When I interview podcast guests, I ask about their earliest experiences that made them fall in love with spirits, cocktails, and hospitality. I decided to look back on my own history with cocktails and how I ended up working in that industry. I began posting this on Instagram and decided to tell it in full here.
Part 1 of my cocktail journey: Absolutli Goosed
When I was coming of age, cocktails weren’t a thing yet. In my early drinking years, I had plenty of rum and cokes, G&Ts, and terrible gin gimlets. Yes, I was drinking gimlets at 21 (thanks, Ryan). But for the most part, I was chasing the exploding craft beer scene.
My first memory of seeking out cocktails was at the now-shuttered Absolutli Goosed in south St. Louis city. I’m pretty sure my friend Kate is who took me there the first time. It was the Tini-crazed era. It was en vogue to put all sorts of drinks - regardless of color or flavor - in the iconic (and spill-prone) martini glasses. I doubt any of their drinks would win a contest, but that’s not the point.
It was a place that got people like me drinking cocktails and feeding the line of thought, “I wonder what other cocktails are out there?” It helped unleash curiosity for many people.
I remember that after a trip there with my friend RJ, he went out and bought all the ingredients for dirty martinis. You’d have to ask him to confirm this, but I’m pretty sure we later learned that he was making them all wrong.
So here is to the Goose. Thank you for being the first stop on my cocktail journey.
Part 2 of my cocktail journey: Taste by Niche
Two people that undoubtedly shaped and arguably were the catalyst for St. Louis’s cocktail resurgence are Ted and Jamie Kilgore. To my knowledge, Ted first tended bar at the restaurant Monarch. I stopped in once, knowing there was a buzz about this guy’s cocktails. I know I had one but cannot recall what it was. Unlike Absolutli Goosed, the menu and drink seemed more put together. I remember leaving with the impression that this guy was doing something different.
According to my email archive, thank you Gmail, on January 9, 2010, my girlfriend and I visited him at a new establishment, Taste by Niche. Ted was recruited by one of the city’s premier chefs, Gerard Craft, to open a cocktail bar next to Craft’s ragingly popular restaurant, Niche. Ted had a blank canvas to work from.
From the moment I walked in, something felt different. I was 27 and thought I was “experienced” when it came to bars, but I’d never felt something like this. The drink menu was small and populated by ingredients I’d never heard of such as Cherry Herring. A bottle of Yamazaki whisky, whatever in the heck that was, loomed large on a back bar populated by exotic elixirs I’d never seen before.
If the place was full, you could write your name on a chalkboard, which served as a self-governed waitlist.
I don’t remember how long we stayed or what I had. But I can say with certainty that this was the night the magic and wonder of mixology captured my imagination.
Part 3 of my cocktail journey: Matt Seiter and Sanctuaria
My experience at Taste by Niche at the beginning of 2010 catalyzed my interest in spirits and mixology. But the end of that year brought a surprise that launched my understanding of it. My girlfriend at the time, a thoughtful person, who was also tired of my nonstop chatter about wanting to understand the craft, surprised me with a private lesson with one of St. Louis’s well-known bartenders, Matt Seiter.
She surprised me with the gift on my birthday in early December, and the next day, a Monday when the bar was closed, I met Matt at the bar where he worked, Sanctuaria, for a two-hour lesson. It was a complete whirlwind. He gave me some handouts, discussed the ins and outs of shaking and stirring, a handful of bars driving the scene forward, the importance of fresh juice, and more.
I remember that Matt made me a Clover Club cocktail. It was my first time tasting a drink with egg white, and I can still see him resting the garnish, a basil leaf, upon its foam. It was pure magic.
Over the next couple of weeks, I was at Sanctuaria often. I followed Matt around town to special events, seeing him work alongside bartenders like Matt Obermark and TJ Vytlacil. I convinced my friends to start New Year's Eve at Sanctuaria before proceeding to another bar filled with shots, beer, and cheap champagne.
I also dug into the book he’d recommended that my girlfriend had included in the gift, The Joy of Mixology by Gary (“Gaz”) Regan. It was so much to take in, but I began studying Regan’s proposed cocktail families, like Cobblers, duos & trios, French-Italian, Milanese drinks, and more. It introduced me to drinks I’d never heard of, like the Aviation, Sidecar, Martinez, Negroni, and countless others.
A month after class, I moved to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where booze was expensive, and my energy was consumed by navigating and enjoying a new culture. So, for the most part, my cocktail exploration went dormant, but the groundwork had been laid.
