ms. franky marshall Takes Center Stage - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Bartender and Educator ms. franky marshall Takes Center Stage

On May 4, ms. franky marshall—and that is how you write her name (more on that later)—stepped onto the stage at Hacienda Los Picachos in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, to countdown North America’s 50 Best Bars, an annual list of high-profile cocktail bars compiled by the 50 Best awards organization. She had on white pants and a knee-length white brocade jacket. Her long blonde hair matched, though it was not her own, but a wig. She found her broad white hat, topped with a gifted flower crown, at a Salvation Army the day before she boarded a plane to host the event.

Pink—marshall’s signature color, along with purple, fuchsia, and various shades in that vicinity—was nowhere to be seen, until she undid the jacket. “I came out with my jacket buttoned up and I kind of slowly unbuttoned it with a little chest thrust.” Beneath was a fluorescent pink bustier. The crowd whooped. She spoke a few words of greeting in Spanish. (She is proficient in that language, as well as French.) She then sang a bit, setting the name of the ceremony briefly to melody. (She has had vocal training.) She called everyone dahlings.

ms. franky marshall is a career bartender, familiar to anyone who patronized such notable New York cocktail bars as Clover Club, The Dead Rabbit, and Holiday Cocktail Lounge. She’s also known within the industry as a spirits educator, particularly if you show even the slightest interest in Cognac or Pineau des Charentes. And if you happened to judge a cocktail competition in the early 2010s, chances are you met her; she has taken home multiple prizes.

“You can’t help but be enthralled by her in her day-to-day demeanor, but put her on stage and she takes it up through the gears.”—Mark Sansom

But lately she’s been occupying stages far larger than the ones found behind the stick. marshall’s second year hosting North America’s 50 Best Bars was 2023. Prior to that, in 2021, she hosted a virtual, Covid-era version of the Spirited Awards for the Tales of the Cocktail convention in New Orleans. On each occasion, she’s displayed a preternatural talent for banter, quips, and general panache. “ms. franky’s energy is infectious,” says Mark Sansom, until recently the director of content for 50 Best. “You can’t help but be enthralled by her in her day-to-day demeanor, but put her on stage and she takes it up through the gears.”

It’s been an unexpected new chapter in ms. franky marshall’s professional career. Those who knew of her various bar-world talents were surprised to find she had an additional skill up her sleeve. “People didn’t realize I could do that,” she says. “I think a lot of people were quite surprised.”

Perhaps the first person to spot how marshall shined in front of a camera was filmmaker Doug Tirola, whose company, 4th Row Films, does regular film work for Tales. marshall had a cameo in Hey Bartender!, 4th Row’s 2013 documentary about the cocktail revival. That turn made an impression on Tirola and, when the Spirited Awards needed someone to interview winners on the red carpet in 2018, he suggested marshall hold the mic.

“She is someone that you immediately realize is someone special,” says Tirola. “She’s great on film, she comes prepared, and she delivers. Working the red carpet at Tales as a host is dealing with people who are so serious, because they’re so appreciative of the moment of winning. But there’s this other element where it’s like dealing with people in a locker room who have just won the Super Bowl. The energy can change at any moment. She can navigate that.”

marshall accepted the gig, even though she knew that meant she had no chance of mounting the awards stage despite it being her second year in the top 10 nominees for American Bartender of the Year. “If you’re emceeing, you’re not winning,” she says with a laugh. “And, dahling, I’d rather be winning!”

By the time she had a meeting with Sansom at Grand Central Terminal, however, marshall had come to regard hosting as one of the arrows in her quiver. Sansom was there to see if she might be the right candidate for the North America’s 50 Best Bars gig. But, before he could even make the offer, marshall volunteered. “We were having a little tea,” says marshall. “I said, ‘Who’s hosting it?’ He said, ‘We don’t know yet.’ I literally went like this.” marshall demonstrated slowing raising her hand, like a student in class who wants to be called on. “It was a forthright move and one that only made me admire her more,” Sansom recalls.

marshall was born in New York and has spent most of her life there. Early aspirations included becoming a French teacher (she spent a year in France early on) or a singer. While pursuing those dreams, she supported herself waitressing. Eventually, she noticed the bartenders at the places she worked were having more fun and netting more money, so she pivoted. Over the years she worked in clubs, neighborhood bars, restaurant bars, and every sort of watering hole in between. She received her first big break in the craft cocktail world when Julie Reiner hired her as a server on the opening team at Clover Club in 2008. While marshall didn’t yet have the chops to go behind the bar, Reiner spotted a certain joie de vivre in her new hire.

“Her level of hospitality was something I haven’t seen very often in my career.” —Julie Reiner

“She was the server we received the most written comments for, on credit card slips,” Reiner says. “She would take her tables on a journey, choosing their drinks for them, and making sure that they had an incredible experience. Her level of hospitality was something I haven’t seen very often in my career.”

After less than a year, marshall graduated to bartender. Around the same time, she applied for the CAP intern program, beginning a long and fruitful relationship with Tales of the Cocktail. She won a CAP Cognac cocktail competition in 2012, which led to a trip to Cognac and, eventually, her certification as an official Cognac Educator for the BNIC (the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac).

Whatever she has done, marshall has stood out because, well, she stands out. Award organizations don’t have to worry that marshall won’t arrive looking the part of an awards emcee. Even in an industry crowded with peacocks, her plumage is eye-catching. Her colors of choice are black, purple, and pink. The latter two shades often find their way into her hair and onto her eyelids.

For the most recent Tales, she packed eight pairs of shoes in her 29-inch suitcase. She spoke at four different events and had a different outfit for each one. Even when at the airport or alone at home, she tries to cut a bella figura. “I like looking a certain way,” she says. “I never wear just jeans and a T-shirt. If I did, they’d have to be a special kind of jeans, a special kind of T-shirt. The look has to be intentional, not just thrown together.”

Michael Neff hired marshall at the Holiday Cocktail Lounge partly because of this abundance of personality. When he was approached by a friend who was looking for someone to create a cocktail program at his new Brooklyn bar, a romantic basement boîte called Le Boudoir, Neff instantly thought of marshall. “When he told me he was opening a bar themed on Marie Antoinette, I told him there was only one person who should lead it,” Neff says. “Which was, of course, the only francophone cocktail aficionado who was known to cosplay as the doomed last queen of France.”

The second thing one notices about marshall, after her look, is her unusually written name, with its e. e. cummings–like lack of capitalization and the adamant honorific “ms.” Her favoring of lowercase is simply practical: She got tired of capitalizing her name in emails. “And then it became a thing,” she says. She added the “ms.” to her name after a job interview went south because the employer assumed the “franky” coming in was a man.

“She is somebody who lights up the room.” —Doug Tirola

Despite her success in various corners of her profession, it’s fair to say that marshall has never before enjoyed the level of visibility she does now. “She is somebody who lights up the room,” says Tirola. “There are people who, when they enter a room, bring an energy to it. But sometimes that doesn’t translate to film or being broadcast. She just translates.”

marshall is happy about this new bullet point on her résumé, but doesn’t want anyone to forget about the ones that led up to it. “If people meet me as that person, as this emcee, they don’t realize that I’m all these other things,” she says. “That I am a bartender, that I’ve created cocktails, that I’ve won competitions, that I’m an educator. People want to put you in a box and categorize you. They don’t want to believe that you can be good at more than one thing.”

“I call myself a modern bartender,” she continues. “It’s not to be pretentious. Bartenders these days, we’re required to do so many different things—we wear so many different hats.” Dahling.

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