Interview with Rust Belt Rising Star Bartender Will Hollingsworth of The Spotted Owl

by Caroline Hatchett
December 2016

Caroline Hathett: How did you get your start?
Will Hollingsworth:
I came to Cleveland when I was 23 and wanted to try my hand at bartending, and had never bartended before. I sat at The Greenhouse Tavern and maxed out my credit cards sitting there during happy hours. Eventually I wore them down, and they hired me. I got in there, like “When can I get back there?” and was told I’d be running food. I got behind the bar within three months through sheer force of will. I left in September of 2010 to work at Lolita. In January 2011, I started writing business plans. I spent six months raising money, a year in design, and a year in construction. 

CH: Who’s your mentor?
WH:
Nobody really taught me how to make cocktails until six months after we opened. I felt like my compass was spinning. I needed to go to New York and see drink making done at the highest possible level. I thought, “Is what they’re doing in New York qualitatively better than what we’re doing here, or quantitatively better than what we’re doing here.” I put it out there on Facebook that I wanted to visit. It was February 2014. Dead Rabbit’s third menu had just come out, and my team had spent a month obsessing over it. I’m watching the Facebook comment thread populate and Jack McGarry wrote. Then I shit my pants. I was a wreck. Then I e-mailed him. I spent a week with Jillian Vose. In terms of cocktail mentors, she would be it. After the experience, I called a staff meeting. I knew what I wanted—no more compromise. New York cocktails are better than ours, but they not so much better that we can’t keep up. There’s an opportunity for us here to do something world class. 

CH: Tell me about your drink making philosophy.
WH:
The watch word around here is that simple is elegant and elegant is simple. A good thing is better by making it simpler rather than making it more complicated. I’m a reductionist thinker. All of the best drinks aren’t terribly overwrought in their conception or execution. 

CH: How do you name your cocktails?
WH:
I don’t name them until they’re made. I like to make a drink and sit with it and attempt to have a pure experience with it and find out what it reminds me of. Sometimes it reminds me of a poem. Sometimes it reminds me of a pair of sneakers. Generally speaking, I’ll name it based on that association.

CH: Tell me about opening the bar? What was your biggest challenge and how did you overcome it?
WH:
I raised a quarter of a million dollars. A liquor license is $30,000. I pulled it off because we built all of this from scratch. All of our electric, plumbing, HVAC—it’s all brand new. I negotiated that my landlord put in a lot. He put in $150,000. All in all, I would estimate that it cost $400,000 to open. But this bar had to get built. Someone had to build a bar like this.