M's Cris Dehlavi on Local Love for Her Craft Cocktails
Cris Dehlavi points and laughs. "See, that's how much of a nerd I am," she says, gesturing to her license plate, which reads "Imbibe." For nearly a decade, the M bartender has dedicated her life to learning craft cocktails and spirits. And her talent hasn't gone unnoticed: Not only do M regulars relish her sips, but restaurateurs enlist her creativity to create cocktails at bars all over Columbus-and across the country.
Dehlavi is a pioneer of the surging local cocktail scene. Owning her own bar is the end game, but the spot must be perfect. Until she finds it, you can try to snag a ticket to her monthly pop-up speakeasy Ezra's in Worthington by following House Wine on Facebook.
On career choices: I went to college for music-for piano and flute. My intention was to be a high school music teacher. But then the restaurant business sucked me in.
On the influence of M: [Cameron Mitchell Restaurants] started this fresh bar program eight years ago. We were the first in Columbus to actually commit to fresh squeezing all of our fruits. They started bringing mixologists from other cities to do seminars. I remember a moment when I was watching this one girl from Manhattan and thinking, "I can totally do this."
On competing: Five years ago I started doing competitions, and really started taking it seriously. I turned a corner from, "This is a cool hobby" to "This is going to become my life's work." I won [the Iron Bartender] in 2010. Then I started doing all the competitions I could. Now, I judge them.
On her biggest honor: In 2011 I was given a Gaz Award. Gary "Gaz" Regan is the grandfather of all mixologists. He puts out a book every year of the top 101 cocktails around the world. I was in that with a cocktail (the Marquee) that's on the menu at M. Then in 2012, he announced who he thought were the top 25 bartenders around the world, and I was one of them. Now there are so many amazing bartenders who are good if not better than me.
On cocktail inspiration: I'm constantly coming up with ideas. I think about it in the car, in the shower. I get ideas from food. I get ideas from coffee shops. One of [my bartender friends told me] he got ideas from his wife's lotions, body washes and candles. I remember thinking that's really smart.
On the Black Orchid: There's a cult following. People come here only for that drink. I knew it was going to be fun and pretty, and it's delicious. But I had no idea what it was going to turn into. It was so popular at M that they put it in the Ocean Club. And it was so popular at the Ocean Club that they put it in all the Ocean Primes in the country.
On what she orders: If it's a craft cocktail bar, I am looking at their menu to see what jumps out at me. My spirit of choice is bourbon. I love bitter cocktails.
On her biggest accomplishment: I earned a BAR (Beverage Alcohol Resource) certification. It's the highest level of certification you can get. They say it's like getting a master's degree in a week.
Bartender or mixologist? It's just a title. Ultimately I think we are all bartenders. We are tending the bar. The goal for me is for the person who sits at my bar to have an amazing experience.