How a New York bartender went from making $250 per shift to $250 an hour

I "ramped up out of fear and necessity" and "I never stopped figuring out how to move forward."

Jena Ellenwood at Dear Irving.
Photo by Elke VanBree

Jena Ellenwood, 36, did not plan on a career as a bartender. She started working as a waitress while going to school for performance and creative writing, and discovered her interest in mixing drinks. She took a class in mixology and eventually started working as a bartender in bars and restaurants across New York.

Just before the pandemic hit, she was splitting time among three different jobs: a bar in Manhattan and two restaurants in Queens and Brooklyn. She'd made a name for herself in part by participating in global cocktail competitions including the Nikka Perfect Serve 2019, where she was the runner-up. Her various jobs helped ensure she made the $1,000 per week she needed to cover living expenses, college loans, and credit card debt.

But in March 2020, "I was drinking bourbon in a hoodie on my couch, wrapped up in blankets, watching my industry explode," she says. With only enough savings stowed away to last a few months, Ellenwood realized she needed to pivot, and fast.

By taking some of her activities online ― like teaching cocktail classes ― and figuring out new avenues to earn money, she's turned her drink-making skills into a sustainable, one-woman business. Before the pandemic she'd hope to make $250 per eight-hour shift. Now, her one-hour cocktail class runs customers $250 at minimum.

"I just kind of ramped up out of fear and necessity and creativity," she says. "I never stopped figuring out how to move forward."

A cocktail class brings in $250/hr or more

Ellenwood started teaching cocktail-making classes in 2019 through one of her employers, the upscale New York bar Dear Irving. These include a tutorial on a given cocktail, a history lesson related to the theme of the class and the spirits being used, and a question and answer session.

When the pandemic hit, people began texting Ellenwood asking how to make particular drinks. "So I started making cocktail videos," she says, "figured out how to edit them on my phone and put them on Instagram and YouTube." This helped her realize she could teach such classes online, and she began offering Dear Irving's classes virtually in April 2020.

In November of that year, she also started teaching virtual cocktail classes through a craft alcohol industry group called The Crafty Cask. Even before that, consumers started reaching out for private virtual classes as well. "I've had people reach out on Instagram. I've had people reach out via my website. I've had people reach out via my Facebook page," she says.

Ellenwood declined to share how much Dear Irving or The Crafty Cask pay her for classes. Her hour-long private courses cost anywhere from $250 to upwards of $1,500, depending on how many people are taking the class and how customized of a drink they want to learn. Some weeks she has more classes than others, but with the holidays coming up she expects to be teaching between three and four a day by mid-December.

Designing cocktails 'using leftover holiday herbs'

During her restaurant years, Ellenwood helped plan multiple menus, and she's no stranger to designing cocktails. Now, she is doing so for companies and individuals.

"I'm currently designing some cocktails for a brand," she says. "I did an entire line of cocktails for a theater company a while back."

Jena Ellenwood gives a virtual cocktail class.
Photo by Meaghan Dorman

She has designed personalized cocktails for weddings, bridal showers, and bachelorette parties. Most recently a "client wanted two cocktails using leftover holiday herbs" from Thanksgiving, she says, such as sage. "I love using things that are going to be discarded."

Cocktail design pricing starts at $300.

Writing articles for $150 or more apiece

Ellenwood is putting her creative writing background to use, picking up writing gigs about cocktails and hospitality. She wrote a series of articles about "people in the industry doing amazing things for others," she says, for wine site The Vintner Project. She writes for quarterly hospitality magazine Spill, as well as for The Crafty Cask.

Depending on the outlet and assignment, she can earn $150 or more per piece.

Jena Ellenwood with the Irish whiskey she reps, J.J. Corry Whiskey.
Photo by Jared Jeffrey Photography

Ellenwood's new income streams have allowed her to step back from the hustle and bustle of full-time, in-person restaurant work. "I just realized this is a better use of my time, my talents, my brain," she says.

"I've been able to do other things like to take classes and buy books and not freak out over buying groceries," she says. "I feel a lot more secure than I did going into shutdown."

In fact, with money coming in more consistently, she says, "I'm actually able to save."

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