The first thing you notice about Mike Taib is his laughter. A deep, gutteral, bubbling sound that warms the cockles of your heart with its genuine, almost childlike spontaneity. And once you have heard Mike Taib laughing, you cannot help but also like this bartender-turned-distiller who describes himself as “happy, easygoing and often, downright silly”.
“My co-workers are always trying to record my laugh so they can turn it into their ringtone,” says Mike, who shares his laidback good nature as freely as he shares his booze to make people relax, be social, and have a good time.
“It’s the friendly aspect of alcohol that has always attracted me more than just the effect of it,” says Mike. “At parties I’d be standing around a keg, pouring beer for everyone so people could let down their guard and really enjoy themselves in the company of others.”
Mike has always been obsessed with alcohol. He started making beer at an age that is best not revealed here, and it has been a progression since then. He moved onto wine, and then distillation was the next inevitable step. “I even wanted to make a liqueur of my own,” he recalls. “I took courses and interned at different distilleries so I had enough experience to start a distillery of my own, one day.”
Interestingly though, his career in the spirit world happened quite by accident. “I was enrolled at an art institute, studying multimedia because the administrators assured me I had the knack for it,” says Mike. “Plus, there was apparently good money to be made in graphic design, with a 94% rate of assured job placement.” Alas for the budding designer, he graduated just 10 days after 9/11 and could only look on helplessly as that assurance dropped to 10% in the uncertain socio-political climate that followed the horrific terrorist event.
“With that dream turning to rubble in the aftermath of 9/11, I was determined to do something much more stable. No matter what happened in the world, I wanted to know I could still make money. I did not want to return to school to be a doctor, so I got into bartending.”
Mike Taib’s first bartending gig was at Seattle’s Cirque du Soleil, the Canadian entertainment company and the largest theatrical producer in the world. “My job was to serve alcohol in the VIP tent, where we had to wear these strange outfits with droopy hat things, and stand around looking positively smurfy with our arms shaking uncontrollably from the weight of the trays holding wines and champagnes for arriving VIP guests,” he remembers.
From Cirque du Soleil, Mike moved to the Schwartz Bothers catering company. He also got a job at the bartending college, and spent a lot of time bartending with students who wanted to open their own restaurants.
But before the big milestone came along in Mike Taib’s career – bartending at John Howie Steak for five very rewarding years – he found himself going on an international adventure that would later make a compelling bartender’s story.
It happened like this. Born to an American mom and a Libyan dad, Mike Taib went to Libya in the teeth of a civil uprising in 2011 to reunite with his father. Mike had lost contact with his dad who lived in Tobruk, when Colonel Gaddafi cut off phone lines and banned the internet to stop Lybians from communicating with the outside world. Somehow, an email from his dad slipped through the embargo, and fired up by the idea of seeing his father again, Mike bought himself a plane ticket for Libya, with a transit stop in Egypt.
Friends and family in America were naturally appalled at Mike’s outrageous decision to visit a country that was in the throes of a civil war, but Mike was determined not to lose this precious hope of contact by worrying about personal safety.
And chalk it down to traveler’s serendipity, but his entry into Libya was a breeze! “It was actually harder for me to leave Egypt than get into Libya,” says Mike. “I had to go to different Egyptian check points and wait for my interrogations in backrooms with huge security guards watching me with one eagle eye, and a Keanu Reeves movie dubbed in Arabic with the other. Not knowing what was going on, it was a pretty disturbing experience for an American to be treated with such suspicion on foreign soil. As for my fellow countryman, the Arabic-speaking, linguistic sellout Keanu Reeves, he was no help either.”
In contrast, when Mike finally reached Libya, he was received like a long-lost son. “When the guy behind the check booth found out that my father was Libyan, he came out, gave me a hug, and just like that, I was in the country!”
The atmosphere of jubilation that greeted Mike Taib in Libya was transformational. Internationally condemned as a dictator whose authoritarian regime financed global terrorism and violated human rights, it had previously been unthinkable that Gaddafi could ever be dislodged from his position as Libya’s uncrowned king. “Hope of freedom was so palpable in the air, you could almost touch and feel it,” recalls Mike. “I knew enough about history to realize that almost every time there is a revolution, a feverish expectation of better times fills the heart of a nation, and that is exactly what was happening in Libya. I was extremely fortunate that I could be there to experience it first-hand.”
Coming back home from Libya, however, needed some getting used to. “I had been gone so long that my previous bartending position had been filled. I had to find a new job.”
