Caitlin Corcoran has been a staple behind the bar in the new Westport – the entertainment district now being driven by a collection of chef-run bars and restaurants — the past few years. She’ll still be behind the bar Tuesdays through Thursdays, only now she’ll be a few doors over.
Corcoran, the former bar manager at Port Fonda (4141 Pennsylvania), accepted a position as the general manager of Ca Va (4149 Pennsylvania) earlier this month. We chatted by phone recently to find out more about her move and what’s in store for the Westport champagne bar.
Tell us a bit about your background. Port Fonda was my first job behind the bar. I was actually a barista for a decade in Kansas City. I’d always wanted to make the transition to bartending because I liked the hours better and I thought my training could translate over. Port Fonda hired me to make syrups and batches, which was my last job at Parisi. Then one day someone didn’t show up for a shift. They asked me to cover and I had all the drink recipes memorized.
After a little while at Port Fonda, I wanted to learn about classic cocktails and Manifesto needed a cocktail server. I knew I wanted to work for Ryan Maybee and Beau Williams. So, I was working at both places. In the summer of 2013, I was promoted to bar manager at Port Fonda. I loved the food and I understood what [chef] Patrick Ryan was trying to do. I really wanted to be the creative voice behind the bar program. Then, this opportunity at Ca Va came open and I had to take it.
What was it like to have your name called as the winner of the Paris of the Plains bartending competition? That was awesome. I felt validated by the community because I haven’t been bartending that long.
This was a drink [Anne Brockhoff has an excellent piece on the winning drink Field of Dreams] that I had been working on, but it never came together like I wanted. I’d put on the shelf a couple times. I’d been trying it in winter months with commodity grade corn. But then I started using local sweet corn and playing around more with the corn milk situation. I didn’t just add more corn, I added things that tasted like corn that added different elements and levels of corn-y-ness.
Why make the change from Port Fonda to Ca Va? I love working at Port Fonda. I started with coffee and then going to agave-based drinks, I felt like the next step in my journey would obviously need to be wine. Ca Va uses what I already know about terroir-based beverages, but helps me expand my vocabulary and understanding of the topic I work with.[Chef and owner] Howard [Hanna] and I work really well together. He’s been my bar back for two different cocktail competitions this year. I talked to him about being the GM of a place where I could have a little more control over the whole space.
I love the vibe of Port Fonda and how much of a party it is, but I was excited to go to Ca Va for a more intimate atmosphere where I could interact with all the guests and directly impact their experience. I hope to start a dialogue and build a rapport and have them become regulars.
What are you most proud of at Port Fonda? I’m extremely proud of our agave program. They only have tequila and mescal behind the bar and I helped them start to build a vertical collection of Tequila Ocho. They have backstock now and vintages that are sold out in the city. It’s really cool because they can do flights that are showcasing different years and different estates.
What do you have planned for Ca Va? I’m really excited to start doing champagne flights. We’ll start with just one day a week, and not the weekends, because the tables are small and it’s a lot of glassware. I think comparative tasting is really important to help make champagne accessible to people. This helps people know what they like and why they like it and start a conversation about that.
I’m also excited about oysters, shucking them and pairing sparkles with them. I learned to shuck them last night, but a trained professional will be serving them Thursday through Sunday.
Over time, I’d like to have a nice selection of absinthe and cognac, kind of play with the French vibe. Cocktails aren’t the main focus and I’m okay with that. It’s all from the same region, but cocktails can be the gateway drug. We’re playing around with seasonal cocktails. And we’re playing around with a champagne float for the spring menu.
We do a mimosa bar on Sundays, and I’m working on different accouterments and juices. Right now, it’s apple and cinnamon heavy because that’s the season. I’m working on a pumpin spice juice for a pumpkin spice mimosa, it’s an alternative to a latte.[Image via Caitlin Corcoran]