Part enchantress, part spirits obsessive, Nandini Khaund has always gravitated toward the shamanistic side of cocktail culture, crafting menus inspired by nostalgia and escapism. After several years behind the bar, Khaund is starting her own consulting company, Grimoire, which will work with hospitality groups, bars, and restaurants to facilitate positive work environments.
What was it like to help open The Violet Hour, which really jump-started Chicago’s cocktail scene back in 2007?
It was insane because cocktail culture didn’t quite exist then. At the time, the typical customer didn’t even know what a Negroni was, so you had to take these esoteric ideas and describe them in an approachable fashion. It definitely shaped the career I have now.
Your title at Cindy’s was “spirit guide,” which you’ve decided to keep. Why?
Cindy’s is in the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel, an old men’s club, but it’s this feminine space that sort of hovers over the roof on the 13th floor. I was like, “You built a 13th floor levitating bar? Cool!” I love witchy stuff. Then I was riffing with a friend and was like, I don’t want to be a “beverage director,” so we came up with spirit guide. How can I give that up?
You’ve mentioned the idea of the “stereotypical cocktail guy.” How is it different being a woman and running a bar?
I think there are notions about leadership that are patriarchal assumptions—you have to yell; you have to take credit, be bombastic. I don’t want to do that. I don’t have to compromise my femininity in order to be a leader.
The panel you were on at Chicago Style, a women-led cocktail conference, was “Turn Up The Volume Without Lowering Your Standards.” What was the aim?
Chicago Style is an inclusive cocktail conference that’s meant to be fun. Right now is a time of activism for a lot of people, and that event is partly about giving people a platform to speak, to work with each other, and to address sexual harassment. It’s time to laser in and fix it.
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