Melissa Welcher’s approach to mixing drinks is culinary at the core, so she feels right at home at Michael’s Genuine, where she began behind the bar in July and now leads the program as Head Bartender. Born and raised in a small village outside of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Melissa grew up with her parents and older sister cooking and baking all the time. Her childhood was filled with travel and exploration thanks to a family that encouraged the kids to try new things. After a blush with the fashion industry following college in Wisconsin, she moved to Miami to pursue her passion for culinary arts at Johnson and Wales. Her culinary journey evolved in the green hills of Bavaria where on weekends she had the opportunity to work in kitchens across the region during a stage in a small town outside Nuremberg, Germany with a Master Chef.
Melissa still enjoys cooking and often tries new recipes in her home kitchen, but today the front of house is where she feels most fulfilled, interacting with guests and experiencing the satisfaction on their faces from an exceptional meal.
“I was attracted to the bar because I love making something and seeing people enjoy it,” Melissa explains. “My approach is to keep it simple with as little as three but probably no more than six quality, craft ingredients per cocktail. The food at the table is just as an important as what I can offer behind the bar, so it’s important that our drinks complement the menu, not overpower it.”
True to Melissa’s background, her team’s performance behind the bar depends on its mise en place. “Checking your set up” as she refers to it, is essential, from making sure all the ingredients they need for service are prepped out, to the tools they need are at hand. The most important in her kit is (“Definitely!) a jigger.
“The cocktails I like to drink are classics, which are by definition simple,” she says. “When you don’t have that many ingredients, it really makes a difference. If you don’t measure them correctly, it can completely ruin the cocktail.”
The Genuine bar is more food driven than ever lately, with the addition of the Raw Bar and extended Afternoon menu last year.
“Working behind the bar, you notice that people tend to eat more than just snacks at happy hour here. They’re enjoying more complete meals,” she reflects. “I have a great opportunity to pair cocktails with food. Our guests are most used to pairings with wine, sure, but they are open to trying new things — especially at the bar.”
When Melissa develops a menu, one of the most important things she keeps in mind is that not everyone is necessarily going to love the drinks she likes. It’s key that everyone can find something they like on a list. It’s a fun challenge too in crafting cocktails to coax out the flavors you want in the ingredients.
“I think my culinary background helps a lot in training my palate and working to express the best out of the ingredients,” she explains. “When you are creating a dish, you are trying to imagine the final product, what you are going to experience when you eat it. It’s trial and error a lot of times which is the fun part.”
Take for instance, the new Rum & Eve. Melissa was playing around with rum and apples for a while. She tried muddling them, then making a shrub. How could she nail the essence of apple flavor without processing six apples for one drink, nor making it too sweet?
“We roast them in the wood oven, then juice them,” she says. “It’s a combination of Granny Smith and Honeycrisp, with the perfect ratio to get the right tang and sweetness.”
Melissa is also keen that no spirit be a “unitasker” behind her bar. She uses Diplomatico rum for Rum & Eve, a Venezuelan rum that is meant for sipping, but really plays well in this preparation. A spirit like this can be great on its own, but should also be able to function mixed in a drink.
“Eric [Larkee] has a really great palate, so he’s always challenging me in a good way,” Melissa explains. “We tried the Rum & Eve about seven different times before we were like yes this is IT. He’ll point out it needs something, but won’t tell me what it is he’s thinking. It’s a fun back and forth we have, and it’s been very productive so far!”
Her team at the bar all likes to drink different things, so she’s banking on that diversity to create solidarity with the staff and program, which will work to support small batch spirits and quality, favorite brands as it comes together.
“If you are really passionate about something, it’s contagious,” she reflects. “Soigné was something I learned in culinary school on day three. To take care of and take pride in. You do it 100% whether you are doing it just for now or for the rest of your life.”