The Bon Vivants

by Francine Cohen

If one had to offer up an oversimplified (and highly stereotypical) description of male Californians that was based on nothing more than tourism focused television commercials and repeated viewings of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” you might say those guys are laid back surfers who utter nothing more than “dude.” A lot. 

But that couldn’t be further from the truth when it comes to the Bon Vivants (aka Scott Baird and Josh Harris).  These two longtime friends and partners in their award winning and well respected cocktail consultancy have a lot to say; about life, bartending, relationships, their new bar Trick Dog (opening in 2012), the spirits industry, good food, good drink, and good times.  You’ll hear it all here every Friday on ShakeStir.com. 

For a sneak peek into the minds of these men who scour antique stores to increase their collection of glassware and barware, would rather have a conversation with you than spend 15 minutes emailing back and forth, and brought you a unicorn ice luge and “Pig & Punch,” the must-attend charity pig roast held in a Louisiana park during Tales of the Cocktail, see below. 

Want more of what Josh and Scott are dishing out?  Check in every Friday here on ShakeStir.com to see what’s on their mind. 

ShakeStir:  You’re penning a weekly column for ShakeStir.com.  What will you be talking about every Friday?

Josh:  It’s definitely going to be something where we try and keep it real.  It’s not going to be about cocktail recipes; it is going to be things we believe in or don’t believe in.  We’ll be talking about things like: this is the systemic problem we see with bartenders today, or this is the amazing thing about our craft.  It’s all food for thought.

ShakeStir:  Why should people be paying attention every Friday?

Scott:  Why should people listen to us?  It’s because we have a joint voice and a unified but separate approach and together we can give this [our column] which is the idea.  That and we like not to take ourselves too seriously.  We like to say that the stuff we make is delicious, not precious.  From our little corner of the world we hope to bring some brevity and fun.  The industry can get a little stodgy and serious and ego driven.  We want to put some fun and humor in it, and good times. 

ShakeStir:  Does that mean everyone needs to jump into the pool with their shakers? (http://shakerfaces.com/content/scott-baird-bon-vivants)

Scott:  (Laughs) No, but they are welcome to.

We take the craft with the utmost seriousness.  The intensity and the thought that goes into it is everything.  But ultimately you have to sit with your customers and your friends and keep it loose.

That’s probably one of the things we’ll attack early on.

Josh:  We’re starting to see two camps appear.  A really good friend of mine named Ben Clemons said something last year at Tales, he said, “In the world of cocktail bartenders there are librarians and cowboys.”  The librarian thing isn’t fun to us and we feel like if we’re not having fun we’ve taken the wrong life path.  That whole mindset permeates everything we do. 

ShakeStir:  What is your stand on products available in the industry?

Josh:  If you want to come in and get drunk, come in and get drunk.  You’re just going to do it on better booze and delicious cocktails.

Scott:  There isn’t any other way to do it.  You are your integrity.  If you buy good fruit from a quality purveyor you’re supporting things so far behind your reach.  It’s the same with buying spirits that treat their employees well and have an ethic that we believe in; it’s about supporting a better world.  I cut my teeth next to Chez Panisse and worked in farmers markets.  It’s important in the bar to have those things and those stories to share with your customers.  We’re not going to be writing River Duck Farms tomatoes on the menu.   But it’s nice to know.  It puts a humanistic quality on the experience. 

ShakeStir:  What’s your approach to business?

Josh:  It needs to be said that a relationship is a very important factor in making choices about what you want to use or stand behind.  It’s a very old school way of doing business.  My dad’s 71 and that’s how he did it.  Business gets done over a dinner table, instead of email.  It comes out to be a more real and personified experience. 

Scott and I believe in relationships.  It’s really interesting to take three vodkas and all those things being fairly equal (price, quality of distillate, etc.) the one that we’re going to put in our well is the one with whom we have a great relationship with at whatever point they are in the supply chain. 

For example, we just pulled the tee shirts for “Pig & Punch” and we’re using a guy that we love because he’s real; when we go to see him his kid’s in the shop doing art.

Scott:  Ultimately, I like to meet the people and hear the tenor of what they do.  The older style of doing business is something Josh and I did before we even met.  We don’t see it as there’s any other option.

