Russell Davis is a people’s champion of bartending, a master craftsmen of cocktails that hurls bottles in the air and breathes fire across the bar to the delight of San Francisco women on a nightly basis, as the men watch in awe and wonder what evolutionary leap produced such a spectacle of a person.
Imported to San Francisco directly from the mean streets of Texas, Russell Davis is a spectacular example of the career you can create for yourself if you get started young and dedicate yourself as a professional, as he did beginning his bartending career prior to turning 21. Since then, he’s been recognized as Nightclub and Bar’s 2012 Bartender of the Year, and has become a well-known bartender personality throughout the cocktail culture and industry.
We are so pumped to have Russell on the Project Advisory Board for Drink Careers 101, and excited to share a bit more about this journey with you in this interview.
What was your path into the beverage industry?
I moved to Austin from my family farm in East Texas when I was 18 years old to go to college at the University of Texas, where I studied theatre and dance. I had waited tables in high school and immediately took a job in a restaurant as a waiter to make some cash. I had already developed this fascination for bartending because of the movie “Cocktail” (which in all honestly inspired me more than anything, I would not be a bartender if it wasn’t for that movie). I would constantly ask the bartender at the restaurant questions and talk to him about his job, as he was a seasoned veteran. All the while, I was going home to my dorm room and receiving complaints from my neighbors below me because of all the bottles I was dropping from my nightly home “bar practice”, which involved teaching myself every trick from the movie. Shortly after I started practicing, the restaurant shut down and I moved into my fraternity’s house, which had a bar right across the street. I applied for a job as a bartender, and having just turned 19 (you can legally bartend in Texas while under 21) and absolutely no actual bar experience, I was intimidated as hell. I was hired as a door guy/security, and from there I just worked my way up, always asking questions to learn more, not complaining, and busting my ass (and breaking up more than a few fights along the way). I moved up to become barback, and I would sneak into the cooler on my breaks to read “Nightclub & Bar Magazine” or study shot/drink recipes from the cookie cutter bartender’s guidebooks that were everywhere back then. I continued to climb up the company ladder, and by the time I was 20, I was bartending and managing that same bar, even though I couldn’t legally drink yet.
Some people write bartending off as not being a true profession. As one of the best, what are your thoughts on bartending as a profession?
People will always drink, and even more so in tough economic times. I think that the inherent problem has been that in the recent past, even bartenders haven’t looked at what they were doing as a true profession. For most of my career, it was always looked at as that thing to do between “real jobs” or if you didn’t know what you wanted to do with your life. But lately, individual bartenders/mixologists and the industry as a whole have elevated this profession. There are people out there that have turned this into a truly respectable profession that can help you to lead a very successful and lucrative lifestyle. I am amazed by the places I’ve been to, the people I’ve met, the things I’ve been able to do and see, all because of being a bartender/mixologist in this day and age. That’s why I support the Mutineers and Drink Careers 101 so much. They are looking to the future and elevating the industry even further. No longer when I tell people that I’m a bartender, do I want to hear the follow up question, “Well, what else do you do?”
Can you talk about integrating a performance element into your bartending?
Showmanship is part of hospitality. Now, I don’t believe that other fundamentals should be sacrificed at the hands of showmanship, but it is one of the best ways to grab an audiences attention not only to spotlight what you are doing as the bartender/mixologist, but also to help you control the energy of the bar room, which is essential. Throughout my career, I was always given a hard time by some bartenders I worked with who couldn’t do what I could do with my bartending as a showman. When I would first step behind a new (to me) bar, I would throw a bottle or flip a tin, and like clockwork, someone on the bar staff (usually the trainer) would get intimidated and say something like, “we are way too busy of a bar to do that.” And then, on a busy night, when I would pull out my tricks, control the crowd, and out ring them on their register, they always shut their mouths. Showmanship behind the bar is a dying art and has been frowned upon by people that couldn’t do it for many years, but now it’s coming back. If you can craft a proper cocktail with speed, control, knowledge, efficiency, and showmanship, then no one can touch you. Also, in all honesty, when the bar is packed, the drinks are pumping out, and the music is right, I just can’t help myself. The energy controls me just as much as I control it.
