Photo by Pablo Robles

The hospitality industry is nothing new to Tara O’Connor. She began her career as a hostess at age 16, and then helmed bars two years later.

The current head bartender at the Latin-inspired Renata’s Hearth in the Biltmore, O’Connor serves an array of tequilas, mezcals and agaves in addition to the craft cocktails that have an element of smoke. Whether the drink comes in a cloche smoke chamber or features charred grapefruit, expect the senses to be tingled with every sniff and sip. Don’t forget to snap a photo for social media.

The essence of smoke plays a key role with the food at Renata’s Hearth as well. Most of all, it’s a place to gather and share the delights of fire, flavor, spirit and aromatic wonder.

We recently had the opportunity to chat with O’Connor and dive into her back story. She shares what makes Renata’s Hearth stand out from other bars and tells us about a featured cocktail.

Tell us about your career in the bar industry.

My first job was as a hostess, but when I was old enough to bartend, I jumped behind the bar and I did a little bit of everything. I worked in sports bars and all the way to fine dining. I’ve been serving beverages pretty much my entire life. After the pandemic, I saw that bars were hiring, and I met my GM and he told me about the concept that they had for Renata’s. It was a bar cart, which is kind of offbeat and fun. I loved that. I jumped on board, and I’ve been with them since the beginning.

What does the beverage program at Renata’s Hearth look like?

Renata’s entire theme is essence of smoke. That is very apparent in our food menu, but it carries over into the bar menu as well. Basically, all of our cocktails, except for sangria, all have some sort of essence of smoke. That is the biggest part of the cocktail menu, but we don’t want to smoke people out. We try and find that balance whether it comes from our charred grapefruit or the actual smoked cloche. We’re using smoked maldon sea salts in a couple cocktails.

What is one of your favorite memories being behind the bar?

That’s a tough one. Probably when I was younger working on Mill Avenue and being behind the bar whenever a big ASU game just let out and they won. It was always so much fun to see the excited fans come in and everybody is dancing and partying. It’s just us behind the bar and it was always just really great fun.

What’s the oddest ingredient you have ever used in a cocktail?

Probably Fruity Pebbles. I infused orgeat with Fruity Pebbles for a tiki cocktail about a year ago on a menu. That was really fun.

What does ordering a vodka tonic say about a person?

I think someone who orders a two-step cocktail is somebody who just knows what they want. I think it’s comfortable. I don’t necessarily frown upon it because sometimes you just like a simple, refreshing cocktail that you know you are going to like.

What is the best piece of advice you have for someone looking to get into this industry?

Don’t take everything personally. Take everything with a grain of salt. I think everybody learns that the hard way. When you are younger, you take everything to heart like when people are rude to you or upset. We are in the hospitality industry so not everything is going to be perfect. You do your best and sometimes there is just no pleasing people. If you take that along with you, I feel like that is when you build resentment and kind of saltiness toward the industry. If you just take a deep breath and learn from what happened but also let it go, you’ll do great.

What is your go-to drink when you are not behind the bar?

It depends on my mood. But my go-to is probably a dirty martini.

What cocktail would you like us to feature?

Los Muertos ($22).

What do you like about this cocktail?

I think it is fun in multiple ways. I love a spicy cocktail so I’m infusing reposado tequila with serrano chilies for 48 hours. It has a nice balance with the sweetness from the reposado, the spiciness of the chilies. It’s unusual because I use activated charcoal in the cocktail, so it is pitch black. I put a colorful flower on top and dust it with a little bit of glitter because glitter is life. Then, I smoke it. It doesn’t look like something you would normally drink. When you order it, it comes to your table in the smoked dome. A lot of the cocktail world nowadays is about Instagram and it being picture-worthy. I think this cocktail is picture-worthy and I think that is the fun part about it. It’s interactive. Sometimes you just order a cocktail, and it comes to your table and it’s great. But this one is kind of an interactive journey, if you will. You get this show and then when the smoke clears, you’re like, “Oh my God, it’s black!” Then there is a little touch of color and it’s just a great cocktail.

Los Muertos

2 ounces serrano-infused reposado tequila

3/4 ounce fresh lime juice

1/2 ounce agave

Activated charcoal

Black lava sea salt

Combine all ingredients in a shaker with ice. Shake vigorously until chilled.

Rim a rocks glass with black lava sea salt.

Strain cocktail from shaker to the rimmed rocks glass with fresh ice.

Garnish with an edible flower.

Set cocktail inside glass smoking cloche dome and fill with smoke using smoke gun.

Remove glass cloche and enjoy.