In our Rising Stars series, seasoned beverage professionals spotlight five of the most outstanding up-and-comers in their city—and discuss the mark each is making on the drinks scene.
Oklahoma City is still experiencing growing pains and an identity crisis from 10 years of explosive development, especially in its urban core. A city that used to be associated with oil and rodeos suddenly finds itself on “most desirable” lists in several categories in national food, beverage, and travel publications that matter. While the food scene here has always been underrated, the cocktail scene was almost a complete disaster until the craft cocktail boom started 10 years ago. Craft brewing picked up about the same time. And that national recession that hurt most of the rest of the country in 2008? Deep energy reserves and associated jobs buffered OKC, so wines that couldn’t sell in large markets suddenly showed up on wine lists and package-store shelves in the state—thanks to a forward-thinking broker and some collaborative wholesalers.
The growth of the craft beverage movement in OKC and the wide variety of beers, spirits, and wines that are now available here have attracted talent from outside, including expatriates returning home to ride the wave of economic development. At the same time, bartenders and wine lovers have turned to national publications, drinks tourism, and the Internet to bring national trends to a city that’s no longer just considered a flyover.
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The People Person
Rising Star: Jason Nguyen, bartender, Jones Assembly
Nominated by: Riley Marshall, owner, Bar Arbolada
Riley Marshall returned to his native OKC from Los Angeles in 2018 to open Bar Arbolada, a hopping place with a California-cool vibe on a corner in a rapidly developing district. Jason Nguyen bartends three blocks down the road from Arbolada at Jones Assembly, a combo restaurant-bar–music venue that’s wildly popular right now. Marshall has observed that Nguyen manages to remain “cool and friendly, even when the bar is five deep.” Nguyen, says Marshall, “is an enthusiastic learner in a context where so many bartenders are up their own asses with how much they know and how pretentious they are—and he makes great cocktails.”
Nguyen spent time learning the trade at the Ambassador Hotel’s O Bar, and then worked six months in Los Angeles as a barback while studying mixology. Marshall describes Nguyen as an old-school young guy who studies hard, learns the basics, and applies lessons with humility and creativity. More than anything else about the business, Nguyen says he likes people and he likes to hear stories, though that’s an opportunity that seldom arises in a bar as busy as Jones Assembly. “I don’t want to push things on guests,” Nguyen says. “I want to make what they like, and open their palates a little at a time.”
Rachel Cope opened five hospitality concepts in five years, including the Okie-themed bar Ponyboy in the city’s up-and-coming bar district—Uptown 23rd—which is where she met Koinzan. “In a city that can be a step behind,” says Cope, “Karli was helping us stay up on what the rest of the country was doing in the craft cocktail business. She’s an immersive learner, but she’s also a communicator—believable, patient, and great with explaining ingredients and flavor profiles.”
Koinzan came to bartending through her work as a barista at the Ambassador Hotel. She was hired her for her impressive coffee skills, but the bar manager recognized how easy it would be to apply those skills to bartending and encouraged her to give it a try. Koinzan ended up making the switch and developing her cocktail expertise at O Bar, the hotel’s high-volume, craft-cocktail-focused rooftop patio bar—the same bar where Nguyen trained. She supplemented her on-the-job training with attendance at Camp Runamok—the popular summer camp for bartenders in Lebanon Junction, Kentucky—and travel and educational opportunities with the United States Bartenders’ Guild (USBG). “I fell in love with the industry when we visited Wild Turkey,” says Koinzan. “We were on the Bourbon Trail, and I knew this was what I wanted to do.”
She shifted gears in 2018, leaving her job at O Bar to become a fine-wine and spirits sales rep for Handcrafted-Dynamic Brands. Once again, she found herself fearlessly jumping in and learning an entirely new job on the fly. “I made the move from behind the bar not just to round out my résumé,” says Koinzan, “but to do my part to increase the number of women in the local scene who have a chance to influence the industry.” In addition to her sales role, Koinzan has a couple of side hustles: She writes a cocktail column for Edible OKC and consults for bars around the city.
