on how to run a bar programme and be the head bartender. Then Ivy was doing more and more travelling, so they asked if I wanted the job. That was really cool to have their confidence.”

Soft-spoken and unassuming in an industry packed with outsize personalities, Ponche loves the educational side of her role. “We’ve had a few bartenders come up at Leyenda that have never bartended before,” she says. “I can see myself picking up some of the smaller lessons and anecdotes that I learned from my mentors: things that Natasha [David] at Nitecap would teach us, and Phil at Mayahuel, and Ted at Taste.”

Ponche credits Kilgore with her classic cocktail knowledge and Ward with developing her palate, admires Mix’s presence at the bar and David’s calm skill with guests, and takes immense pleasure in passing down those skillsets to a new generation of bartenders. In fact, she sees herself progressing into cocktail education further down the road.

Stylistically, Ponche is passionate about agave spirits, especially lesser-known variants such as sotol, bacanora and raicilla. “We have an availability problem with mezcal because of it being so popular,” she says. “We should really try to do right by the people who are making it and do it ethically and plant as many agaves as we take out of the ground. By being a champion for other agave spirits, it will lessen the amount of mezcal that we’re drinking.”

Ponche’s first trip to Mexico came as a prize in a sangrita competition, and she’s still enthused by savoury, spicy flavours. “There are so many chillies you can get from Mexico in particular but all over Latin America,” she says. “Kalustyan’s in the city is a great place to go. They have a whole section of dried chillies, and you can just pick up a couple of different peppers and try the same drinks: it really changes the flavour.”

It's a long way from Warrensburg (population: 20,000-ish) to New York, but Ponche isn’t done yet. “One of my favourite things about working in this industry is how many opportunities I’ve gotten to travel,” she says. “I’ve been to Scotland and Ireland and Germany, a bunch of places in Mexico and a lot of places in the States. I went to Hawaii a couple of years ago and that was just amazing.”