Part 4 of my cocktail journey: positive reinforcement
After my initial lesson at Sanctuaria, the year I spent in Malaysia, plus the subsequent 2.5 years after I returned, was a relative drought for my mixology practice. I had the occasional cocktail and infrequently made them, but what happened to jumpstart it was the wonderful dinner parties thrown by Mark and Amanda. Whether I was asked or made the decision myself, I decided to make a cocktail to complement the Moroccan dish Mark was planning.
When I looked up common spices in Moroccan cooking, I came across cardamom and a recipe that called for cardamom simple syrup. As far as I can recall, this was my first attempt at a syrup infusion. I don’t much recall how it turned out, but I remember the positive reinforcement I received. My lovely friends were grateful for the attempt, which made me think, “I should try this more often.”
Around this time, I brought a Sidecar to Nikki’s annual holiday party. It was a hit.
These small wins reignited my interest. And thankfully, an introduction was about to be made that accelerated my experimentation.
Part 5 of my cocktail journey: Tim Wiggins & Retreat Gastropub
In 2015, I was working at St. Louis’s newest coworking center, @4240. One day I was chatting with the GM about a members-only bar crawl. He liked it but said he had no time to help, so he introduced me to one of his employees, Lauren.
The bar crawl never happened, but Lauren and I became good friends. One of the bar coworking clients and employees visited was Retreat Gastropub, where Lauren’s fiancé, Tim Wiggins was the beverage director. Tim and I got to know each other, and I was happy to “support his work” (aka drinking LOTS of cocktails).
Meanwhile, my friend Diana sent me an article about an elaborate coffee shop in Boston that would unexpectedly kick cocktails into high gear for me It was called “The Society of Grownups” and, in essence, was a place where you could not only order lattés but also take short classes on topics like “what’s a stock vs. a bond” or “how to go full-time as a freelancer.” I worked in financial services and convinced my boss that I should visit it.
I returned from Boston exhilarated and designed a riff on it called “Show Me Adulting.” I thought about the fun (but daunting) moments when people made larger financial decisions: traveling, decorating a home, building a home bar, etc. My boss backed it, and I ran the bar class concept past Tim. Would he be interested and help me pilot it?
Weeks later, on October 11, 2016, the ticketed event happened at Retreat. Tim made delicious drinks, answered questions from attendees, and handed out a short cocktail booklet that he and Lauren assembled. On the final page were books he recommended. He said if we were going to buy just one, it should be Death &Copany’s Modern Classic Cocktails. I bought it the next day (thanks, Amazon order archive). It became my off-hours educational guide, teaching me drink-making techniques, spirits, and cocktails. It also led to a nearly infinite number of new questions I had for Tim. I keep telling him he needs to launch a 1-900 number so he can bill me for all my questions. He has become a good friend and mentor.
Part 6 of my cocktail journey: Death & Co + Intoxicology
After the class I put together with Tim, my studying at home with the 3.2-pound 320-page Death & Co. book ramped up. It covered everything: what they did before service each day, how they stocked and ran their bar, how to shake and stir with the proper equipment, numerous infusions, and a boatload of recipes.
They broke down categories I didn’t know existed: London Dry vs. Old Tom Gin, English vs. Jamaican rum, and lifting vs. aromatic bitters. And don’t you dare ask me to explain Sherry.
I kept reading and cross-referencing things online and was making more drinks at home. About a month after the book arrived, my friend, Mark asked if I wanted to check out the grand opening of a new liquor store, Intoxicology. He suggested we stop by, see what they have, maybe make some purchases, and then head back to his place for drinks and dinner.
I’m grateful that Mark suggested we go. The store was so different from others I’d visited. Spirits were the focus, and the selection was well-curated. Andy and Melissa were long-time enthusiasts and were tired of the liquor store experience, so they decided to build one.
Rather than sprawling sections, there seemed to be 20 or less of everything plus a well-stocked liqueur and bitters section. And the real differentiators were their glasses, bar tools, books, AND kold-draft ice machine.
I spent WAY more than I’d planned, but it was clear that based on where I was in my journey, the people behind this place could guide me as I built out my bar and hit stumbling blocks.
Mark and I headed to his place with our spoils and made some delicious drinks. Over the next 18 months, Death & Co and a growing number of resources educated me on things, while Intoxicology helped me build out my bar and gave me a place to ask questions.
Part 7 of my cocktail journey: “The 4-Hour Chef” + six root cocktails
I started listening to Tim Ferriss's podcast in 2014, but it wasn’t until I was at my friend Drew's one day, and seeing one of Tim’s books on Drew’s shelf, that I considered reading one. It was the massive, 678-page 4-Hour Chef that intriguingly reads “The Simple Path to Cooking Like a Pro, Learning Anything, and Living the Good Life.”
Despite being a cookbook, the first 101 pages describe his approach to learning any skill. But pages 20 and 21 are two that I read often, where he lays out two principles: Points of Failure (POF) and Margin of Safety (MOS).
