New work, originally posted on the Bridge & Burn blog. Photos by Erik Prowell.
If any one ever tells you that bartending isn’t a real job, just mention Alex Day.
Alex was on a course towards a distinguished life of letters. In the midst of a degree in European Studies—thinking he’d become a professor or maybe a diplomat—the Bend, OR, native was working at Manhattan dive bars to pay his way through NYU.
With his sharp intellect and love for history, academia seemed like a sensible career path. Except for one thing. “I like being in big cities. I like being deep within culture. And at the end of the day most professors teach in little shitty towns and don’t get to live where they want. Only the best ones get to live in New York and, let’s be honest, I’m not going to be the smartest professor in the world.”
So when faced with the decision to pursue graduate studies or make a career out of mixology, he chose the latter. It was a decision that came with plenty of self doubt, but as the joint-owner of four (soon to be six) bars on both coasts, a successful consultancy, and the co-author of one of the world’s best-selling cocktail books, Alex has no regrets.
“You go from thinking you’ll become a teacher or pursue diplomatic service—like these things that really matter in the world. And you think, well, I’m serving somebody a drink… does that matter? And it’s certainly a crisis moment.”
It turns out, everything he wanted from education or foreign service—to travel, to teach and to learn as much as possible about people, culture and ideas—he’s been able to do through the lens of bartending. “And I might even make more money,” he concedes.
But unlike the career path of a diplomat, in the cocktail industry there are no rules—no boxes to check, no four-year diploma that churns out lemon squeezers, cocktail shakers, swizzle stirrers. There’s no Masters degree in mixology. And for Alex, there was also no one telling him he couldn’t just do it.
His success breaks down to one part right-place-right-time and nine parts ass-busting-hard-work.
“Now that mixology has gotten more credit, people are trying to skip the steps of working hard, working at a lot of places, not having much of a social life for a while and not getting much recognition. That’s really the only reason I got to where I did—because people saw I was working hard.”
A career in mixology, it turned out, offered the vibrant community Alex knew he needed to thrive, but also the intellectual stimulation he originally sought through academia. When he first got hired at Death & Co—one of the bars he now owns with business partner David Kaplan—he says, “I was around some of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met... The demand for attention to detail, and the focus on history, accuracy and creativity mean a certain kind of person is corralled within that culture.”
It also deeply engaged his love of history and society: “There’s all this lore and culture wrapped up in cocktails, and since the world of drinking is about drinking, it’s hard to pin down accurate details. That element of mystery also appealed to me.”
Alex fell into his first bar manager role at the budding age of 22 and bounced around a few New York bars making a name for himself before landing a role at hot spot Death & Co. When Kaplan invited him to partner up on a consulting project—designing the bar for Philadelphia’s Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co.—they went into business together and formed Proprietors LLC. “I started becoming an owner based on my sweat equity and it built up from there,” Alex explains.
Today, Alex doesn’t spend that much time behind a bar. Though he maintains a presence on both coasts, these days he’s most often at the lab-like Proprietors office in downtown LA: developing new drinks and the craft of mixology, advising and designing bars for clients and more recently, overseeing construction of their most ambitious project to date—two adjacent cocktails bars, each with its own ambiance, below ten rooms in a Koreatown hotel, all set to open early this year.
“I would be lying if I said there wasn’t an identity crisis. My career is based upon my bartending—what I’ve done and what people have been able to take pictures of in a glass. Moving from that to a responsible business owner who spends the majority of his time looking after nitty gritty details of a business is challenging. Because it’s not technically why I got into this industry.”
There’s a funny thing about the service industry hierarchy: good servers and bartenders can do really well and typically make more money than management. And as Alex himself admits: “It’s hard to make a living off one bar as an owner.”
So why not stay behind the bar, pocketing a comfortable wage and enjoying the freedom of leaving work behind you after each night? “You do it because you want to have more influence and responsibility and to grow as a person. It’s incredibly masochistic, but I’ve always been drawn to making larger decisions, of taking on more responsibility.”
Does he ever want to throw it off and go back to tending bar? “All the time. Every day.”
But, he says the beauty of running a business is he really can do whatever he wants.
“Maybe this is way too sociological, but there’s something in how I was raised that let me entertain the idea that I can do anything. Since no one has really put up much resistance to the idea, it’s constantly a test of what’s possible. Is it possible to open up three bars in one year? Yeah, seems that way. Will people respond? Yeah, they do! Can we make a cocktail book that compares to coffee table books and makes you feel you’re walking into a New York bar? Sure. I mean, what hubris! What a ridiculous thing to do.”
But done it, he has. Because when there are no rules, you go out and make your own.