What has been your proudest achievement as a bartender?
For me, hands down, it was winning the Nightclub & Bar’s 2012 Bartender of the Year and accepting the award in Las Vegas. I had wanted that award for years and never shifted my eyes from the prize. Not only is it one of biggest and oldest bar industry award shows/conventions in the world, but it is also the one that I feel like bridges the gap between the Nightclub and Mixology industries. I was a finalist for the same award for two years in a row (and lost to two different people) before finally being named Bartender of the Year, so, as you can imagine, I really wanted it. I had been dreaming of the cover of that magazine for years, which the bartender of the year always graces on the month of the awards. The irony? When I finally did receive the honor, it happened to be the same month as they decided to quit printing the magazine and go all digital online, the first time for this to happen in the decades long existence of the publication. I still laugh about that, I always seem to have awful timing, but I can’t complain, the headline of the article they published on me read “From Southern Gentleman to San Francisco Businessman, Russell Davis is the ‘Aristocrat of the Working Class”, and that was probably the coolest thing anyone has ever said about me. Made me very proud to know that all of my hard work; my blood, sweat and tears; had meant something.
Also, I can’t help to mention how proud I am of the Ice Cream Bar and Soda Fountain in San Francisco, which I set up the beverage program for, all originally “non-alcoholic.” It taught me that if I put my mind to it, I can successfully execute my ideas, no matter how crazy they are.
How has your experience as a professional bartender changed in San Francisco compared to when you were based in Austin?
Austin and San Francisco have two very different styles of bartending, so I feel like I gained more experience having been lucky enough to be part of the industry in both cities. As far as mixology goes, Texas was very much on its own and had to kind of “fend for itself” when it came to learning the techniques of the fresh, hand-crafted revolution. We had no mentors besides books and each other, and I personally took the techniques I had from my years of nightclub/rowdy bar experience, and applied it to the techniques I was learning from those books/videos and the big city brand ambassadors who might just so happen to be passing through town and wanted to host a seminar for a very fledgling USBG (United States Bartenders’ Guild) Chapter. It was tough, but cool, and Texas has its own style because of it. When I moved to San Francisco and started diving into the “mixology” scene, my knowledge and techniques increased exponentially, and fast. It’s a large community of very experienced bartenders, who have been taught the “proper” techniques from the beginning of their careers by proper mentors. The free flow of knowledge within this family is amazing; you can’t help but learn something. One thing that San Francisco does lack, and only in proportion to Texas, is that there is a smaller number of bartenders/mixologists who have had previous experience at bar scenes such as nightclubs or dives (or something rowdy like that) and know what it’s like to have to walk out from behind the bar to kick someone out or to have comp tabs to get girls on top of the bar.
How has professional bartending changed and evolved in recent years? How do you predict it will change in coming years?
The public now cares about what they put into their bodies, and they want, for the most part, fresh and handcrafted ingredients. It’s happening everywhere. The best bartenders now are the ones who have taken this into account, and whether or not they use them everyday, have learned the proper techniques to execute their profession no matter the style or where they work. I think in the coming years, you will see more high volume, multi-million dollar nightclubs, major restaurant chains, and neighborhood bars adopt fresh, handcrafted bar programs which will require bartenders with proper knowledge of “mixology” techniques to execute them. It is time for the “everyday bartender”, you know, the one with years of experience who has not been properly trained in these techniques, to learn them, and it is our job, those of us, who have mastered them, to inspire.
What advice would you give college students considering a career as a bartender?
Get out now… just joking, I love what I do. Be prepared to work hard and always remember to have fun and take things seriously, but not too seriously. This industry will chew you up and spit you out if you do not find the proper balance. Have a life outside the bar and don’t compromise yourself. Once it quits being fun, it’s time for a change.
“The bartender is the aristocrat of the working class, he can make all sorts of moves if he is smart.” — Douglas Coughlan