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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, April 23, 2014

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In Bars & Clubs

Sarah Smith co-owns Wauwatosa's The Ruby Tap wine bar with her sister and brother-in-law.

In Bars & Clubs

Though she doesn't mix cocktails, Smith does most everything else a traditional bartender does.

Featured bartender: The Ruby Tap's Sarah Smith


"Bar Month" at OnMilwaukee.com is back for another round – brought to you by Aperol, Pinnacle, Jameson, Fireball, Red Stag and Avion. The whole month of February, we're serving up intoxicatingly fun articles on bars and clubs – including guides, the latest trends, bar reviews and more. Grab a designated driver and dive in!

We've featured a lot of bartenders here at OnMilwaukee.com, but this one's a little different. Purists might argue that The Ruby Tap's Sarah Smith isn't even a true bartender.

Because The Ruby Tap, 1341 Wauwatosa Ave., in Tosa Village is a self-serve wine bar, Smith doesn't make cocktails, but she serves bottled beer and wine from taps and by the bottle, dishes up snacks, deals with folks who have maybe had a little too much and works to keep her customers happy and satisfied like any other bartender.

Before she opened The Ruby Tap, Smith worked as director of student services at an advertising grad school in Chicago.

So, because it takes all kinds, we're featuring this somewhat atypical bartender during OnMilwaukee.com Bar Month. Milwaukee, meet Sarah Smith ...

OnMilwaukee.com: How long have you been a bartender?

Sarah Smith: Not long at all. I started when we opened The Ruby Tap in August. So, six months. My sister, her husband and I are the owners and none of us have had previous bartender experience.

OMC: Tell us a bit about what a shift is like for you at The Ruby Tap; you're not a bartender in the typical sense of the word are you? You don't tap beer or make cocktails, right?

SS: Since I am a co-owner, my shift is more like my day: in at 11:30 a.m. and out by 11:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. At The Ruby Tap, we have a very different concept, mostly self-serve. Yes, we pour wine on tap, however, the beer and Enomatic Wine Machines are the main focus and are mainly self-serve. Our customers visit the bar, either get a glass of wine on tap or grab a glass and a card and head to the wine machines to pick their own wine in different pours. This gives us – the "bartenders" – an opportunity to wander, chat with customers and recommend fav wines to try.

A lot of our time is spent swapping out empty bottles in the machines. On a typical weekend night we could swap out around six cases of wine. Since there are only four glasses in a bottle and if everyone loves the same wine, someone would be stationed at the machines just swapping out bottles all night. It's fun seeing what wine goes and how fast from night to night. It really gives us a good idea of our clientele and which wines we should bring in for them to try next.

OMC: Similarly, the clientele is a little different too, isn't it?

SS: The beauty of the machines is that we get wine drinkers and non-wine drinkers that want to learn a little more. Most customers choose the 1.5-ounce pour option to try out many different wines and compare them. Sort of creating their own flight.

OMC: I feel like I've seen lots of parties/groups there. Does wine attract a different customer?

SS: Yes, we do get a lot of events here. From dinner clubs to knitting clubs to engagement parties and even some blind dates! The interaction involved with the machines adds a fun activity to a normal night out.

OMC: How do you stay on top of all the wines on offer at Ruby? Does the staff do frequent tastings?

SS: Brooke (Boomer) is the point person for all the wine. She sets up tastings daily for us and then chooses them only after trying and liking. Before opening, we tried anything and everything. Now, we taste with a purpose. We try to fill specific flavor profiles and price points in the machines and our reps are great at bringing us some fun wines. We rotate our wines in and out of the machines daily to spice up the selection.

OMC: Every time I go past on a weekend, the place looks packed. Is there room for more Ruby Taps in Milwaukee?

SS: Weekends to get very busy with newbies and regulars. We are only six months in and are really enjoying ourselves with this single location. However, our minds are always turning and possibly someday down the road, we may open up another location.

OMC: What is the most ridiculous thing you've seen a drunk patron do?

SS: When you go up to the machines you should have two things with you, a glass and a wine card. Forgetting your wine card at your table isn't a big deal, however, when you press a full glass pour to try and realize your glass is back at your table, that's a whole different ball game.

OMC: Ever break up any bar fights?

SS: Ha, I am pretty small and wouldn't do much good breaking up a bar fight. Luckily, The Ruby Tap is tame enough that we haven't had to worry about that.

OMC: What are the best and worst pickup lines you've heard used in a bar?

SS: A guy recently asked my sister and I while checking out, "So, do you guys drink for free when the manager and owner aren't here?" Our response, "Well, that's us, so, yeah." It's fun watching their faces after that.

OMC: What are the best and worst parts of being a bartender?

SS: Best is meeting new people and developing relationships with our regulars. Worst? Waiting for customers who haven't been drinking in a while to take the party to their living room since we closed two hours ago.

OMC: The Ruby Tap serves some food, too, right?

SS: We have a create-your-own cheese and meat plate menu with snacks like olives, almonds and truffle popcorn which we make. Sometimes we brainstorm for new ideas and taste new desserts we have coming in, however, don't have a full menu.

OMC: Do you go out to bars when you're not working?

SS: My favorite is going to restaurants and sitting at the bar for dinner or just a drink. I recently went to Crazy Water and loved watching the chefs in action. However, I love Natalie, the bartender at Ristorante Bartolotta and all the servers. They're a super knowledgeable and friendly crew.


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