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Mixologist Fanny Chu on the Future of Queer Cocktail Culture

by Kelsy Chauvin

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Sunday February 7, 2021

Fanny Chu with her dog, Bowie, after hours at Donna Cocktail Club. (October, 2020)
Fanny Chu with her dog, Bowie, after hours at Donna Cocktail Club. (October, 2020)  (Source:Shannon Sturgis)

Award-winning mixologist Fanny Chu is quick to talk about the value of fruit-juice pulp, homemade orgeat, and other fresh cocktail ingredients. But when it comes to the term "organic," she's likely referring to bar culture.

Chu was the last head bartender of Donna, the beloved Williamsburg, New York cocktail club that shuttered in late 2020. Like so many other neighborhood favorites, the COVID-19 pandemic took down Donna, and with it, a Brooklyn bar that understood the kind of environment in which LGBTQ patrons want to drink. But it wasn't necessarily a gay bar.

As Chu explains it, queer folks favored the bar organically.

"It's location, word-of-mouth, and how good your cocktails are — and, I believe, the ambiance, and how people feel safe in spaces," says Chu, 44. "It's how you make people feel when they come in."

Chu also suggests that a gay-friendly social- and digital media presence helps, "like when people review a bar on Yelp and Google or some apps. So when people are visiting town or looking for something new, they see that and think, 'Maybe we should go check this place out,'" says Chu.

But one thing is certain: Magic doesn't always manifest just because an establishment formulated the right menu, Instagram scroll or even location.

"It happens organically," she says. "When something's forced, it just doesn't feel right."

Fanny Chu, PUNCH bartender in residence at Donna Cocktail Club.
Fanny Chu, PUNCH bartender in residence at Donna Cocktail Club.  (Source: Rebecca Smeyne)

The School of 'On the Rocks'

Chu kicked off her bartending career many years back in Costa Mesa, California, where she raked in weekend tips at a gay bar while keeping her day job as a lab technician. She says her parents were the practical force ever reminding her to keep a steady health-industry job with benefits. Bartending took a back seat once she relocated to New York in 2011.

But Chu found herself starved for a creative outlet and soon got hired as a part-time barback at her favorite haunt, Donna. Glad to start from the ground up, Chu said she was lucky to work among great bartenders, many of them LGBTQ. She moonlighted there and the Lower East Side's Nitecap (sadly, also shuttered in 2020), among other bars.

Each gig contributed to Chu's mixology and service education, whether it was "research and development" of new drinks, handling handsy customers, or diffusing heated situations. By July 2019, Chu had been named PUNCH magazine's "Bartender in Residence" for her takes on the Piña Colada and Jungle Bird.

Along the way, Chu also learned that most of the time, LGBTQ guests are drawn to bars where they feel safe, often thanks to visible queer staff — a vibe that made Donna a go-to gay date spot. And while the LGBTQ community will always adore gay "dive" bars, they're as likely to appreciate upscale craft cocktails as they are a simple vodka and soda or a machine-churned margarita.

"We are smart and know what to order by the establishment. If we're going to a dive bar, we're less likely to order a martini," says Chu. "But I feel like the queer community is also really open-minded and creative, too, and more inclined to try something new. It just depends on the kind of bar and how the owner wants their bar to be."

Rum to the Jungle, El Dorado 8 year, Clairin Casimir, Giffard Banane du Brésil, house made oat syrup, lemon, and a port float. (Donna Cocktail Club)
Rum to the Jungle, El Dorado 8 year, Clairin Casimir, Giffard Banane du Brésil, house made oat syrup, lemon, and a port float. (Donna Cocktail Club)  (Source: Eric Medsker, styled and created by Fanny Chu)

Cocktail Trendspotting

Like many members of the restaurant industry, Chu has felt the hard impact of COVID with the closing of Donna but is still finding gigs as a drink stylist for PUNCH and various photographers. Like many other professionals, she's soul-searching for her next one-, five-, and 10-year career plans.

She says she'll surely stay in a creative field, and considering her natural talent for mixology, expects to be part of the future of craft cocktails. Chu is already on top of bartending trends like creating alcohol-free cocktails that seamlessly convert to boozy libations. (Like the Hey Bey Bey, recently featured on EDGE.)

"The movement for nonalcoholic cocktails has risen over the past five years," says Chu. "I feel like every cocktail should be able to transform into its alcoholic or nonalcoholic version. It's up to the bartender to figure out how to make it delicious either way."

When it comes to pandemic-era challenges, Chu says it's been hard keeping bars afloat. "It's not fair for business owners if you keep changing the rules," she says, pointing out New York's changing laws around curfews, indoor spaces, and serving food with every drink.

And while old-school gay bars may not have the resources or customer base to justify fresh-fruit juices and craft cocktails, New York's West Village classics like Julius', Stonewall Inn and Cubby Hole — and so many others — always will be dear to our hearts.

Once the pandemic eventually passes, Chu believes that, just like a century ago, people are going "to get glittered up and go dancing."

"I think that people are creatures of social life and want to be out and about," she says. "They're going to want to help and support bars. I hope that there will be new gay bars, too. And people are going to bring out the sweatpants they've been wearing during the pandemic and just burn them in a big pile in the street!"

Watermelon Sgroppino
Watermelon Sgroppino  (Source: Lizzie Munro / PUNCH Magazine)

Fanny Chu's Quickfire Home Bar Tips

Keep It Smooth — A blender or juicer is your best friend for a home bar. Keep fresh fruit in the fridge — especially tropical fruits like pineapple, coconut, and mangoes — for cocktails to drink "when you want to escape."

Sugar, Sugar — Keep different sweeteners around to suit the flavor profile you want, such as simple syrup, cane syrup, demerara (large-grain raw cane sugar), maple syrup or agave.

Go Nuts — Make your own orgeat, a French almond syrup. Recipes vary, but Chu's basic version is to lightly toast almonds then blend into nut milk using water and sugar. Vary the flavor with cognac, rum, or orange-flower-blossom water. You can also swap out almonds for quinoa, oats, or other grains.

Spike It — According to Chu, a splash of green chartreuse liqueur in hot chocolate creates "herbally warm goodness."

Tea for Two — Tea-infused cocktails are trending this winter. Either make tea and add a spirit or infuse your own spirits with tea leaves to use in other cocktails. Chu suggests making a half-liter of earl grey—infused gin, or something more adventurous like genmaicha (a Japanese toasted rice green tea) with a Japanese whiskey or vodka.

Kelsy Chauvin is a writer, photographer and marketing consultant based in Brooklyn, New York. She specializes in travel, feature journalism, art, theater, architecture, construction and LGBTQ interests. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @kelsycc.

Cocktail Culture

This story is part of our special report titled Cocktail Culture. Want to read more? Here's the full list.