POF are the things that often make people quit when learning. Since it’s a cookbook, he cites complex knife skills, long recipes, expensive ingredients, etc.MOS boils down to starting with easier tasks. Get some wins under your belt.
Fast forward a couple of years to Death & Company releasing Cocktail Codex. The book argues there are only six cocktails, and everything else is just a riff. The idea that the fundamentals of mixology could fit in a box of six drinks blew my mind. While I’d learned a lot, I suddenly felt it could be even easier to wrap my head around the subject.
At some point, I began thinking of Ferriss’s POF and MOS. Could I use Tim’s principles to change how I learned and taught my increasingly curious friends about cocktails? While the Codex is a fantastic tool for professionals, a good portion of its recipes are long (reads: expensive) and exceptionally complex (e.g., using siphons to carbonate syrups) for the layperson.
I began to write down what I thought the POFs were: long recipes, niche bottles I rarely use, how and when to shake and stir, preserving perishable items, the happy hour or dinner party where you end up stressed. I also borrowed the Codex’s family structure but began to trim any recipes I deemed as unnecessary for novices and amateurs to take the POS into account.
In July 2019, while I was recovering from jaw surgery, I began outlining a potential curriculum. For the fun play on words, I thought I’d call it “The Manhattan Cocktail Project.”
Part 8 of my cocktail journey: Systems are a go for launch
Part of my interest and passion for launching my passion project was wanting to make drink-making seem and feel less daunting to people like my friends. I’d found great enjoyment in it, and many of my friends LOVED that I was making them for them. Even though some even made them at times for themselves, I could see they didn’t grasp many of the fundamentals I’d learned.
I wanted a class to revolve around simple recipes (3-4 ingredients) where we could focus on basic techniques, showing them how the drink in front of them was related to others and how to tweak it according to their taste preferences.
I began writing out how the class would flow and the drinks we’d make. The only thing left to do was launch. I hosted the first couple of classes in my home, with friends, just five weeks after having my jaw operated on. With a still visibly swollen face, on August 24, 2019, I welcomed eight friends into my home as willing guinea pigs. While there were plenty of hiccups, it went over well, and I was on my way.
Over the next few months, I held more classes in my home, got booked for in other people’s homes, and hosted a few at The Wine and Cheese Place. I am beyond grateful to everyone that supported my work in the early days.
On Saturday, March 7, I hosted a class that went well, and I left feeling energized by how this might evolve. But as we all know, one week later, the world began to shut down.
I remember thinking, “well, I guess that’s the end of that for a long while.” But I was about to be proven wrong.
Part 9 of my cocktail journey: the zoom economy
Despite the new reality of COVID-19, I got a curious email about a week into lockdown. It was from The Wine and Cheese Place,
“Chris, I hope you are well and safe. Our stores are open, and people are thirsty. We are going to be posting a lot more content on social media. Would you be interested in making some short videos? Just a cabin fever idea.”
It felt like a fun way to pass the time and was “funded” via their product donations. I’d shoot about a half dozen videos, and we kept this going for a while. While it didn’t produce groundbreaking results, it got me thinking about my business in this new normal.
At the end of May, Natalie Lafranzo reached out. She was supposed to be in Mexico next month for a friend’s bachelorette party but was now helping plan a virtual version. She asked if I could teach a cocktail class. We built a menu, and I reconfigured my cocktail book for sharing on zoom.
There were very few hiccups during the class, and they were happy with how it turned out. Despite it going well, I still saw this as a one-off. That changed on July 30th when I received an email from a law firm’s event coordinator looking for virtual mixology. They wanted to hire me?!
Not only did the class go well, they hired me multiple times and sent me business. This forced me to change how I thought of myself. I was not a world expert on cocktails, but that’s not what they needed. They wanted someone to make learning about drinks fun and approachable. And that I could do. And if I could host a class for them, why not anyone else? Between November and December 2020, I hosted ~15 virtual classes.
In February 2021, I arrived at a crossroads. This was still my side hustle, but it was in demand, and I enjoyed it. A deep corner of my psyche pushed back saying I was “supposed to” do things like this early in my career. But after enough debate, at 38, I decided to tackle this full-time. The reality is I felt more at home in this world.
The Manhattan Cocktail Project became Decoding Cocktails, and my first order of business was transforming this passion project into a sustainable business.
Part 10 of my cocktail journey: The road to here.
It’s been 18 months since I took this full-time.
The cocktail classes that instigated the move continue to energize me. The ability to offer in-person classes is exciting. The enthusiastic reception they receive and referrals feed the business and my soul.
The podcast I launched last fall has been a fun learning tool and is picking up some tailwinds. A big thank you to my early guests.