Circa 1888’s Sam Lott is a bartender’s bartender.
It’s 3 p.m. on a Monday in the Warehouse District, and Samantha (Sam) Lott has just set up the A-frame chalkboard on the sidewalk, signaling to passersby that Circa 1888 is open for business. An original member of the bar’s starting lineup upon its opening in the spring of 2015, Lott tends bar at Circa on what those in the hospitality business refer to as “industry nights;” that’s Sunday, Monday or Tuesday evenings when your local bartender, chef or mixologist enjoys a day off. During these days, Lott finds herself serving the familiar faces of fellow service professionals who duck into the cool, dark comforts of Circa’s exposed brick archways to enjoy a game of pool or relax over a pour of whiskey from the rich mahogany back bar.
After discovering bartending in her early 20s, Lott worked on and off at restaurant bars outside of Detroit while also operating her own landscaping company on the side. When her husband’s career brought the two of them to Raleigh nearly eight years ago, it wasn’t long before Lott met Linda and Brendan O’Reilly, the owners of the popular Landmark Tavern on Hargett Street, and found herself opening the freshly renovated doors of Circa 1888, then their newest venture. “It felt like a real challenge,” Lott says of her bartending schedule. “I thought, ‘How am I going to build a following, especially at the beginning of the week?’ I had no previous bartending experience in Raleigh.”
Fast forward four years and Lott has found herself at home, catering to countless regulars who she knows by name and by drink preference, not to mention the loyal community of four-legged friends accustomed to her warm hello and generous treat-giving at the corner of the bar. “People refer to me as ‘mom,’” she says, “probably because I have a somewhat soothing personality and I always respond to my customers with kindness.”
When she’s not playing the role of “mom” behind the bar and making every guest feel special, Lott spends her time expressing herself as an artist. Her business, Nature Pottery by Sam, offers a collection of handmade porcelains for landscape art and décor—from detailed bird houses to vibrant flowers and critters for gardens. “Anything that’s clay in here, I made,” she says, pointing to a few of her pieces around the bar. And, like many who choose bartending as a way to pay for, or complement, their true passions, Lott finds herself lucky to be able to meet people from all walks of life—some of whom have become lifelong friends.
It’s now about the time Lott’s crew of local bartenders will start arriving for their regular afternoon game of pool. On the right, a gentleman stops in for a quick beer while waiting for his son to finish his martial arts class next door. In between pours for customers and cutting her citrus for the night, Lott explains what bartending means to her. “It’s a stage,” she says. “It’s about service and listening to people’s needs and responding with care. And you have to be willing to get on that stage, no matter what.”
The author runs the Instagram account @bartendersofraleigh.
Looking for a bartender’s choice? Lott advises omitting the fluff and sticking to a classic.
Sam’s Gin Martini
• 4-5 count Sutler’s Gin
• Dry Vermouth rinse
Served up with a lemon twist