If you don’t ask, you don’t get. This principle is probably the most basic and straight-forward introduction to philosophy in existence, but it seems to be the one society is most reluctant to adopt, especially when it comes to knowledge. “Why?” is the most important question an individual can ask. At least that’s the perspective of Russell Davis, Bar and Mixology Expert on Spike TV’s “Bar Rescue,” Nightclub and Bar Magazine’s 2012 Bartender of the Year, and Bar/Spirits/Mixology Consultant with a ridiculous variety of industry projects keeping him busy around-the-clock.
The only thing currently slowing Russell down is the knee surgery he is recovering from, but when I nervously shake his hand for the first time in-person, his energy is candid and jovial. After pouring me a glass of wine and preparing a pot of green tea, we sit across from one another with his best girl, aka his dog Daphne, climbing excitedly over both of us to provide a perfect ice-breaker to the next two hours I will spend learning and laughing (laughing a lot) from this talented multi-hyphenate.
Russell grew up on a 400-acre peach farm in a town of 80 people in East Texas, founded in 1836 by his great-great-great-great-grandfather. Everyone in town knew one another, and he briefly describes selling peaches on the side of the highway with his grandfather’s best friend. He speaks with affection about his father’s peaches, claiming they remain the best he has ever had, but wrinkles his nose when describing an aroma he hasn’t experienced since leaving home – rotten peaches. “Anything you produce in mass quantities – you know what it smells like decaying, and also as fresh as it can be.”
The majority of our conversation will end up revolving around senses, stimuli, and metaphor, which seem to encompass the most effective jargon to convey his opinions. He describes the bar as a gigantic piano, with each bottle embodying the notes played, then tells me the bar is also the story of his professional life. Smelling the contents of each bottle can transport him to each institution he has worked in since age 18, when he began bartending while studying Theater at the University of Texas at Austin. “My weird oddities reflect trends from each of those places,” he says, grinning, going on to describe the cumulating development of his love for green chartreuse with a root beer back, which began at Peche, a craft cocktail bar in Austin.
“It’s got 136 botanicals in it, but I hated green chartreuse at first. That’s the bottle that was never touched.” He likens the combination of green chartreuse and root beer to being in a pine forest surrounded by anise, and enjoys the effervescence of the soda bubbles carrying that aroma up to the nose.
“No one is more of an expert in root beer than me,” he responds, when I ask him if that combination is indicative of personal preference, since he has been acknowledged in the industry for developing a signature root beer float recipe.
He loved root beer as a child, and dug up sasafras roots in hopes of making it. (Someone in his family told him root beer came from roots, and I find myself giggling at the thought of tiny Russell carrying a root to an enchanted sorceress in the woods and returning with a mug of soda.) When he started experimenting with his own recipe, he had a very specific goal: he wanted his root beer to be like a cold-brewed tea, replicating root beer but thoroughly original to him. The version he uses starts with a black tea base, sassafras, marshmallow root (used in Indian culture as a thickening agent), and various essential oils.
Russell developed this recipe, along with 17 syrups, 70 tinctures, and 36 extracts (all non-alcoholic by FDA standards) while at The Ice Cream Bar in San Francisco, a take on a classic soda fountain. Not the Norman Rockwell soda fountain, the gritty 1890s version developed by pharmacists in drugstores to compete with popular saloon offerings, then made doubly appealing by the ability to get drugs. He describes this era (after the 1860 prohibition attempting to regulate the sale of pharmaceuticals) as the definition of what cocktails are.
I note that he seems to take much inspiration from this time period. “It’s not what I was interested in, it’s what people were interested in,” he replies, and we end up having a tangential discussion about history.
“How much of the story is told in alcohol?” he muses, describing a tonic made from dandelion and burdock root around the 12th Century AD described as “tonic of life.” After he reminds me that the phrase for distilled alcohol in Latin is aqua vitae, or “Water of Life,” we talk about legends about King Arthur, and how the Holy Grail is also described as “Water of Life.”
“I like to study people and culture. Alcohol is just my medium. You very rarely see people at their best in a bar. Very often, you see them at their worst. I’ve seen the layers of a person peeled back,” he says. “I love the bar industry, and I love what I do, but at home I’m a different person. Get the gasoline of your life from something else to fuel your passion.”
After asking him to describe his early bar memories, he comments that he can envision the exact spot he is standing in with each scenario, and describes after-hours at Cain & Abel’s in Austin listening to “Heaven” by The Talking Heads and “Where is My Mind” by Pixies. These early memories cause us to be temporarily derailed (again – my bad) by a discussion of Top Ramen (not Cup-O-Noodles, there’s a difference) and Sour Punch Straws, after which I learn one of the first cocktails that struck a meaningful chord with him: a sazerac, developed around 1836 in New Orleans. The manager of one of the first bars Russell worked in would regularly describe driving to New Orleans for this drink, especially the look and smell of the absinthe and whiskey in it.
Russell got his chance to try a sazerac while at a cocktail convention. He visited a bartender named Marvin (who he now sees every year – usually during summer) at the Carousel Bar & Lounge of the Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans, the city’s only rotating bar. “My year is not complete without one,” he says. His eyes brighten when he describes the rotating bar, and I’m wondering if he catches the same metaphor I do when he continues, “You go back to the same seat, but the carousel has spun around.”
Is there a cocktail he’s created that has left a similar lasting impression on him? Ask him about “The Unforgiven.” “It defined something for me.”
Created after being asked what he would make if Clint Eastwood (or Bon Jovi, the only celebrity he claims he would be star-struck by) sat in front of him at the bar, “The Unforgiven” is a room temperature cocktail of aged Old Tom Gin, mezcal, carpano antica, spring water, and a tobacco-infused moonshine aromatic. Russell’s matter-of-fact pride in the drink comes both from the inspiration behind it (a riff on a frontier cocktail) and his love of the dirty mezcal against the bright gin.
Coincidentally, mezcal is one of the beverages he uses to describe his love life. That or a Flaming Dr. Pepper. “Dirty, but hits you just right,” he jokes.
So how else can someone or something hit the sweet spot of a man whose baseball walkout song would be “Wanted Dead or Alive” by Bon Jovi? For example, what cocktail could a bar-back or runner prepare to prove their worth? Answer: A Daiquiri or an Old Fashioned.
“To me, what makes a good anything is being able to look at a portion of a drink, and whoever made it can tell you why. I like people to make decisions. It has to have a reason. ‘I was trained to do this,’ is the wrong answer. It’s a way to have bad techniques perpetuate. Ask ‘why’ it was made the way it was made….It took seeing people care about it to make me care about it.”
Russell takes his steak black and blue and believes pho is the best hangover and illness cure in the world. “I don’t want where I eat pho to have a name. I just want a neon sign that says “pho” or a graphic of a soup bowl.”
When he’s feeling blue, he eats a low country boil or any other large pot of shellfish (sometimes in bed), and he only drinks piña coladas when he’s on vacation. For breakfast, he likes chai tea and scrambling a few eggs.
When he gets good news about a project and has a dance party in his living room to celebrate (come on, we all do it), he switches on “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk or “Pompeii” by Bastille. He hasn’t officially worked behind a bar for a couple of years beyond consulting and promoting, but he remembers getting “Everyday I’m Hustlin'” by Rick Ross and “Feel Good Inc.” by Gorillaz stuck in his head.
When the times comes to ask, “Why?” He chooses to ask, “What next?”
“When I answer, ‘What next?’ the ‘why’ is in there.”