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Queens Chronicle

Master mixologist turns wine to water

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Posted: Thursday, April 4, 2013 10:30 am | Updated: 10:34 am, Thu Apr 11, 2013.

Mimi Burnham spends her spare time dreaming up cocktail recipes. Her face lights up as she contemplates new combinations of liquors, juices, spices, bitters, fruits and syrups.

As the in-house mixologist at Papazzio on Bell Boulevard in Bayside, Mimi concocts an array of cocktails with whatever ingredients strike her fancy.

While she typically makes martinis, flirtinis, and cucumber smashes, on Wednesday night she will metaphorically turn wine into water.

Burnham will donate her salary and tips from her shift on April 10, from 5 p.m. to midnight, to “Wine to Water,” a nonprofit international aid organization focused on providing clean water to needy people around the world. Over 200 bartenders in 25 countries are participating in the “Just One Shift” initiative, April 8-14.

“Nearly one billion people in the world today lack access to adequate water and 2.5 billion people lack access to improved sanitation, the organization’s website states. We are devoted to fighting this epidemic. Wine symbolizes fortune in our society. Our goal is to give the fortunate population an opportunity to fight for those who can’t fight for themselves,”

“It’s amazing what they do,” Burnham said. “I saw the statistics, which really moved me. I saw the kids.”

“Half of the world’s hospital beds are occupied by people suffering from water-related diseases,” said Josh Elliott, a member of Wine to Water. “Unclean water kills more people than HIV/AIDS and malaria.”

“We take water for granted here, “ Burnham said. “It’s not hot enough, it’s not cold enough, I mean, really?”

Doc Hendly, a bartender from Raleigh, North Carolina started Wine to Water in 2004. Since the organization became an official 501c3 nonprofit in 2007, they have helped over 150,000 people in 15 different countries, according Elliott.

Wine to Water has ongoing projects in Haiti, Ethiopia, Uganda, Cambodia, and Syria. Initiatives involve employing locals to build filters and wells from local materials.

In Ethiopia, which is experiencing one of the worst droughts in its history, Wine to Water is drilling wells, which sometimes have to be more than 200 meters deep.

In Syria, they sent 1,000 filters to refugee camps in the war-torn country, where up to half of the refugees are children. The filters, which are based on technology used for kidney dialysis, can last for 10-15 years if they are used and cleaned correctly.

“I have my eye on a well,” Burnham said, regarding her fundraising goals.

According to Wine to Water’s website, a well in Cambodia costs $500 and provides water for 200 people.

According to Elliott, the money will go where the most need is.

“I hope people come down, buy a cocktail and be entertained because I will definitely be entertaining that night,” Burnham laughed.

“We reach out to the service industry folks and use their resources and efforts to do aid work,” Elliott said.

Burnham learned about the Just One Shift through the New York chapter of the U.S. Bartender’s Guild, noting that bartenders have a very tight-knit community.

After Hurricane Sandy struck the city, the guild banded together to rebuild bars in hard-hit areas of Long Island City as well as Dumbo and Williamsburg.in Brooklyn.

“We rolled up our sleeves and helped out,” Burnham said. “We helped get them up and running and helped facilitate everyone’s ability to deal with the damage. We all felt like it was our calling. I was shaking everybody down for Home Depot gift cards.”

Most of the establishments were “mom-and pop-dive bars that insurance wasn’t going to cover,” Burnham said.

Burnham is a cocktail wizard with accolades to prove it. Papazzio was voted “best martini in Queens” for the past two years, since she began working there in September 2011. Although she has yet to win, Burnham came in sixth place in a national cocktail contest out of 1,700 bartenders.

Back in 1992, she was Bartender of the Year on Long Island, after a decade tending bars at trendy Manhattan nightclubs like Danceteria, The Tunnel and Palladium.

Burnham is a proponent of crafted cocktails and applauds the “farm-to-table” movements spread to the bartending world.

“I really embrace this concept, I’ve been doing it all my life,” she said. Burnham predicts that as the American palette becomes more sophisticated, the movement will grow. She currently consults on food and drink pairings for restaurant menus.

Burnham relishes opportunities to incorporate local produce and American-made organic liquors.

“I’m surprised that more people from Queens don’t take advantage of it,” she said.

When she introduced the concept to Papazzio, bar revenue increased tenfold, according to Burnham. “People come all the way from the Upper East Side for my cocktails,” she said.

Burnham described Papazzio as “a Manhattan experience here in Bayside.”

The average price for a mixed drink at Papazzio is $10, while it would be $16-$20 in Manhattan. During happy hour, cosmos, appletinis, well drinks, and wine by the glass are $5 and appetizers are half-price. “It’s a real recession buster,” Burnham said.

Papazzio’s cocktail menu changes seasonally, so Burnham comes up with 22 new creations four times each year. “They’re all my kids,” she said when asked if she has a favorite.

“Sometimes I make cocktails and don’t even try them. So far I’ve been lucky,” Burnham said. “I have a 100 percent money back guarantee. Thankfully that’s never happened.”

While Burnham’s cocktails incorporate ingredients like brandy-infused cherries, tea-infused vodkas, muddled cucumbers and sprigs of mint, and may be served in chocolate-syrup-laced martini glasses, she crafts them all with a flair for presentation, but without a hint of pretention.

“If someone orders a Jack and Coke, I serve it with the same aplomb as a crafted cocktail,” Burnham said. “There’s no judgment here.”

While she boasts of hearing enough stories from bar patrons to fill volumes, Burnham refused to repeat any, citing an “unwritten code of ethics,” for bartenders.

“I have the best job in the world,” Burnham said. “I schmooze, hang out, laugh, and involve people in my creations.”

A 22-year resident of Whitestone, Burnham grew up in Glen Cove, LI.

“I went to the University of Hard Knocks. I’m a self-made, self-educated woman,” she said. “I’m a student of life.”

Burnham is certified by Bar Smarts, a bartender education program, and takes courses sponsored by the major liquor distributors.

Welcome to the discussion.