ShakeStir:  So, being that you’ve got this old fashioned approach, what do you think of Facebook’s value?

Josh:  I think it’s been an immense tool.  It’s a trip.  When we started the company we were told by somebody we needed to start a fan page for our company.  At the time I was not on Facebook at all personally.  But it’s been a full and complete 180 since we have a page that represents our business; particularly now as our site is being built.  There’s a huge benefit to it.  That being said, I wish that when I was having a party I could separate people in my industry versus people I went to high school with.  It obviously has its flaws, but it’s a good resource.

Scott:  I’m the resident luddite.  I’m not computery at all.  I like how it’s unified the community.  Look at what happened around Pusser's and Painkiller; the quickness to respond is one nice thing about the community.  You can have the support internationally, very quickly.

ShakeStir:  What inspires you to create the cocktails created for events and clients?

Scott:  It comes from the outside in.  We think about how we want it to feel, how the lights are going to look, to create an awesome fun experience and create awesome fun cocktails for it.  The names of the cocktails will be reflective about that too.

Josh:  That’s what we love most; it is about really looking at what the theme and concept is and the history of that food region or the style of that particular era and time.  It’s a way to round out the entire experience, it’s really fun.  You learn a lot when you look for indigenous flavors and do research to see who was winning wars in which countries.

ShakeStir:  What about some of these people hanging out their shingles today?

Scott:  It’s a very touchy subject.  It really falls upon us, the older, more seasoned bartenders. 

Morimoto tells a story about making rice in a sushi place for two years before he could do anything else. The young guys have the hunger and the thirst, but they don’t have the patience.  It’s just how it goes. 

Nobody likes to talk about the evolution of the bartenders.   Bartenders have to hit this point of ego purge.   They get treated like celebrities and people hero worship bartenders and that gives them (the bartenders) buzzes but they need to understand there’s so much more to it.  You know, you can train someone to make drinks, but what you can’t train quickly is how to deal with guests and the myriad possibilities of what may come up.   Eventually people get to a certain point and get a sense of self.  That’s the last final step – understanding it’s not about you but it’s about what you’re making. 

Josh:  One of the systemic problems pushing that issue onto the forefront is that there are a lot of bars opening now and so you’re farming up your bar backs really quickly.  I learned how to manage a liquor room and place my orders and place my numbers before I learned what a cocktail was.  You have to learn how to kick someone out of your bar because they are out of line.  Those are the things that are integral in this first process.  If the first thing you learn in bartending is how to read a recipe and how to create it, you’re not starting in the right place.

ShakeStir:  In addition to creating great cocktail programs for bars and restaurants and enticing people into having a grand old time you’ve also quickly become known for your charitable efforts.  Last year you headed up a volunteer effort in New Orleans with Habitat for Humanity by bringing a bunch of bartenders together to help clean and paint a school.  And then there was that “Pig & Punch” party in the park.  How and why do you do it?

Josh:  It started it last year.  The idea was born when the oil spill happened and we thought it would be an interesting idea to help out.  But we didn’t think that the little amount of money we’d be able to raise would be beneficial.  So we decided to call our friends and volunteer in NOLA. 

In thinking about what we could do [besides hands on volunteering] we thought, ‘Hey, why not throw a party in the park.’  This is the perfect example of Scott and I diverging from the group – we decided let’s just go to a park and make garbage cans full of punch and roast some pigs and celebrate this fraternity we’ve [the entire industry] created.  Nobody’s going to make cocktails.  Everyone’s going to come in the park and have fun. Scott and I have had big thoughts about doing it all over the country.  Last year we donated money to the arts and music programs of a school in New Orleans.  Now you can give $5,000 to BP to clean up oil or you can give $5,000 to a school to buy trumpets and save the arts programs.

Scott:  We wanted to harness the community.  This year we have about 60 volunteers from all over the country.  60 people going out to do something – that’s real.  We’re anticipating more people at the Pig & Punch event – this is the beginning of more impact and seeing how it goes.  We get really emotional when we talk about it. Without a shadow of a doubt it’s the most profound thing we do with our career.

It’s giving me a heart full of reasons to want to do something good.  I can come home to my daughter and tell her that Daddy did something good.  It’s a game changer.

Josh:  It’s the next evolution in our company to do something more than just make the drinks.

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