An 18-year-old Julia Momose was in love with bartending — but there was one problem. The manager of Rulloff's, an old-school college bar in Ithaca, New York, refused to hire women bartenders — because "they just want to look cute and flirt and make money and don't actually care."
Then a freshman at Cornell University after spending her entire life in Japan where she "learned not to rock the boat," Momose was used to facing challenges related to her gender, and she wouldn't let another person's stereotypes stop her. It's become an ongoing theme in her life, one she has overcome time and time again.
"I told her that I want to bartend and that I will work harder than anything you've ever seen to make it happen," Momose says of her conversation with that manager. "Being a woman should not affect me ever being the best. I know for a fact that I can exceed expectations, and surprise you when you trust me to try."
Momose, now 27, got that job at Rulloff's — initially as a bar back. And after working her way up to bartender and holding jobs in Japan and Baltimore, Momose, who is half Japanese, became the first woman to bartend at the Alinea Group's heralded speakeasy-style bar The Office below The Aviary in Chicago. She is now head bartender at GreenRiver, the award-winning Chicago cocktail bar and restaurant from the men behind New York City's acclaimed bar The Dead Rabbit and Danny Meyer's world-renowned Union Square Hospitality Group.
For The Dead Rabbit and GreenRiver partner Sean Muldoon, Momose's skill, hardworking nature, and creativity, wrapped up in her quiet personality, results in her being one of the best bartenders in the United States. "I consider Julia to be one of the top cocktail bartenders and drink creators in the entire country," Muldoon says. "She is maybe not as well known as many other bartenders, but she certainly is as good, if not better, than any of the others."
GreenRiver's thought-provoking menu is broken down into eight ingredient-based sections with four cocktails on each, themed and named after historic Chicagoans of Irish descent. Most of the drinks were composed and tweaked by Momose over many months and, in some cases, years. "Each drink is a work of art and labor and love," Muldoon says. "Her ideas when putting drinks together are really out there — there aren't too many people who can think about drinks the way she does." Former Aviary beverage director Charles Joly agrees saying "she has fantastic creativity and attention to detail. Her open mind leads to exploration of flavors that are interesting and intriguing."
This is a chance to show looks can be deceiving
Momose continues to break down stereotypes — even those relating to drinks and ingredients — while cementing her reputation as one of the best cocktailers anywhere. Case in point: She's launching a new menu at Annex, the sultry second cocktail bar inside GreenRiver, focusing on something many people often pigeonhole as feminine, with only a certain flavor profile, and possibly not even drinkable — flowers. "I'm really excited and also a little bit nervous about it because it's a stereotype, or a category for a flavor that gets stereotyped all the time," she says. "I want to take what people think flowers are and what they taste like and totally turn it around. This is a chance to show that looks can be deceiving."
While Momose is one of the country's best at the technical and creative aspects of making drinks, the human interaction in bartending is equally important to her. She hopes to one day open a much smaller bar where she can directly interact with and make the drinks for every guest. "Day after day, I could be the best at what I do, but really what I want is to be the best for that person, for that guest in that moment," she says. After all the obstacles she's overcome already, who would bet against her?
Daniel Gerzina is Eater Chicago's editor.
Julia Momose is the head bartender at GreenRiver in Chicago. Images by Nick Fochtman.
Editors: Dana Hatic and Sonia Chopra
Copy editor: Dawn Mobley
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