Hours after Mary Palac competed in the national finals of Speed Rack Season 7, she chopped off the bulk of her long, luminous black hair onstage and donated it to charity. In both instances, she blew the crowd away with her graceful energy and strength under pressure.
Born in the Philippines and raised in the Bay Area, Palac spent the last decade tending bar in San Jose, Calif. She slings drinks with purpose and grace in her residency at Paper Plane, speaks with conviction in the interest of making the industry a better and safer place for women and minorities to work, and is a founding member and current president of the Silicon Valley chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild.
In other words, Palac is the kind of person you definitely want chatting with you from the other side of the bar. She’s also an alumna of Camp Runamok, San Antonio Cocktail Conference’s Team Taco, and Tales of the Cocktail’s Cocktail Apprentice Program.
We caught up with her to hear about the whisky that haunts her dreams, and one particularly fateful shot of Patrón.
1. What’s your desert-island drink?
Is Topo Chico an appropriate answer? Just kidding, I know you meant booze. So I’m going to go ahead and pretend there’s coconuts on this island and say Monkey Shoulder and coconut water. It’s delicious and a little nutritious; it’ll both dehydrate and rehydrate me at the same time. Also, refreshingly crushable.
2. What’s the first drink you bought when you turned 21?
God, that was a rough night. I had been using a fake ID for a couple of years by the time I turned 21, but I’m pretty sure my first legal drink order was an Amaretto Sour with a shot of Patrón. Clearly, I was already an expert.
3. FMK three cocktails: Negroni, Margarita, Manhattan?
I’d marry a Negroni. There are a million different ways to make a Negroni, so I’d never be bored. I’d fuck a Margarita; it’s almost like a guilty pleasure, especially if its blended. And sadly, I’d kill a Manhattan (I prefer a Brooklyn anyway).
4. You’re on death row. What’s your final drink?
The Port Wood Finish Laphroaig Cairdeas 2013 edition. That whisky still haunts my dreams. I fell hard and fast for this one … it’s smoky, fruity, heaven. And with a finish so long, it would still be lingering on my taste buds with my final breath.
5. You can only drink at one bar for the rest of your life. What is it?
I know this is going to sound cheesy, but the bar I’m lucky enough to call home, Paper Plane. I seriously work with one of the best teams with the best people out there, and I love being served by every one of them. I was a guest there long before I ever worked there, and everything — from the amazing bar team to the huge back bar of spirits I couldn’t get through in one lifetime — feels like home to me.
6. What’s the best and worst bottle on your shelf?
I don’t think there’s a worst bottle; we are pretty meticulous about what makes it on the shelves and every bottle serves a purpose, but there are definitely some I love more than others. We get weird stuff all the time for promos, like a bottle of Captain Morgan Jack-O’Blast, but it makes the staff happy when they can take it home, so it never really makes it onto the shelf.
The best? Probably the A.H. Hirsch Reserve 16 year, both for rarity and deliciousness.
7. What cocktail will you never order again?
Does anyone remember the Brain Hemorrhage? No? You kids too young for that? It was basically Irish cream and peach schnapps with a splash of grenadine to look like blood, but if you waited too long it would curdle. YOU COULD FEEL THE CURDLED CREAM IN YOUR MOUTH. I shudder at the memory.