On a cross-country road trip in late 2005, the Colorado native landed in New York City and became a regular at Milk & Honey, a speakeasy-style bar. Owner Sasha Petraske mentioned that a few star employees were leaving and Sterling offered to help out. She had zero experience bartending—didn’t even know what a Manhattan was—but she trained on the job, where she was inspired to hone her skills as the mixology movement took off. With a B.S. in psychology and business, Sterling’s goals did not include professional bartending, but her skills turned out to work to her advantage. By 2012, bartending led to a full partnership in Petraske’s newest bar, Middle Branch. The industry now considers her a leader in the female mixologist movement and she’s ready to open her own bar.
How does a background in business and psychology help you on the job?
Relationships play a big part in bartending, and that’s where psychology comes in. Knowing yourself is the best way to figure out other people. I use my background in business systems, accounting and marketing every day in managing the finances and operations at Middle Branch.
What’s your biggest challenge, and how have you overcome it?
Customers assume the bartender is the guy in the room. I lead by example, enhancing the finesse on a regular basis—learning from other mixologists, keeping up with my education and sharing my knowledge. Women are better equipped for mixology both physically and emotionally. We put more care into drinks; it’s almost instinctual, like handling a baby. I also make a point of listening to and engaging in conversation with guests. It garners respect.
Where do you see mixology going?
I see more food-and-cocktail pairings in the future. Old-school bartenders will tell you they don’t do pairings, but more chefs and mixologists are working together these days, and the results are amazing.
What’s your next venture?
I want to open my own place within a year in Denver. It’s such a great market; it’s growing so fast with lots of educated young people who are savvy about quality and sophisticated about cocktail culture. I’m writing a business plan to develop a classy tiki bar and am looking for the right location.
Any advice for other entrepreneurs?
Don’t even think about starting your own thing until you have at least five years experience. And don’t disregard an opportunity because the timing isn’t right. I now feel that landing the job at Milk & Honey was my destiny; my lucky mistake.