What makes your favorite bartender tick? Especially as mixology becomes as much an art and science as simple craft, chances are, the guy or gal mixing your cocktail has many tales to tell. Cody Northcutt of Ritual is one of them.
What got you in to the bartending industry?
My mom. At the time I was living in Tampa, Florida, working at this gas station in a not-so-friendly side of town. My mom had a Groupon for bartending school so one day she hands it to me and says, 'Hey, just a side thought if you wanted to do something else besides being a gas station clerk all your life.' So I said 'Cool,' and I took it and ran with it and after that started working at country club. Been bartending ever since.
How did you discover mixology?
The majority of my early bartending career was volume: clubs, dives, sports-bars and the country club where I started. At the time I was working at [Houston] Texans Grille in City Center, which is now closed, and a block away from there is Hotel Sorrella and they have a restaurant called Radio Milano. Downstairs was the Milano Bar, so every Wednesday I’d pass around industry flyers to all the restaurants and I kept passing by Milano Bar I never knew it was in there.
It was dimly lit, you couldn’t really see through the windows, so one day I decided to go. I thought you had to dress all fancy to get in. So I got dressed up went in and saw all these things and nothing looked familiar, there were hammers, potions, bitters all these different, cool-looking things. Chris Morris, who became my mentor, at the time was working the stick and I started asking about the menu. It was like Egyptian hieroglyphics. I couldn’t understand it.
I asked him, 'How did you get into this?' He started telling me, then I asked, 'How do I get into this?' He gave me some books to read and said there was an apprenticeship due to open up in 4 to 5 months. I read the books, studied, kept going back to pick his brain little by little until they had an opening. From then on I was in it.
Have you been involved in any competitions?
I’ve been to two, so far. Very small ones—nothing on a national scale—but we hosted one called Cutthroat Bar, out in Pearland, at the bar I was working at the time. The concept was like Cutthroat Kitchen. You had a thousand dollars in cash and you would bid to sabotage the competition. Round one you had to make your cocktail but you had to do it one-handed, that kind of thing.
The second competition was another small one for Angel’s Envy over at Ron’s Pub. It was like an anti-craft-bartending competition: make an original/classic using only Angel’s Envy, the sponsor, [and] try to do it without being mixologist-based. It brought me back to my sports bar days, stirring with straws and jerry-rigging stuff.
Those were the two, but I do plan on doing more.
What's your specialty?
The first [cocktail] I ever did was called the Act ’96 and it was tiki style with Old Monk Rum, grapefruit, cinnamon-clove syrup, a little bit of lemon juice, and it blended fantastic. I brought that to two other bars, [but] I’ve put it on the back burner for now. I’m coming up with more stuff every day, [but] if there was one that I’d consider my shining glory, it’d be that one.
Where do you see the industry 10 years from now?
It’ll still be here. Everything is so craft-driven now, what with craft beer and mixology. History repeats itself—we may just go back to the '80s when everyone was drinking Woo Woos and Fuzzy Navels. Years from now I think it’ll be more driven, and more molecular mixology might become the norm. Houston is due to blow up.
Which Houston neighborhood has the hottest bar scene right now?
What I’ve noticed and heard around town is that the Heights is starting to pick it up. There’s Johnny’s Gold [Brick], [Better Luck Tomorrow] that just opened is from the Anvil brain trust. There’s that and Garden Oaks is starting something too. As far as renovations go, there’s new housing and [it's the] latest area that people are moving to.
When you’re off the clock, what are your favorite watering holes?
I stay in Pearland, so when I’m off the clock, I tend to stay close to home. There are only two places to drink in Pearland... Bogie's Pub & Grill or Skeet’s Bar-B-Q. But say I’m in town I’d go to Anvil, BLT because I like the ambiance; Johnny’s Gold is real laid back. I tend to stay away from high-volume bars.
What made you choose to meet for this interview at Public House?
I’ve been here a couple times hanging out with co-workers and I really like the vibe. It’s local; off-the-beaten path, [and] you can’t find it unless you’re looking for it. Nothing much going on, plus the bartenders are cool.
In your opinion, what separates a bartender from a mixologist?
I understand mixology is an old-school term, which is awesome, but now it’s getting abused. Anybody that can put Svedka Vodka and pineapples together and not know the chemical reaction between the two can call himself a mixologist. We can all bartend, we can all make our side money. But if you become a craft bartender, now you’re talking about a whole lifestyle, you’re going home and researching the plants, researching the different styles of spirits, the history of the distillery that opened, the grains that go into it, how it all came about, what’s the process. Researching culinary books to get flavors, making sacrifices.
For example, I was a smoker for 10 years. I stopped like a month ago just so I could taste better and smell better. I love smoking cigarettes. If I could, I’d smoke today, but it’s making those sacrifices to up your skillset, your craft, your game overall for something you truly want to do.
So the craft game is a way of life, like a good brain surgeon. I can have you sit down with a drink, have this person sit down with a drink and now you’re talking about each other's drinks. Now we created a sense of community for drinking, imbibing, if you will. Japanese bar culture says it best when they say 'I’ve done my job when someone comes in and they leave a little bit more happier than when they came.'