“Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.” – Mark Twain
These days, when you go to a bar, the majority of people there won’t know what they want to drink. So they play it safe with a light beer. Or maybe a chardonnay.
But Emily Ross-Johnson is trying to change that, one drink at a time.
The creative genius behind fern + shaker, Ross-Johnson is leading a cocktail revolution, bringing life back to the liquids that are so much a part of our social occasions. “When you have a good cocktail it kind of blows your mind a little,” she told us, in an understatement.
It wasn’t always this way for the 38-year-old Portland resident. Like many college graduates, she pursued other career paths until she found her true calling.
First, she was an opera singer in New York City, balancing this with jobs in the financial industry. About a decade ago, her life began to change, for the better, thanks to a cocktail resurgence that saw a return to Prohibition-era drinks to big cities like New York.
As speakeasies began to pop up around the country, Ross-Johnson began hosting whiskey tastings in the living room of her apartment. Quickly word started to spread and Ross-Johnson formed the Astoria Whiskey Society, a club that had 400 members at its height before she moved west with her boyfriend six months ago.
Ross-Johnson’s first foray into whiskey drinking was as a graduate student at Indiana University, where she would imbibe in the spirit at private dinners with friends. Her knowledge expanded when she moved to New York, where “a lot of people in the finance industry liked to show their wealth and status by drinking expensive things. At the time, it was all about expensive whiskey so I got to know a lot about it by working in finance.”
A Complex Drink
The beauty of whiskey, Ross-Johnson told us, is its complexity. With scotch, for instance, one might taste a distinct flavor on the first sip. “Two sips later, you might get something different,” she said. “If you add water to it, you might get something different.”
What was once a hobby became a passion that has become a full-blown career for Ross-Johnson whose website showcases cocktails she makes, all of which are seasonally focused and use local ingredients found in Oregon. And surprisingly, they are simple (and fun) to make.
Her business has expanded to teaching classes – a sort of Cocktails 101 that focuses on the science, chemistry and tools needed to make a good drink. Education is a key component to fern + shaker because “many people are afraid to order cocktails at a bar,” Ross-Johnson says. “They don’t know what they want or like and don’t want to look stupid ordering the wrong thing.”
If anything, Ross-Johnson said ordering or making cocktails should inspire confidence, not fear. “A lot of people don’t know what a good cocktail is,” she said. “They haven’t ever been served one. Unless they sought out a great cocktail, they are usually getting something that is really sweet or sour or not mixed well. They think there’s no such thing as a good cocktail until someone shows them the light.”
At American Sunglass, we raise our glasses to people like Ross-Johnson who are showing the beauty, art and science that can be found in something as ordinary and overlooked as a drink. It’s not too different from how we view sunglasses. On the surface, not much has changed. But dig a little deeper and you get brands like Celine that are reinventing the way we look at the world thanks to a new, hip, stylistic approach to sunglasses. That’s something we’ll gladly drink to.
Words of an Icon: “Don’t give up on your dream and passion. Sometimes things will distract you from that mission, but always refocus and reevaluate to realize your goals.” – Emily Ross-Johnson