A Chat with Ann Tuennerman and Brian Maxwell
In honor of Tales of the Cocktail's 15th anniversary, Tales founder Ann Tuennerman is highlighting fifteen bartenders whose lives and careers have been impacted by attending the event, and whose work has elevated the industry as a whole. In this edition: Brian Maxwell, bartender at Philadelphia establishments The Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co. and 1 Tippling Place and the man behind shakerofspirits.com, a website centered around cocktail culture, history and education.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born and raised in Butler, Pennsylvania, a small town north of Pittsburgh. After traveling and living in cities around the country for the past decade, I'm happy to call Philadelphia home today.
What attracted you to becoming a bartender in the first place?
I was always fascinated by the social aspect of bars, food and beverage. Even as a child, I saw something culturally significant about the way eating and drinking brought people together.
Was your career path planned or was it a temporary gig that evolved into a career?
During my early years in the restaurant industry, I would have said you were crazy to make this your profession by choice. I still think I might require a certain level of eccentricity to take this much joy in obsessing over something as simple as bringing a smile to someone's face with nothing more than a glass of liquid.
What and where was your first bartending job?
I worked as a barback in a college bar until they fired me. This was 15 years ago. Those wild college kids are always the most reliable, aren't they?
Was there a moment when you decided that bartending would be your career?
Absolutely. I had been working in kitchens, thinking I would still be working as a chef right now. I started working shifts behind the bar, because that's where the money was. That's when I really started geeking out about the products and the history behind them. There was one particular moment I knew this was for me. It was around 2007, and I stepped into the French 75 Bar at Arnaud's. Chris Hannah was behind the bar telling a guest about the history of the Crusta, I believe. I remember saying, "That's what I want to do!" This was definitely the moment I started upping my game, reading everything I could get my hands on, and looking at what we do from a hospitality standpoint.
Was your family supportive of your decision to pursue bartending?
Like a lot of bartenders, my family didn't quite understand when I told them I was going to be a bartender and not a chef, not to mention the degree I spent four years on. Over the years, though, they've really seen how much I love this industry. I couldn't ask for a more supportive family.
For someone who wants to pursue bartending as a career, what top 3 tips would you offer?
First of all, the bartending world has changed over the years. This is no longer one big party. Your guests and employers deserve you alert, focused and at your best.
Secondly, do you enjoy those weekend getaways with your friends? Forget about living on the same schedule as the rest of the world. When they play, we work. That's what we're here for.
Lastly, no matter how much press you receive, whether it's through cocktail competitions or brand work, you're still a bartender. There's a big difference between "bar famous" and "real famous." Don't expect to be walking down the red carpet at the Oscars because you make a mean Daiquiri.
How did you first learn about Tales of the Cocktail?
I first learned about Tales of the Cocktail purely by accident. I was in New Orleans when it was taking place years ago, and I just sort of started tagging along to things, not really realizing what was going on.
Where there any challenges you had to overcome to attend Tales the first time (financial, logistical, etc.)?
Not really. I just happened to be there, working and living in New Orleans. I can't really say the same about the years since leaving New Orleans. This is the one week each year I come back. Having an itinerary makes a week in New Orleans feel much more productive.
Kindly describe your first Tales experience and what it meant to you.
I had no idea what this would become. I didn't even realize who I was talking to or how much those eccentric folks around the Carousel Bar would impact my future. I was clueless, to say the least.
What was it like to be immersed in the community of bartenders and cocktail luminaries from all over the world? Did it confirm bartending as your calling?
Until Tales of the Cocktail, I didn't realize how many other obsessives were out there. Being surrounded by so many like-minded people in your industry makes you feel like your passion isn't a wasted one. I look at this week as the one time of year I get to see everyone. Some of the people you meet might only travel to the U.S. once a year, and this is it.
Kindly describe your top three favorite moments from Tales.
Only three? I would have to say, drinking amaro with the Branca family is pretty high up on that list. I'll also never forget seeing Steven Remsberg's rum collection for the first time, breathtaking. Early on there was a time, sitting at a bar, I went to hand a gentleman his bag he'd left behind. When he turned around, it was Dale DeGroff. We had some Negronis together. I remember that being a big moment back then. It's really hard to narrow down a list of top three. I have more memorable experiences than that each year.
Kindly describe any awards or recognition you received at Tales.
This year I'm actually fulfilling one of my early dreams for when I first attended Tales of the Cocktail. I have the pleasure of teaching a seminar. To me, helping to educate within our community is the biggest honor of all.
Kindly describe your top behind-the-bar experience where you impacted or inspired a guest?
I tend to create close bonds with my regular customers. Last year, two of my best regulars invited me to their wedding. I was surrounded by politicians and state officials at this beautiful venue. None of the guests knew who I was. I just kept telling them, "I'm their bartender!"
What do you hope to get from your experience teaching a Tales seminar?
I hope any work I do will help inspire and teach anyone looking to make this their career.
Kindly describe any key professional relationships that were forged at Tales through networking with fellow bartenders, spirits luminaries and brand managers.
I was just talking about one of these stories the other day. I was sitting at Yo Mammas eating a burger several years ago, just trying to take a break from the busy vibe of Tales for a moment. I had a conversation with a man who I'm currently working on several projects with here in Philadelphia. I would have to say I made almost all of my big connections through Tales up until the past couple years. Where else are you going to walk into a bar and see Paul Pacult, Jeff Berry and David Wondrich sitting at the same table? Sounds like a bad bar joke, doesn't it?
How would you sum up Tales to an aspiring bartender who is new to the profession?
Go! Budget the time and money to make the trip. You'll never learn more and meet more people over the course of a week. Whatever your perception of what Tales of the Cocktail is, I guarantee you it's bigger. Also, don't be afraid to talk to people. Everyone is there for the same reasons, so strike up a conversation. You are a bartender after all.
What is your go-to cocktail when you go out?
Anything with rum. I really like to see what bartenders are doing with the versatility of cane spirits. If I'm at a cocktail bar, it's usually a daiquiri or rum old-fashioned. If I'm at a dive bar, neat spirit and beer. That being said, I rarely order drinks anymore if it's not work related. Remember what I said about the party being over sometimes?
What is your favorite cocktail to make for friends and family?
Daiquiri. Who could say no? If they're coming into my bar though, I get a lot of requests for Ramos Fizz. I always oblige.