Through our travels and talks, we’ve always heard mention of the bartender’s bartender from our interviewees. Finally, we meet the man behind the drinks that other drink slingers love. We sat down with the one and only Rich Bailey of Johnny's Gold Brick.
Where are you currently working and how long have you been in the industry?
I’m currently at Johnny’s Gold Brick as the assistant general manager. I’ve been there almost three years, and before then I was at Pappasito’s; that was my very first industry job. There were a few jobs in between but I stayed at Pappasito’s. I was at Avant Garden, a hotel, a few nightclubs but I really cut my teeth at Pappasito’s.
What got you into the industry?
Rejection. I went into the Cheesecake Factory [when I was] coming home from college and I was trying to find a quick job. I had a really good experience there and one of the waiters there told me I’d be great for the role and to apply, and [I] was told they only had certain spots for people that didn’t have experience being a waiter before. I didn’t get the job and on my way home I was upset and drove by a Pappasito’s, which was hiring, and I made it my mission to get hired. I refused to get two rejections in one day. I was hired as a server although I applied as a bartender. I was confused and the manager pointed out that in the industry I had to work my way up, start as a server and learn the food, then become the head waiter. He said within a year, if I was good enough, I could move up to a bartender. I did it in six months.
How did you discover mixology?
I had just watched the Hey Bartender documentary and right after that I felt inspired by it. I talked to my friends that were working with me at Pappasito’s and I said, “let’s go to bartending school,” to which they argued with me they were already bartending. But I said, “let’s go all Tom Cruise in Cocktail!”
One of my regulars told me about Tales of the Cocktail. It was the very first industry thing I had ever heard of. I did some research into it and found out that there was a San Antonio cocktail conference that was starting and I made up my mind to go. I had heard of the United States Bartenders Guild but I didn’t know anything about them at the time, and at the end of the week they had a cocktail competition. I had been practicing and I entered it, and that really drove me to want to enter more competitions, utilizing jiggers and bitters. I randomly entered into a competition that was held in Houston at Gage Lounge and I won. I was invited out to do USBG and met Luis Villegas, the president at the time, and was in the finals against Robby Cook, who’s now the president of USBG. Robby then invited me to his competition where I met Justin Ware, who’s now my boss.
What other competitions have you been in?
A few local, and I’ve recently started doing national competitions. I took a leap of faith last year and entered into Bacardi Legacy and made it as far as the semis. Along the way I met great people from all over our region and I had great time competing. It challenged me to think of cocktails in a more personal way as far as coming up with a story and a theme behind a drink. I feel when you deliver drinks you’re delivering a piece of you. I was involved with the most imaginative bartender this year and made it to the semis. At Eight Row Flint they held a Kentucky vs. Tennessee whiskey battle, where everyone was given either Kentucky or Tennessee spirits and had to come up with cocktails. I won that.
What’s your specialty cocktail and what goes into it?
I am the biggest advocate for the Pendennis Club. It’s essentially a gimlet with a little more depth and flavor; it’s gin, lime, turbinado sugar, apricot liqueur and Peychaud’s bitters. You get sweet and you get tart, it’s a nice spectrum for what I would I say is good everyday cocktail.
What neighborhood in Houston is currently killing the bar scene?
As a whole, Houston has stepped up tremendously in the bar scene, although I am more impressed with the bar scene in the Heights. There are bars popping up, doing well and thriving all the while having their own identity. You can go to Johnny’s, Lei Low, Heights Bier Garten, One Armed Scissor—each of them are different, but they respect the craft while being professional and friendly.
When did you realize you could make a career out of this?
The light switch clicked around the time I got out of bartending school and after watching Hey Bartender. I considered these people gods, hoping one day to reach that level. I know people knock bartending school, but I want to be an advocate because it worked for me. I do get the stigma that goes with it, but we all have to learn, we have to be able to crawl before we walk. That experience showed me that there is no one way to bartend, you can do craft, volume, hotels, restaurants, flight attendants, cruises. Once I had graduated, there were so many places that were looking for people and they were all different. I knew I’d have to be behind the bar, but from there you could move into the distribution side or become a rep or an ambassador or a consultant. Those opportunities confirmed to me that you could indeed make a living out of this career path.
What would you say is contributing to the current mixology boom overtaking Houston?
Like our food scene, craft cocktails have always been there, but people are now getting into it and actively seeking it out. Anvil was the catalyst and really started the wave to the point where the consumers wanted more like it and it began to evolve our bar scene. There are great people out here that are stepping up and care about the quality they put out and want to continue on their legacy.
When you’re off the clock what are your favorite haunts?
Lei Low! They have a knowledgeable staff and the drinks they put out are absolutely amazing. If ever have a few days off I like to go to Galveston [and] hit up DTO Galveston. My boy, Brad Stringer, is one of the owners and he’s top-notch. It’s a bar [where] you don’t just have a few drinks and come back home.
What made you choose Heights Bier Garten for the interview?
I’m absolutely floored with what the Heights is doing. With all these new places popping up, I try to venture out and see what all the talk is about. I know Josh Alden was one of the head creators of the bar program over here and I wanted to see the program firsthand. Most of the staff here come by Johnny’s and I wanted to show some love.