John Howie Steak (JHS) was hiring bartenders at the time, and Mike applied for a position there. But the hiring process was not at all easy. “John [Howie] had a rigorous three-step hiring process, and you had to pass interviews with the Manager and the General Manager before John interviewed you himself,” says Mike. “I wasn’t at all sure I’d make it because I’m terrible at interviews. I lose composure, get nervous and the pressure of being evaluated and judged is usually too much.”
This time round though, fate was in Mike’s favor. He managed to stay in the reckoning until the very end, and was called in by John Howie for his final interview.
“The night before my meeting with John was scheduled, Gaddafi was finally overthrown. I was so deliriously happy, I couldn’t sleep all night. I was talking to friends and family, following the news as it emerged from Libya, and when I showed up for my interview the next morning I almost didn’t care about the outcome. Pumped up by the events of the previous day, I was in unusually high spirits and managed to impress John enough that he offered me the job.”
For 5 years, Mike worked as bartender at John Howie Steak, learning and working with the best restauranteurs in the business. “John ran the show with as much authority as consideration for his staff, and I had some pretty interesting moments with him during those first five years with the company.”
“While I was bartending at JHS, I won the regional round of a competition hosted by Caorunn Gin,” recalls Mike. “I had to go to New Orleans for the finals, but while the hosts were paying for everything else, they weren’t providing air fare. So coughing up all my courage, I went to John’s office to ask if he would buy me a plane ticket.”
By all accounts, John Howie is a formidable man of whom people are intimidated, but Mike swallowed his fright and did it anyway. “John asked, why on earth should he be buying me a plane ticket to anywhere. Usually, that would be enough to make you want to run like a panic-stricken rabbit from his presence. But when I explained about the competition, John bought me a plane ticket right then and there, so I could participate in the finals.”
The finals, however, did not go as well as expected for Mike. “It was a `storyteller’s competition’ and I was the only contestant who had prepared a story,” says Mike. “I took an old Scottish tale – The Fiddler’s Well — and rewrote it into a story that integrated some of Caorunn Gin’s botanicals in it. Quite clever really, but I lost the trophy nonetheless because I had used cucumber as an ingredient in the cocktail I prepared for the competition.” The most influential judge (and master distiller) on the panel had a deep distaste for cucumber and therefore, Mike’s fate at the competition was sealed.
But life had much bigger prizes in store for Mike, and he scored his dream job at Wildwood Spirits when John Howie and Erik Liedholm opened the distillery in 2015. “I was there from the start and was part of the whole set-up process. Working at Wildwood was like an improbable dream coming true for me.”
These days, you’re likely to find Mike Taib at Wildwood Spirits, the boutique distillery in Bothell, WA, happily producing small, precious batches of Gold Medal-winning spirits like Kur Gin, Stark Vatten Vodka and The Dark Door bourbon with celebrity sommelier Erik Liedholm.
“I don’t know what I did in my past life to deserve this, but I am glad I did,” he says. “Working with Erik [Leidholm] is like being in the company of a friend, advisor and guide who totally `gets’ you. We’re both a little silly in our temperament, we’re laidback and enjoy a good joke. Erik calls me his `vice’ distiller, and most days it’s just him and me at the distillery, working at a job that we love to do more than anything in the world. Every day is a fun experience. And a learning experience.”
So what else does Mike Taib like to do when he’s not mashing, distilling and producing award-winning spirits?
“I have an internet show called KLNK News that I do monthly on my website Booze Networks.com. I make shows that explain alcohol in fun ways that people can find interesting. About `some things you may and may not need to know in the liquor industry’.” The old idea about producing his own liqueur is still very much alive and there is something else Mike is working on that, peculiarly, has to do with cyber security. “It’s a neat project that brings of all my passions together, and I promise I’ll tell you all about it as soon as I’m ready to go public.”
Meanwhile, if you’re interested in staying up-to-date with alcohol industry news, or just want to laugh at anecdotes like the one about a thief in Russia who stole a $ 1.3 million bottle of vodka, drank the rather ordinary spirit, and then threw away the bottle made of 7.3 lbs of solid gold at a construction site, subscribe to Booze Network.
Or come by for a tasting at Wildwood Spirits (19116 Beardslee Blvd #102, Bothell, WA 98011; Phone: 425-286-1002) and have Mike Taib serve you the best vodka, gin and bourbon you’ll probably ever taste…