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On A Mission To Bring Gin To The Heartland

The front bar of a Persian restaurant in St. Louis becomes an unlikely headquarters for upscale cocktails.

Natasha Bahrami grew up in St. Louis working in Café Natasha, her parents’ Persian restaurant. After a stint working in the foreign policy world in Washington DC, she moved back to St. Louis to open the Gin Room in Café Natasha’s, a combination bar and platform for Bahrami to educate guests about the many pleasures of her favorite spirit. In 2017, Bahrami started GinWorld, which organizes gin symposiums worldwide.

I literally grew up in the restaurant industry. I was crawling around when my parents were putting the tiles on the floor in preparation of opening their first mom-and-pop restaurant in downtown St. Louis. My father was a geologist and my mother was a nurse, and there was a downturn in the economy. They were pregnant with their first child, and they had to figure out something to do. They would wrap me up in a blanket and take me to work at 3 a.m. every morning. They would open at 5:30 a.m., serving breakfast and lunch to downtown. That really taught me hard work and that if you want something, you have to build it yourself.

My parents were Persian, and they wanted to open a Persian-cuisine restaurant. But this was 1983, when Chinese and Mexican were considered really ethnic. My parents had to educate their guests into Persian cuisine, slowly integrating them into the food by offering fresh-made American staples like roast beef and chicken salad with sides of Persian dill lima bean rice, or Persian lentil soup.

I started working the cash register between ages 12 and 13, and around that time someone convinced my parents to open a full-scale Persian restaurant, Café Natasha. From that moment, I would never really see them anymore, other than working at the restaurant.

When I was 18, my father wanted to open another restaurant. He went to try to do it on his own, but it almost bankrupted us. My mom had to go over to that restaurant, and the two of them got it open and running. So for me, it wasn’t a choice anymore. I had to run Café Natasha.

This is when my gin journey started. I had just started at St. Louis University—full class load, plus running the restaurant, which I did from age 18 to 21. I didn’t want to. I hated it. Other people go to school and they party—they have this college experience. I went to school and I went to work. In retrospect, it probably taught me everything I’ve ever needed to know about life, at a much younger age.

I say to people as a joke, “The restaurant business will drive you to drink.” My drink of choice at that time was a dirty martini, usually vodka, which was most popular those days. Then one day, a bartender made me the best dirty martini I’d tasted in my 22 years. When I learned that it was gin, it rocked my world. From that moment, I started drinking gin.

Eventually, I moved to New York, did a stint in Spain, and then moved to Washington DC where I was working in foreign policy at a law firm doing IT research. I was still running the restaurant—flying back to St. Louis every two weeks. My mother came to visit, and I said to her, “I know that I’m supposed to be doing this job, but I want to open a gin bar.” She said, “Tasha, if you passionately want to do something, you can do anything.”

For the next half a year, each time I flew back to St. Louis, I would implement a slightly different cocktail menu to see if this would work before we full-fledged it. Trying to get a guest base at Café Natasha to baby-step into this new project in liquor was difficult. Forget the gin—it’s different than just “here’s a rum and coke, if someone wants it.” In the Persian tradition there are a lot of halal people who don’t drink at all. So here I am, trying to push a liquor program in a restaurant where the ethnicity’s home country, Iran, legally has no alcohol.

In DC, I was also working at a couple of bars for experience. Every shift, I would try to convince my bosses to do a gin program. I thought Washington DC would be open to all of these things. But they were like, “Gin? No, keep it vodka.” The only way they allowed me to do it was because they saw proceeds increase on the nights that I was working.

Photo: Courtesy Natasha Bahrami.

When I was opening the Gin Room, Café Natasha was by then an old restaurant. We had been in that location for over 30 years. It needed upgrading, but it was like pulling teeth with my parents, who were used to what they were used to. I had to convince them that people go out for the atmosphere, and a gin bar and a great restaurant cannot survive or grow in pricing without it. In the first two years after we opened the Gin Room and changed our marketing, we doubled our profits.

When I started bringing gin to St. Louis, I’d hear, “We’re barbecue, we’re bourbon, we’re beer—that’s what thrives here.” But I thought, okay, it sounds like there’s a void here that I could capitalize on. So despite everybody saying it’s not going to work, I said, what do I have to lose? I’ll buy some bottles of gin, and if it doesn’t sell, I get a great gin collection for myself to drink.

The same way I learned from my parents and what they had to do to survive, I knew that the only way I could make gin work was through education. Over the first two years of opening the Gin Room, every single person who walked in was basically spoon-fed. We were patient. When they ordered a vodka martini, we asked them if they’d tried gin before. We were understanding when they said they loved bourbon. Then we introduced them to barrel-aged gin—moving them into the category of gin through something that smelled, tasted, and looked like bourbon.

Another obstacle was the distributors. They were limited in the gin selection. Just because I wanted to open a gin bar didn’t mean distributors were going to bring in more gins for me. We also had to baby-step this too. We got other bars involved. This is when the American contemporary gin distilling movement was really getting stronger in the US. They started landing at my bar. By our third year, we had so many distillers reaching out that we decided to host our first Gin Festival, and 30 distillers showed up.

When COVID hit, I had just been in multiple cities like DC and New York hosting GinWorld. I came back to Café Natasha right when those cities were closing. Five days or so after that, we closed down completely for about three weeks—no to-go, no nothing. We had to figure out what was happening and how to keep people safe.

My mother, who is 72, is at the core of what we do—she runs the restaurant. We looked at each other and we said, “We’ve been through harder than this.” We’d been through 9/11 where no one would come in because we were a Persian restaurant. This pandemic is a desert right now and everyone’s going through it, but there were other things we went through alone.

We have strong relationships with our gin brands. They reached out to us and said, “What can we do for you, to help out?” Instead of charity and getting money from people, we started saying hey, we have all these brands we’re connected with, so we started doing Education Live classes. It’s the same things that we do at the Gin Room and at our symposiums. We’ve always been good at social media, so it was kind of an easy transition for us.

We already had a captive audience tired of sitting in their houses. So we worked together with our brands to make cocktail kits with ingredients and recipes that guests could come pick up, until we could finally get to-go orders for food at the restaurant. We would have live sessions with customers, where it was us and the distiller or the brand ambassador deep-diving into the spirits. Customers would DM us and ask us about at-home drinks they were making. All of the money that we brought in went to our employees because we were trying to keep everyone afloat.

My view of the future is positive. I think more than ever, guests are realizing how much we as an industry—bartenders and restaurants—are integral to their lifestyles and part of the community. I know it’s going to be a slightly different view. I think these precautions taking place now are going to have to continue in the future. Doing things virtually, like education—things like that are going to have to continue.

Before, people wanted to go to the most crowded space to see and be seen. Now we might still want to see and be seen and to interact, but I think we’re going to want to be a bit more apart from each other. Communal tables will probably be going away. We’re going to be doing more family communal tables, because guests do want a social group that they’re comfortable with.

A lot of bars and clubs in St. Louis have shut down because of COVID. Some of them have decided that their concept just isn’t going to work. These were some of the best cocktail bars out there. Just like 10 years ago, grasshopper martini bars started closing because it wasn’t what people wanted anymore. They wanted classic cocktails rather than strawberry daiquiris. All it means is that concepts are changing. But people still want to go out.