The Booze Entrepreneur
Rising Star: Julia McLish, owner, Barkeep Supply
Nominated by: Alex Larrea, president, USBG Oklahoma City; beverage director, Tower Theatre; and educational director, Vault Ice
Splitting his time between the USBG, the historic Tower Theatre, and Vault Ice, Alex Larrea has shaped the local scene in numerous important ways. He met Julia McLish one night as she worked a shift at the popular music venue VZD’s. “Everyone’s first impression of Julia is the warmth behind the smile,” Larrea says. “Then you notice how phenomenal her cocktails are. Deeper than that, though, is that I can’t think of anyone who exemplifies the professionalism and drive of the craft scene more than she.”
McLish is an Oklahoma native who opened Barkeep Supply in 2018 with some seed money left to her by her grandfather. She included a four-seat bar in the store so that local bartenders could work on their skills, experiment with ingredients, and share stories, techniques, and ideas. A place at that four-seat bar is now one of the most coveted spots in Oklahoma City, and not just for bartenders, which came as a surprise to McLish. “I just wanted to put quality supplies and ingredients in people’s hands so that they could make their favorite cocktails at home,” she says. “I never imagined that the bar would become feature of the store.”
Private parties, bar takeovers, cocktail classes, and brand launches now fill Barkeep’s schedule, and McLish is having to think seriously about expanding. “I want to expand the space,” she says, “so that we can bring more professionals and nonprofessionals together in a setting that helps eliminate the misconception that craft is too difficult to do at home, while allowing the professionals space for innovation in the cocktail scene.” For now, though, the cocktail list remains small, usually featuring about eight, but McLish can make anything a customer requests.
The Science Guy
Ten years in the U.S. Marine Corps instills important qualities, among them discipline and attention to detail. These are the qualities that Patrick Lively points to when he talks about Nathan Roberts and Stonecloud’s “semimeteoric rise to prominence.” Lively started his own brewery in 2018 after spending a decade at two of OKC’s most established local breweries, COOP Ale Works and Anthem Brewing. “Nate was one of the first guys who came to Oklahoma to be a brewer,” says Lively, “and that represented a significant shift in our culture. But more than that, the proof of his influence is in the product he’s producing. His stouts are some of the best I’ve ever tasted.”
After stints at Call to Arms and Crooked Stave in Denver, Roberts came to Oklahoma City in 2017 to work at his friend Joel Irby’s brand-new brewery, Stonecloud. Irby needed a brewer so he could focus on business development. The former marine and biochemistry major found that he could apply the lessons of the corps, his science background, and his creative drive to a task that rewarded all three components of his identity. “I love this,” says Roberts, “because I get to use science—even down to the molecular level—to shape what comes out, and what comes out is great beer, beer I love. We have a very unique process for our sours, and I want people to appreciate how big beer has become, how in your face it is now.”
Kasi Shelton was the second woman to become a certified sommelier in Oklahoma. She managed wine bars in Manhattan and worked on the floor at a popular wine shop just outside OKC before taking her current position as the director of The Barrel Room, a storage and wine education space on the city’s north side. She met Griffin at a tasting in 2017 and quickly recognized his intelligence, passion, and artistic sensibility. “He brought this beautiful camera with him to the tasting—an antique,” says Shelton. “Most of us just take pics on our phones, but he was taking his time with the wines he loved, and getting beautiful shots.” She notes that Griffin also has a passion for introducing people to craft cocktails and quality wines that wouldn’t otherwise be on their radar.
Working at a concept by Hal Smith—Oklahoma’s largest hospitality group—means that Griffin is working in an environment that can sometimes feel like a factory. But the company has gotten more serious about the wine program for its nonsteakhouse concepts in the last few years, and Griffin’s hiring was a direct result of that, as was his recent promotion to bar consultant. He relishes the opportunity to introduce people to young Burgundies, quality Malbecs, and dry German Rieslings to enhance their restaurant experience. And he continues to pursue photography. “The camera for me,” he explains, “is a way of bringing my passion for photography into the bar context. I love cocktails, too, and I’m excited about shooting classic cocktails in our restaurants.”
Greg Horton is a freelance writer and a professor of English, Philosophy, and the Humanities in Oklahoma City who has covered lifestyle stories and news, including the food, wine, and spirits scenes, for several local and statewide publications for more than a decade. He lives downtown in an average apartment in the heart of the city’s explosive development with a roommate who is a bartender.