We sat down with Chris Simpson of Austin’s Academia to chat about his work, bartending in Japan, unique ingredients, and his drink for March’s Shift Drinks: Reposado Edition Box, the Refresco en Vinagre.
S&S: You’ve run the gamut of bartending in different countries and styles of establishments. What would you say is the personal Chris Simpson brand that you bring and adapt to different environments?
CS: I think the one thing I’ve realized is the more you feel like you have mastered something, the more you realize you know nothing at all. There are so many facets that make this industry so unique, and so many different styles bartenders take. Whenever you step into a new environment, always be humble, or you’ll be humbled. Find and learn from all kinds of mentors, learn from their process, take the good, and build yourself into the bartender you want to become.
S&S: What are some of the things you learned back in Japan?
CS: In Japan I learned patience, humility, and the reward of hard work. Respect and service are everything in Japanese hospitality, even above self. At the bars I worked, we would not make tips, but earned commission based off return of regulars. Your service always had to be on point because you were not working for just one day, but for the continued relationship you built with your guests. You would work your ass off for 9–12 hours, go home with about 30 dollars, and ask yourself “how I could be better?” It was hard, but I think it has grounded me in the various stages in my career.
S&S: Japanese-style bars have been popping up more and more here in the US; are you still a big fan?
CS: Funny enough I didn’t know about Japanese-style bartending until I moved back from Japan. I absolutely love the style, and I’m thrilled by how bars have embraced it here in the US. I can’t wait to see how it evolves as bartenders continue to be inspired by it!
S&S: What’s it like to work at Academia? How did your journey lead there?
CS: My journey to Academia followed one of my bar mentors, Russell Davis. When I moved to San Francisco I followed his work at Rickhouse, and subsequently worked on my first bar project under him at The Ice Cream Bar, a revival soda fountain project. When he told me about what he was building at Academia, I jumped at the opportunity to work with him again. At Academia, we’re about trying to create experiences and push the influences from all of beverage history into our cocktails.
S&S: Austin is obviously bursting at the seams with exciting food and drink. How would you say does Academia stand out in the crowd?
CS: For us, it starts with hospitality and creating a unique experience. Everyone is looking for their Cheers, the bar where everyone knows your name.
S&S: What are some of your other favorite spots in Austin?
CS: I love Garage Bar and the Roosevelt Room. Cocktails are great and the bartenders are too.
S&S: We second that! What would you say has been your biggest hit at Academia, or elsewhere?
CS: Happy to say I’ve had a lot of hits, but recent favorite have been the Bourbon & the Bees. The cocktail is comprised of bourbon, mint, lemon, honey, chareu, and lavender aromatic.
S&S: There’s a distinct savory edge to the Refresco en Vinagre, thanks in part to the pickle juice. Do you have any other similar tricks up your sleeve in terms of go-to kitchen ingredients behind the bar?
CS: I love to find inspiration in flavors of food and always try to bring those together.
S&S: Is there an ingredient or technique you’re currently fascinated with?
CS: I love working with essential oils in cocktails, being able to isolate pure flavor extracts.
S&S: Can you tell us more about your concept of working with recycled ingredients and how that’s reflected here in the Refresco en Vinagre?
CS: In this cocktail, we upcycled the pickle juice from the kitchen, and the sparkling water used is Richard’s Rainwater, collected from actual rainwater.
S&S: What was it like collaborating with Chef Manny on this cocktail? What do you feel you each brought to the table?
CS: What I love about Manny’s pickle brine are the highlighted notes of dill. These notes come out very well in the cocktail.
S&S: What’s the weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted?
CS: Attempted to make a tequila clam milkshake. Was so confident in it, I presented it at a cocktail competition. Judges did not quite share my enthusiasm.
S&S: Ha! How about the best drink you’ve ever had?
CS: The Long Island Iced Tea. I had missed my bus back to my dorms while living in Japan, and had to kill time for the next one. I didn’t drink, but the only place open was 68, our college/expat bar downtown. I only had a few bucks, ordered a coke, and the bartender came back with a Long Island on the house. It was the first cocktail I had ever had, and at the time the experience was mind-blowing. I loved how the flavors layered with each other and created an entirely new experience. That is was then that I decided to go—and subsequently started down—the path of bartending.
S&S: What do you want to be when you grow up?
CS: I wanted to be a submarine designer. As a kid I would obsessively pour over technical plans for subs, ships, and planes. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized I hated math and didn’t want to become an engineer. After that I pursued linguistics, business, and eventually found my passion in bartending.
S&S: What do you do when you’re not working?
CS: Think about work ha ha, but in all seriousness I’m a new dog dad, which is something I’ve been enjoying quite a bit. I came from a cat family, and this is my first dog. I moved out to Austin with my girlfriend Zoe, and we try to explore Austin whenever we can.
S&S: Love it! What’s your go-to drink order when trying out a new place?
CS: After reading the menu at a new place, I usually try to pick the cocktail with ingredients that sound the most interesting.
S&S: Like the Refresco en Vinagre!