While you may have found yourself wandering off the side streets of the Fan into Balliceaux for an electronica dance party, Turkish folk concert, or to check in with their running roster of Richmond DJs, the true gem hidden in this Richmond treasure is their diverse and ever-growing cocktail program.
With a bar staff as diverse and ecclectic as the patrons and décor that surrounds them, Balliceaux boasts an equally colorful bar experience. After a long day at the office, we stopped in to Balliceaux to catch up with bartender Vanna Hem, but you can call him V for short.
Tell us about yourself…
I’m a bartender and a student of the craft at Balliceaux, but you may have also seen me at Vagabond. I like to think of myself as just a panda trying to do his thing behind the bar.
I haven’t thought about this in a while, but I’ve been bartending for 12 years at this point. I started off at kind of a dive joint called the Corner Bar and Grill where I planted my roots. I bartended and managed there and went on to Can Can. I stayed on at Can Can for about 8 years and met some awesome bartenders there that made me appreciate the bar game even more so. I did a lot of cool cocktail dinners there and let my wings spread so to speak. After that, I landed at Curry Craft and Postbellum for a stint. Now being at Balliceaux and Vagabond is great. They both feel like home to me. I'm back to my cocktail roots, creating and crafting again. Feels good to have that freedom to be creative again.
How did you get into bartending?
Well, that’s a loaded question. I didn’t really get into bartending as much as I kind of fell into it. My father was a bartender when I was growing up and I swore never to be in the business. A series of events happened and I landed my first bartending gig and realized I had inherited my father’s skills behind the bar. That was it. I fell in love with being behind the bar and never looked back.
What do you do when you’re not bartending? Any hobbies/side jobs/secret identities?
It’s no secret that when I’m not bartending I am most certainly either reading comic books or doing something with the comic book world. I am a HUGE comic book geek. Honestly I’m just a big kid. I have taken out whole teams of people at comic book trivia by myself. I like to think that as an accomplishment. I always take off from bartending on the Thursday before a comic book movie release as well. I still do the whole midnight release thing. I love it. Besides that I’m always thinking about the next cocktail.
What’s something people would be surprised to know about you?
Some people might actually be real surprised that not only was a wrestler and football player but I was also a male cheerleader. Yeah, that happened. Let’s not speak of that again.
What’s your favorite thing to drink? Favorite classic cocktail? Favorite thing to drink when no one’s looking?
My favorite will always be a glass of good whiskey on the rocks. A shot of Fernet or Cynar 70. Probably both. Needless to say, my favorite classic is a Manhattan. It’s above the other classics like the Negroni or Corpse Reviver, but I still got mad love for those cocktails too. My thing has always been “to each their own” when it comes to drinks. It’s all about preferences. When no one’s looking, I will always have a piña colada. Love that stuff. I like getting caught in the rain.
Tell us about your bar…
Balliceaux is sexy. You walk in and it’s dimly lit and the music’s just right. It’s got an almost like Chicago or Seattle feel to it. You could be one-on-one with someone at the bar or with your homies getting it in for the night. It’s great in the fact that it is so versatile.
What’s the neighborhood like?
Let’s be real. The parking around the neighborhood sucks. It’s the Fan. The neighborhood itself is quite eclectic. There are college students bustling from class to class. Then you have your young professionals in their suit and ties just trying to make it, and then you have your families just walking their dogs and hanging with their kids. It’s a great neighborhood in general. It’s beautiful to walk around.
What makes your bar unique?
The variety of the beers we always have rotating and the rotating cocktail menu. If you have trouble finding something to suit your needs our bar staff is very knowledgeable and can usually just whip something up in a whim based off of what you’re feeling at the moment. Just like our menu, we have an eclectic rotating bar staff from all walks of life. I feel it’s exciting to go in and maybe see Scott behind the bar and see what off-the-wall cocktail he’s concocting at the moment, or I can walk in on a Tuesday and turn up because I know Sarah Mullarney is there. Bottom line - we like to make everyone feel welcome and comfortable.
What’s your favorite part about working there?
My favorite part of the job is the freedom I have to create and freely think about cocktails. Nothing is taboo behind the bar here. The sheer amount of different people that walk through the door is amazing as well. The décor is on point. The atmosphere is totally up my alley.
What’s a good night look like for you? What are people ordering?
The bar is packed. People are talking and having a good time. It’s the buzz of the room and the feel of bar being somewhere you want to be. Somewhere you belong. You walk in and the bar is where it’s at. The flow of the conversations between people is wafting around the room. People are ordering shots for their friends or just grabbing a cocktail. What ever they’re drinking, they’re enjoying it with their friends.
What’s your favorite menu item / cocktail pairing?
The combination of the Russian Market cocktail with the Grilled Pork Shoulder and Cabbage Three Ways is killer. It’s the epitome of South East Asian food!
Can you share a Belle Isle creation with us? What inspired it?
Yeah absolutely! This was based on my wanting to create an original tiki flip. What came out was even better than I imagined honestly. The inspiration though was from the classic ways of making old school punches. I infused coconut cream with kaffir lime leaves and then washed the Belle Isle Premium Moonshine with it. Letting it all sit for about 5 hours and then coffee straining, which leaves the moonshine imparted with the flavors without all the cloudiness and mess. It’s quite deceiving because tasting it by itself, it taste like coconut water.
- 1 ½ oz. Kaffir/Coconut Cream-washed Belle Isle Premium Moonshine
- 1 oz. Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao
- ½ oz. Lemon Juice
- ½ oz. Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur
- ¼ oz. Demerara Syrup
- 1 Egg White
Chill a coupe glass. Combine all the ingredients, excluding the egg white, into a shaker tin. Wet shake for about 20-30 seconds. Strain the contents into a smaller shaker tin. Dump the ice. Add an egg white and dry shake for about 50-60 seconds. Empty out the chilled coupe and strain the cocktail into the glass. Garnish. Voila. Water of life.
Recipe by Vanna "V" Hem
Photos by Joey Wharton