Leann Berry ('85) traded in the stage for the bar, but she says they are not much different.
Berry, a drama major who toured nationally with the improv group The Wild Side and worked as a stand-up comic while living in New York, is now bar manager of the revamped Dallas restaurant The Cedars Social. She has won praise for her cocktails that incorporate fresh, unusual ingredients. D Magazine named her Best Bartender in 2015 and her tamarind margarita the best in Dallas.
"The ease I had on stage helps with the ease I have behind the bar," she says. "I'm a storyteller and people love a good story."
Berry's jokes are observations she picks up from her everyday life.
"It's just the kinds of things that happen to me," she says. "Quirkiness follows me around. That's what my comedy is based on. I tell stories."
With the comedy troupe The Wild Side, she made up characters such as the spandex-wearing singer Chain Link, who was a combination of Joan Jett, Patty Smith and Chrissie Hynde.
"I loved the energy of being on stage," she says.
But she didn't want to sacrifice her life to touring.
"That was a long, long road," she says. "But, I still wanted to enjoy working with people and making them laugh."
So she took a job at Chili's in New York City, and she found a new career connecting with the public.
Blending together unusual concoctions is something Berry has been doing since she was a kid growing up in Keller. Her mother would give her different colors of bubble bath.
"I mixed them all in the bathtub," she says. "I like creating stuff."
She then learned she enjoyed cooking. And in 2001, she discovered spirits as ingredients. While she was working for Ciudad restaurant in Dallas, alcohol company Future Brands, now called Beam Suntory, rolled out several new flavors and Berry started experimenting.
She begins by picking the spirit she wants to feature.
"I work to heighten the flavor of that spirit, while rounding it out with other flavors," says Berry, who uses no more than four ingredients so that people can taste them all.
For The Cedars Social menu, Berry tries to be inventive while bringing in Mexican influences. Once she found some leftover HooDoo chicory liqueur and thought it would go well with hibiscus, elderflower, lime and Sombra Joven Mezcal. She named it the Borracho Rojo, Spanish for the Red-faced Drunk.
Berry's famous tamarind margarita was inspired by chef Abraham Salum of Komali, the Dallas Mexican restaurant she worked for from 2008 to 2017. She wanted a drink that would complement one of his spicy Mexican appetizers and thought tamarind would be perfect to cool it down. She added a spiced rim around it.
While the margarita has earned Berry much praise, she says her biggest rewards come from talking with guests who inspire her through their positive reactions to her stories and cocktails.
One evening, a customer sitting by himself, ordered the Borracho Rojo, then the Manhattan Mole to pair with his chicken mole dinner.
"He came to me up afterward and said, 'That was a beautiful experience. The drinks were flawless bringing the meal together for me."
Another evening, a frequent customer came in.
"He's like, 'Make me something.' So I thought what cocktail have I not made him before?"
So Berry made something up and he was amazed.
"It's exciting to create something out of your head," she says. "I'm like 'Wow, I guess I know what I'm doing.' My high is when my drinks come together and people enjoy them."