Behind the bar with Kelly Wooldridge at Trillium
Kelly Wooldridge, beverage director and sommelier at the recently opened Trillium, was still in high school when he felt the first stirrings of interest in professional bartending.
courtesy of Kelly Wooldridge
"There was this guy, Willie Grandison, at the American Restaurant in Kansas City," he explains. "This bartender had been there since the restaurant opened. I met him in 2002, and he had been there for almost thirty years. He was a Playboy bartender of the year, and he had this incredible joy for tending bar and being there with his customers every day. It was one of my first experiences with the hospitality of bartending. I was in high school so I couldn't drink, but I was so intrigued by the guy and his following."
It wasn't until five years later, though, that Wooldridge would catch the bug in a more meaningful way. "When I moved to Boston in 2007, I met a guy named Cliff Travers," he says. "Whether or not he would remember me, I don't know, but he was consulting on a bar program at Gaslight, which I was helping open. I was blown away by his cocktails. He was making cool drinks and taking drinks in a direction I didn't know about. At that point, I just knew Manhattans, tonic drinks and candy cocktails. I had no real concept of bartending or revival cocktails. He made a big impression on me."
Plus, Wooldridge got a chance to work intimately with his program, taking over the bar when Travers moved on to other projects. "I just crash-coursed it," he recalls. "I started going out to a ton of bars and cocktail palaces, where I was drinking and learning and getting into it. I got to blindly feel my way through."
Cocktails weren't Wooldridge's first love in the beverage world, though: He fell into spirits almost accidentally, via his obsession with wine. "Wine has always been my passion," he explains. "I had my first real experience with it was when I was a kid working at this country club. I helped cook a dinner; it was a five-course vertical tasting with Opus One. I was just pumped because I was this sixteen-year-old, the youngest kid by like ten years, and my boss invited me to cook this dinner with him. Afterwards, he said, 'Hey, let's taste some wine. It's important to taste these things to learn about it.' I was totally sucked in."
So when Wooldridge moved out to Boston, it was to work in wine. "I was going there to be a wine director," he says. "The spirits thing was just this happy accident."
Back in Denver, Wooldridge sold wine and spirits for Alpha Wine and worked at Colt & Gray while he studied for his advanced sommelier certification through the Court of Master Sommeliers. He passed the test earlier this year and is now waiting to be invited to sit for the Master exam.
In the meantime, he got on board to run the beverage program when Ryan Leinonen's Trillium opened in early December, lending his immense knowledge of wine and spirits to the bar. What follows are his thoughts on life behind the stick: