Back in June I had the good fortune of interviewing Alex Day when he was in town for a cocktail competition. To say that this post is long overdue is an understatement. Do not take my tardiness, however, as any indication of my feelings about what is to follow because Alex is quite honestly one of the most interesting bartenders I’ve had the opportunity to meet.
His story arc follows a similar pattern to many talented bartenders I’ve spoken with over the past year. I can’t help but draw parallels. A career in bartending that began out of necessity rather than choice. A post-secondary education with plans to capitalize on said degree in some professional capacity. A realization that this happy accident of working behind the bar to make a little extra cash while finishing up school, is not such an accident after all. And then necessity quite fortuitously transcends to choice.
Alex landed behind the bar when he was attending NYU and fell in love with the world of cocktails at the hands of Joaquín Simó and Death and Co. An early customer turned bartender, Alex quickly honed his skills and proved indispensable as he became business partners with Dave Kaplan in Proprietors LLC. Having stepped out from behind the bar in a regular capacity to take on more consulting projects, Alex reflects on his time at Death and Co, his move to LA, and why NYU is pumping out a ridiculous number of high caliber bartenders.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be an architect. I guess I’d like to say that as a child I was obsessed with legos but I still have a fond affection for legos. The idea of putting things together with your hands and building things appealed to me. The fact that you could draw something on paper and then see it come to fruition in a physical form was so exciting.
Was there a specific conversation, moment or experience that made you decide you wanted to pursue a career in bartending?
My career in hospitality started as a necessity really. My first real go at it was in highschool. I was cooking on a catering crew. That was amazing. I got to learn how to cook for the first time. In my family there was plenty of cooking going on but it was my mom cooking and my dad barbecuing and there was never much ritual or excitement about the process. Then I got this job and needed to make some money as a teenager does. They had me prepping some stuff out. Later in day we’re serving that food and seeing people’s reactions. And I just thought “Oh. That’s cool. That’s like legos.” You’re assembling these things together into a form that people enjoy.
I then moved to New York and went to college. Similarly, I needed to pay some bills and got a job bar backing by a connection through my brother. It was cool but I didn’t really think this is it, this is everything. I was more into school and academia. Maybe law school. Maybe grad school. That’s where I was headed. It wasn’t until after school when I realized that grad school was not a good idea for me and academia was not going to be a pursuit that would make me fulfilled. I turned around and looked at what I was doing and realized that I love this thing. I love serving people. I love the act of hospitality. I love that environment of bars and in all honesty it was Death and Co’s opening around the corner from me that changed everything. I was running a bar on the lower east side at the time and I heard about Death and Co. I went in and sat at the bar in front of Joaquín Simó and that first cocktail….my mind lit up. I was like “Holy shit, this is crazy. I can’t believe this is what bartending can be. Look at these professionals. Look at this product they’re making. This is exciting.” And that sort of started me down the rabbit hole of being obsessed. I’m very obsessive. If I’m into something that becomes my world. I’m in it.
If the Aviation was your gateway drug into this world, what would you recommend to a customer that generally sticks to beer or wine but would be interested in exploring cocktails?
If you would have asked this question every year back until the start of my career, I would have had a different answer. Right now my answer is so based upon where we’re at in cocktail culture. We’ve been embracing low alcohol cocktails, fortified wines. We have this arsenal of cocktails right now that are either beer based or wine based that are still cocktails and an unbelievable bridge between the two worlds. I grew up in a house that never drank cocktails at all. My dad loves wine, my mom loves wine. I have taken your question to test with my parents to show them what I do and what I’m after with it all.
What is it about NYU that is turning out great bartenders? You went to NYU, Sean Hoard went to NYU, Yael went to NYU. Is this just because of New York?
The list of academically proficient humans that are in the hospitality industry…maybe this has been the case for a long time but I’m willing to bet that there’s never been a time when there have been more educated people choosing- and that’s the important and crucial point here is choosing- this career as opposed to choosing something else. NYU is in the village. It’s dead centre of the cocktail renaissance in America. Some people may argue with that and say that it was also occurring in other places and while that’s true, the vibrancy that was the early cocktail boom post- Pegu Club opening (which was established 2 blocks away from NYU mind you) established this point in time in which everyone else expanded. So proximity really has a lot to do with it. It’s a massive school. There’s every walk of life that goes there but there’s a certain population of the student body that went to NYU for the education but just as much they went to live in New York. And that was my motivation for going there. It’s an incubator for a lot of amazing things but drinking in New York was definitely one of them.
I heard you wrote your thesis on Russian Organized Crime. Who was the most interesting historical figure you researched and what would you make them if they sat down at your bar?
I’ll say that my thesis and my education was a glorified excuse to study a lot of things that I was interested in but ultimately I was excited about learning how to research, learning how to write, learning how to think critically. And an excuse to travel, let’s be honest. Through that process, my degree was purposely designed to allow me to study a lot of things be it politics or Russian organized crime which is just an allegory for 1989 and the fall of the Soviet Empire. But I was really interested in Soviet history in general and early Russian history. I think the biggest revelation to me throughout that process was reading early Soviet literature.
So my answer should be The Velvet Revolution but my real answer is to be able to make a drink for Mikhail Bulgakov who wrote The Master of Margarita which is my favourite book. There was this beautiful moment in the 1920’s after the Bolshevik Revolution and Lenin and all the Bolsheviks were working towards this utopian society and there was this incredible freedom in Russia to do whatever you wanted. Homosexulaity was allowed for the most part and this is in the 1920’s. This is crazy. Art, literature, theatre, music. There was this incredible avante-garde movement that was in parallel to Bauhaus. But it got squashed pretty quickly when things turned a bit. It was this point of the tension between extreme freedom and then it being ramped down and the consolidation of power by Stalin and the people that made that whole train wreck happen that sent Soviet history down its path. But because of that tension, things started to turn into metaphor. All the openess started to be hidden in metpahor and story and all this beautiful narrative. You know 1984? It was based on this Zamyatin booked called We. There’s a number of versions of Western literature that is based on material coming out at this time that’s absolutely incredible.
So Master of Margarita was this incredible book by Mikhail Bulgakov who is this amazing playwright. I’d just love to talk to him and make him a drink. I would have to make him something sort of French. Old Russian society was very French in it’s thinking and even the Bolsheviks who tried to shed all that baggage were still in. There’s a lot of tonality of that culture that was still very European. So maybe a Champs-Elysees which is cocgnac and green chartreuse and lemon juice and a dash of bitters. And really good conversation, but conversation that’s masked by metaphor and is deeply nuanced.
What was the hardest part about stepping out from behind the bar and moving to LA?
Identity crisis which continues to this day. I’m a bartender by trade and to begin to not have the majority of my contribution to our work be because I’m behind the bar or from that perspective alone was really challenging to me. I chose this career. It wasn’t as though I did’t have another option. I had other options. I still have other options. That’s such a Millenial thing to say. But I do believe there are things that I can do out there that have nothing to do with this. Would they make me as fulfilled? Probably not. But that constant struggle after leaving New York and moving to Los Angeles and Dave and I pursuing this growth that we’re now seeing some of the result of was very scary. The moment you are not behind the bar actively, you don’t have those skills anymore. You simply do not. You can speak about them and you can reminisce about them and you can try to keep those skills up but you will never be as sharp as a bartender as you are when you are doing consistent shifts and that’s the reality.
So if my authority in this industry is because I’m a bartender then the moment I’m not doing that, I lose my authority. And yes, you can find ways around this but to me it’s inauthentic and it drives me fucking mad. So I gotta bartend more.
What’s been the most rewarding part of the move?
Finding balance in life. That was the reason why I moved to Los Angeles. Life and building some semblance of sanity, having a hobby. In New York I couldn’t find that balance. I know in New York I have plenty of colleagues and friends that have found the balance but it’s very easy to justify another drink at the end of your shift at 4am and wake up late and drink a pot of coffee and repeat. It can be a really challenging cycle to be in. I needed distance from that.
I know you guys have embraced a more molecular approach to your cocktails. Have there been any techniques that you were really excited about that didn’t work or horribly backfired?
I’ll say every single technique that we use and every tool that we use that I was excited about almost without fail backfired on me immediately. In retrospect, I know that’s because I didn’t know enough about it. I didn’t have enough awareness of the process because I just wanted to dig in and learn and go and try it. With every single one I’ve had a moment where I can’t believe I bought this thing. It was thousands and thousands of dollars and it’s sitting here and I don’t know what to do with it. And then a spark of inspiration comes and you try something and you refine and then you can’t live without it and it becomes this unbelievable tool in your arsenal.
You’ve said that Death and Co opening around the corner from your house changed the trajectory of your career and the book dedicates a lot of space to the regulars of the bar. Is there a method to creating a third space where your guests feel a sense of connection to the bar? Or are there barriers to it?
I think, for emotional safety reasons, there might always need to be some level of barrier which is kind of a strange thing to say and probably not a subject that’s often talked about. A hot topic within bartending now is hospitality- a reminder that we’re here to take care of people. At this point it’s almost old hat. It’s been said for a number of years and now people preach about it. And I’m like awesome. Great. Don’t forget that it’s not just liquid in the glass. It’s an experience and it’s making people comfortable. How do you cultivate that though is the ongoing challenge. It’s what we strive to do everyday in both our brick and mortars and our consulting work, our education.
How do you define something that’s abstract? Which is to say comfort. Using the liquid in the glass as a catalyst for how to speak about it in a bigger term, the micro is everyone has different preferences for drinks. Everyone has different preferences for acidicity levels or sweetness levels or strength or certain flavours. And that’s so true of environment. My and our goal as a collection of people is to somehow tap nostalgia, to somehow tap this unquantifiable memory or an association with a time in your past when you’re at our bar so you feel a level of comfort. Cause that’s really what nostalgia is. Even if the nostalgia is bad, there’s still comfort in the memories. If we’re able to do that, then we can make people feel great and be more comfortable, and more comfortable around each other so that they can have better conversations, to open up with one another.
I kinda struggle with the fact that when I sit down, even in one of our bars, when I can turn off the switch I just enjoy. I dig in and get comfortable and make sure everyone around me is comfortable in that little nucleaus that is our table or our bar seats. Dave has a very different mind. Dave will get up and make sure everyone has what they need, he’ll adjust the lights and the music level. Whereas I’m like, no! We’re here. We’re talking. It’s interesting how different brains work. You need to build places that appeal to as many brains as possible. Brains and hearts and souls.
You’ve said that before you saw bartending as your future you intended to be an academic. Has there been anything that you’ve seen or experienced behind the bar that you have thought someone could write a great paper about?
Sure! And a gentleman did. He’s a regular at the bar and he wrote his PhD dissertation largely in the East Village about cocktail bars. He finished his dissertation, got his doctorate and came in and got wasted. It was awesome. He was a great regular but it was also part of a sociological observation for him to watch cocktail culture building up around him in New York.
Craft cocktails have a heritage element to them and yet in order for the field to advance people, more and more, are using new and innovative techniques. How do you balance the two and does it matter?
It does matter. For example in our training programs, our approach to mentorship when we’re teaching people, there’s an important foundation to be set by classics which is not even remotely revolutionary. If you talk to a chef that’s really good at what they do- take Grant Achatz for example. That man’s brain does incredible things. He worked at The French Laundry. He knows his way around classical french technique. We don’t really have a system within bars to establish that structure. So it’s up to us if we think it’s important- and I think it’s very important. I think paying attention to simple details and executing them well is the prerequisite towards innovation in any circumstance because then you have a certain level of respect for the balance that it creates and also that appeal to other people. In that respect it’s crucial.