It might be the leather barstools. Could be the exposed brick. Or maybe it’s the white tile that resembles the kitchen you grew up in. Then there are the friendly smiles and the rustic wooden tables…really, it’s not clear where it begins, but everything about Ward 8 adds up to the perfect feeling of homestyle comfort.
It’s very fitting that Ward 8 opened in the heart of the winter in 2013, because nothing feels more right than sipping a wintertime cocktail by the floor-to-ceiling windows while watching the snowfall, eating mac and cheese, braised short ribs, or cheesesteak dumplings, and sipping on a cocktail made by Sean Earley, a bartender who will craft anything to suit your mood.
I sat down with Sean to watch him hard at work behind the bar, flaming garnishes and all, and chat about the importance of comedic relief in a world of hospitality, among other things.
What is your favorite cocktail to make?
Depending on the mood, there’s a Drambuie cocktail with Fernet and pineapple that Sean says really shocks people. “It’s so dessert-y, but also has the complex components of the fernet and bitters in there. It has the flavors people love in a sweeter drink, but also those minty and sort of savory notes.”
“Every bartender tends to keep a couple cocktails in their back pocket to impress people with…something different to really shock people with.”
What is your favorite cocktail to drink?
A whiskey man by nature, Sean recently rediscovered a love for an old classic: “the daiquiri is so simple and delicious, such wonderful flavors.”
Another favorite of his? The Last Word:
“All of these components are distinct and very bold on their own, but together they combine to create something totally different.”
What is your must-have bar tool?
The Boston Shaker and the Hawthorn Strainer are kind of the basis for your bar kit as Sean points out, but he’s also excited to talk about the importance of graters and zesters for their multi-use purposes (think nutmeg, cinnamon, and citrus).
“What am I talking about? Booze! The most important component of your bar is booze.”
Touché Sean, touché.
What is your favorite bartending or customer story?
Having moved here recently from Boise, Idaho, Sean was surprised when the phones at Ward 8 kept ringing with people asking if he was working. Thinking it was a buddy from back in Boise pulling some sort of prank, he was surprised to learn the truth, “as it turned out, it was a couple I had come to know in Boise who have a summer home here in Boston (I didn’t know that at the time). They were calling to find me because they’d heard I’d come to Boston. So my first regulars here at Ward 8 were from across the country. They came in and gave me a big hug…it was awesome. And it kind of felt like I was home.”
I’m pretty sure that’s how you know when you’re really good at your job, Sean.
Favorite food/drink pairing?
Prosecco and oysters
Tell us about your personal journey and what led you to bartending.
“It was an accident to put me through school, but my major was actually psychology, so I really ended up in the right profession I guess….helping people with their problems. You create your own energy and that creates your own space. People either feed off that and enjoy it or not.”
Back in Boise, Sean was involved in the nation’s first distillery, Bardenay, “I took over the bar program there and as a distillery, we’d make our own spirits and it was nice having that tie and bond to the cocktails. Working with the Master Distiller there really fueled my curiosity and added a whole new layer to the puzzle.”
Sean immediately felt at home upon joining Ward 8 with its great cocktail scene that also caters to loyal regulars, “[GM] Mike Wyatt [formerly of Easter Standard] is unbelievable and this is the most knowledgeable bar staff I’ve ever worked with.”
How do you keep a fresh spin on what you offer in your beverage program?
On top of regularly tasting and bringing in new products, “everyone brings something to the table through regular bar meetings with a staff who all know their cocktails” says Sean. Using the freshest and highest quality ingredients, Ward 8’s beverage program also offers a playful spin through its antique glassware that the staff collect for the bar.
The menu is very seasonally focused as well and after tasting some of the specialty cold weather cocktails, I’m thinking maybe winter in Boston does have a few perks.
What is your biggest piece of advice for aspiring bar managers?
“Be ready to put your heart and soul into it because it is a lot and you’re always thinking about it, even off the clock.”
What’s most important to Sean? Focusing on making people feel comfortable, because this is the hospitality industry and that’s extremely important, “It’s supposed to be about a warm friendly environment and I think people forget that sometimes. More important than the cocktails, whatever you bring to the table has to be special...your own personal addition.”
And Sean takes his own advice very seriously, bringing his personal stash of jokes to the table on a list he’s been compiling for about a dozen years, and never leaves home without. “I kind of revise it as I go. It has key words to remind me of about 100 of my jokes, so I have one for every moment.” The taped up pieces of scrap paper clearly have a story to tell.
“I should probably laminate this before it disintegrates.”
What is your favorite thing about BevSpot?
“In my past jobs, we’ve pulled out every single bottle and put them all on the counter to count them all, making sure not to miss anything, and then put them all back. We had a lot of booze so that is a lot of work.”
“With BevSpot, I can take segments and conform it to Ward 8’s bar, and enter it in right through my phone. I’ve never seen a better system, honestly. It’s really impressive and extremely user friendly.”
We all know that inventory is never going to be fun, but according to Sean, BevSpot takes the pain out of it, and we love hearing that he has more time to focus on the things he loves about his job.
Maybe he can use some of that extra time to type up and laminate his joke list. We’ll be looking out for that next time, Sean. Thanks for the chat and great cocktails!