- Erin O'Neill, Chronogrammies winner for Bartender
A good bartender can craft a killer cocktail and pour a perfect pint of beer. But what makes a great bartender? Readers chose Erin O’Neill from Tavern 23 in Poughkeepsie as their favorite regional bartender, thanks to her friendly demeanor, creative cocktails, and killer memory. With more than 10 years of experience behind the bar, the last five of which have been at the tavern, O’Neill has built a devoted following at the hometown bar.
“I know customers’ names, what they like to drink, and if they have a usual,” O’Neill explains. “I try my best to listen to what people have to say. It makes my life and heart full to get to know people in my community to build these relationships—and often, friendships—with locals. Hopefully I enrich their lives as much as they do mine—it’s what drives me and makes me love my job: that magical balance of feeling totally content in a fast-paced environment.”
Though she credits a gig selling wine at festivals in Syracuse in 1999 as her introduction to the industry, her first chance to get behind the bar was at Mr. P’s Roadhouse in Pleasant Valley 10 years later. “Not many will hire you to bartend without experience, but I found a bar willing to have faith in me and show me the ropes,” she says. At the same time, she had been waitressing at River Station in Poughkeepsie; so by the time a bartending position opened up there, she had all the skills she needed. Then in 2015, when friends of hers opened Tavern 23, she jumped at the chance to be a part of the team. “I’m so proud of Tavern 23, and my family there,” O’Neill says. It’s amazing to be part of the fabric of a place from inception,” she says
O’Neill admits she makes a mean espresso martini, and folks have raved about her Manhattans, but she’s also known for designing signature drinks for regulars, inspired by their tastes and conversations she’s had with them. “This all started with a special margarita for a customer, Mo, who became my friend. The Mo-Garita contains Patron Silver, Cointreau, half a fresh squeezed lime, and half a fresh squeezed orange, topped off with cranberry juice before you shake.” The twist on a classic has continued evolving for other customers. “I regularly make Mike-a-Ritas and Tommy-Ritas, and so on,” she says. “When people see me squeezing citrus, they have to know what I’m making.”
When she’s not at work, O’Neill can usually be found supporting the local music scene or catching a favorite national act like Tori Amos; though, the COVID-19 pandemic gave her plenty of time at home to indulge in another passion: cooking. As the Tavern reopens, O’Neill will be there. “Bartending is in my blood—seriously,” she explains. Her Irish maternal grandmother Joanie opened her own bar called The Village Pump in Pompey, New York, a dream that O’Neill shares. “She had a huge impact on my upbringing and showed me what is to be a good person, loved by those around you,” she says. “Where some personality types may find the mentality of tending bar to be daunting or intimidating, it feels natural to me.”