ST. LOUIS — Natasha Bahrami is known as "the gin girl" in St. Louis beverage industry circles. And for good reason.
Bahrami was the first and only American to be inducted into Gin Magazine's Gin Hall of Fame earlier this year — the highest accolade the magazine bestows upon gin members across the globe. But long before her induction, Bahrami opened The Gin Room in St. Louis in 2014, and created Ginworld, the largest gin festival in the U.S., in 2015.
Prior to finding her passion for gin, Bahrami worked and traveled all over the world, including Spain, New York, Lebanon and Washington, D.C., mostly working in international relations and public policy.
But it was her years of experience working at her parents' restaurant — Cafe Natasha — that pulled her back home.
"I was born and raised in the restaurant industry," she said. "We had built a community at Cafe Natasha, so I knew I wanted to come back to St. Louis and open a gin bar here."
You were involved in your parents' restaurant early on — what are some memories you have? I'm one of the handfuls of people that can say I grew up crawling in the restaurant business. I was a toddler when my parents opened their first restaurant, Little Kitchen, in downtown St. Louis in 1983. My parents would swaddle me in a blanket and take me to work with them. I remember we'd pick up doughnuts in the morning for the breakfast crew. I had a room there just for me. I think all of that framed my life going forward. Just seeing their hard work and perseverance has created me into who I am today.
Did you want to work in the family business one day? No. I both loved and hated the restaurant business. They (my parents) both got laid off work (before opening Little Kitchen) and had to do something. My parents had no restaurant experience but my father had this talent that we didn't even understand. He could recreate flavors of food he'd tried all across the world so many years ago. But there was no talk of me continuing in the business. They opened the restaurant to help pay for my education and not have me in the industry.
But that changed. What's your involvement today and how did you get here? I never saw myself on a straight and narrow path. In a Persian family, you either become a doctor, engineer or lawyer, but my parents always allowed me to be free thinking. I got a business degree, but then I fell in love with photography. I knew it wouldn't get me anywhere, so I got a master's degree in international relations. That took me to Lebanon. Then I moved to Washington, D.C., and did some policy work there. I started picking up shifts at bars in D.C., and I eventually made my way back to St. Louis to open up The Gin Room in 2014. Today, I'm also partial owner of the restaurant, Cafe Natasha, along with my mother. My father passed away in 2016, so we've run it in ownership together since then.
How did you get into gin? The restaurant industry will drive you to drink. It all started with a dirty martini when I was in my early 20s. It was my drink of choice at the time, even though I didn't understand what a dirty martini really was. I had gone to this bar at one point and there was an older gentleman working there. He had probably been bartending for decades. I asked for a dirty martini, and in my ripe 22 years of age, it was the best dirty martini I'd ever had. I asked him if he used a special olive juice and he said it was gin and olive juice. I responded by asking, "You put gin in this?" And he walked away. He was probably annoyed that I asked such a question. A classic martini is built with gin. Gin had made this beautiful dirty martini that I had been having wrong this entire time. That got me into falling in love with gin.
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