Tally up another accolade for Columbia’s most well regarded bartender.
Bourbon head bartender Kat Hunter has won the South Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association’s Restaurant Bartender of the Year award. Hunter was the only Columbia restaurant worker who won an award at the statewide awards ceremony on Feb. 1.
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“I like to think it shows the impact Bourbon has as far as cocktail culture here,” Hunter said. “To me it’s a sign that Columbia deserves recognition for all the work it’s put in.”
The award goes to the bartenders who “display total breadth and aptitude in their abilities,” per its description. Candidates were nominated and reviewed by an SCRLA committee, the organization's communications manager Lenza Jolley said in an email.
Hunter's nomination detailed that she “works to present an innovative, yet accessible, cocktail program” and noted her penchant for browsing antique stores for cocktail inspiration in books.
Kristian Niemi, co-owner of Bourbon, agreed with that assessment and shared that its almost weekly Hunter has a new antique cocktail book delivered to the restaurant.
"Kat's been at the forefront of the Columbia cocktail scene since we opened Bourbon," he said.
In years past, Hunter has won a number of accolades, fared well at competitions and been featured in several prominent publications. She has won the Woodford Manhattan challenge, been highlighted in Imbibe Magazine and helmed cocktail service for a night at the James Beard Foundation house in New York City, among others.
It’s turned into a sterling career for someone who is largely self taught.
She explained that when Bourbon opened in 2014, she spent the hours after work studying from cocktail books.
“There weren’t very many people (in Columbia) familiar with craft cocktail-ing. I built myself,” she said.
Now, Hunter chalks up her success to her fusion of craft cocktails and speed bartending — her time prior to Bourbon was spent at spots like Art Bar and Goatfeathers (now Goat's). Hunter shared that sometimes her "duct tape method" has been met with scoffs.
“While I respect a lot of the old methods, sometimes you can’t use those same methods effectively in high volume and so I’ve figured out, for some things, short cuts,” she explained. “If my drink is still just as good, then I don’t think there is really an issue there.”
Niemi underscored that Hunter's shortcuts are few and instead emphasized her speed.
To illustrate, he said at a New Year's Eve event at Bourbon, he combed through security footage to clock her pace and found she did roughly 45 cocktails in an hour. That's one every minute and 33 seconds.
He underscored that speed's significance in craft cocktail bars, saying the lack of it was a frequent problem when he explored others prior to opening Bourbon.
"She doesn’t come up with many shortcuts, she just has developed remarkable speed," he said. "That’s always been our mandate too ... you need to be able to work very quickly or you won’t last."
Hunter’s method for creating drinks is more akin to chaos than any set strategy, she explained. Often, it’s a random whiff of inspiration like a certain spirit, scent or craving she builds a cocktail around.
“Sometimes I’m more prolific than others. I had a couple of times where I came up with eight cocktails in one day, then there are other times I work on one for two week and it might never happen,” she said.
Hunter won the award over the other finalist, Michael Wade of Rick Erwin’s Clemson. University of South Carolina professor Robin DiPietro was named the organization’s hospitality educator of the year. Ashley Johnson, who works at the Courtyard by Marriott Columbia Downtown at USC, won lodging manager of the year. Graduate Columbia's Toby Wiggers won lodging front of house Employee of the Year.