Hot pink-haired and tattooed bartender Jeni Blyth, 34, remembers at 4 years old tasting the blue “Daiquiri Ice” Baskin-Robbins ice cream flavor for the first time.
“I said, ‘Daddy, Daddy, this is the best flavor in the whole wide world,’ and he looked at me and he said, ‘Jeni, one day you’re going to have a problem,’” she jokes.
It would, however, take her two and a half decades to fully realize her lifelong love affair with daiquiris and their base spirit, rum.
“Rum has always been my soul mate. It’s where my heart is,” she says.
After almost 15 years in the service industry waiting tables and running food, never working behind the bar, Blyth went to MG Road Bar & Lounge in Asheville, N.C., when she turned 30 and ordered a simple and refreshing tequila cocktail with lychee and rose water.
“That’s where I fell in love with the craft of the cocktail. Sitting at the bar watching a beautiful woman just delicately take her time making a beautiful cocktail, I was enthralled and I was like, ‘This is it. This is what I want to do for the rest of my life,’” she recalls.
But four years ago, Greenville’s craft cocktail scene still hadn’t taken off, and the opportunity to develop mixology skills didn’t immediately present itself. Then in 2016, she was offered the chance to train as a backup bartender at Chicora Alley’s South Main Street location. She jumped at it.
Soon after, speakeasy Vault & Vator was getting ready to open, and the then-lead mixologist Kirk Ingram offered Blyth an apprenticeship.
After three weeks, she was hired as the third bartender. Two months later, she became the lead bartender and beverage director when Ingram left, and two months after that, Blyth became general manager. She had much to learn, and fast.
“It was a lot. I learned a lot. I made a lot of mistakes. I did a lot of great things. When I stepped behind that bar, I knew I was home and that’s where I was supposed to be and what I was supposed to do for the rest of my life,” she says.
Along with reading as much as she could about cocktails and attending industry events, she also learned vital management skills, such as separating friends from coworkers and how to multitask and delegate.
During that time, while on vacation visiting family in Germany, she guest bartended at Bar Zentral in Berlin, where she introduced them to her Vault & Vator tradition of an end-of-shift Sazerac for the whole staff, and they bestowed on her invaluable cocktail knowledge and a pineapple necklace, indicating she is an official staff member and has a standing job offer.
“It’s tempting,” she says.
She did return to Greenville, and brought with her some of the booze-forward, bitter cocktails she created for her German customers.
Early in 2018, Blyth left her position at Vault & Vator to spend some time traveling and learning from some of the best mixologists in the business.
Now she’s back in the Greenville area and behind the bar at Travelers Rest’s Rocket Surgery twice a week while she develops the new-to-Greenville Italian cocktail program for Luna Rosa’s new Main Street location.
That program will include an afternoon aperitivo hour, which is like happy hour but serves the purpose of preparing the digestive system for dinner. During those few afternoon hours, traditionally potato chips, olives, and other small bites are served alongside spritzes and light, low-alcohol drinks. After dinner, Blyth has plans for a full amari program, which can soothe the stomach after a big meal. But there’s a learning curve and a bit of an acquired taste for amari, so she’s planning to roll it out strategically.
Her mentor described the strategy to her this way:
“Think about it like you would coffee or chocolate. When you were a child, when you were younger, you ate milk chocolate, you drank coffee with more milk in it than there was coffee. Now as an adult, you enjoy dark chocolate and black coffee. Think of an amari that way. So start off with an aperitivo like Aperol and then work your way to the heavy Fernet.”
Favorite cocktail to make: Any kind of sour, especially a whiskey sour with the egg white
Craziest cocktail ever made: “I’m still the most proud of my Melancholy Ninja. That’s my baby. The Ninja Warrior Coffee Roasters in Easley brought a gallon of cold-brew coffee and said, ‘play.’” After five rounds of dealer’s choice (when the bartender makes what she wants for the guest) at the Vault & Vator bar, she was creatively fatigued but gave it one last shot. She combined bourbon, Fernet, cold-brew coffee, and habanero honey. “I looked at my other bartender and said, ‘This is either going to be the best or the worst thing I’ve ever made in my life,’ and I shook it up, and low and behold, it’s the best drink I’ve ever created. Who puts Fernet and coffee and habanero honey together? I do.”