Unlike most of the people we’ve covered here, Dave Stolte defies easy categorization. His first and only book, Home Bar Basics (and Not-So-Basics), earned him a Spirited Award nomination in 2012, and he has since become a ubiquitous name in the world of cocktails, thanks to an eclectic resume that includes menu design at world-renowned bars like Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco and branding for countless distilleries and breweries.
In many ways, though, it can be easier to understand Stolte through his signature cartoon characters than through an interview. The illustrator, designer, writer, and acclaimed cocktail aficionado has an unassuming presence, one that seemingly belies the deep-seated goofiness evident in his artwork. Anthropomorphized cocktails dance across the pages of his books (and, we imagine, the corners of napkins at various Los Angeles bars), faces scrunched in caricatures of drunken revelry or whiskey-drenched sternness, capturing the spirit of modern drinking culture with a deft and nostalgic brush.
The Art of Cocktails
Like so many of his contemporaries, Stolte’s earliest inspiration to become an artist came from Star Wars. “Those artists were the guys who really made me realize that there’s a world of creative design out there,” he told us. “I was always fascinated by cereal box illustrations and gas station signs as a kid, but it never occurred to me that somebody actually got to draw for a living until I saw the concept art for the movies.”
He traces his interest in cocktails to just a few years later. “Even as far back as high school, you had the guys who drank beer, you had the Bartles and Jaymes crowd, and you had the people who’d do Rum and Cokes or make punch in a trashcan. I was more interested in mixed drinks, but not always good ones,” he laughed. “My go-to for a while there in college was the Adios Motherfucker, the blue one that comes in a big fishbowl-looking thing.”
While making his way through a handful of less-than-satisfying design and editorial gigs, Stolte found himself gravitating towards the burgeoning world of craft cocktails in the early 1990s. It was Paul Harrington’s (author of Cocktail: A Drinks Bible for the 21st Century) work on Cocktail Time, a now-defunct property of Wired magazine, that first opened his eyes to slightly less iridescent recipes.
“Every Friday, they would put out a classic cocktail recipe along with the history of the drink, and how to make it properly. I would print out that recipe and go to Hi-Time in Costa Mesa—this great old liquor store that’s been there since the early ‘60s—and I’d get all the stuff, come home, and try to make it. But I didn’t have any of the tools, or any knowledge about how to do anything properly. The recipe would call for one ounce of this or two ounces of that, and I was like, I don’t know how much an ounce is,” he said, laughing. “I’d end up making Margaritas in a pint glass.”
Over several years of home-bar trial and error, Stolte came into his own alongside the industry itself, accumulating an impressive breadth of knowledge about cocktails and the stories behind them. Discovering the Sidecar, in particular, was something of a turning point. “It’s so simple, and it’s like time travel,” he told us with a grin. “You sip it and it tastes like where it came from, like 1920s Paris.”
Cocktails eventually worked their way into his illustrations, taking on free-form charcoal skeletons and a wide range of personalities—a lime-mustachioed revolutionary Cuba Libre, a dapper Old-Fashioned, and a flat-capped bruiser of a Rusty Nail, to name a few. And though they started as doodles for his own enjoyment, it wouldn’t be long before they kickstarted the next phase of his career.
It wasn’t until a friend contacted him, asking for help with his own home bar, that Stolte realized his knowledge might be marketable. “He sent me a picture of the little space over the refrigerator that he had, and said, ‘This is my home bar, what can I do?’ It was like, Jack Daniel’s, Rose’s Grenadine, Rose’s Lime, maybe a bottle of Fireball or something like that, and that was it.
“So I wound up writing him an email, and this email turned into two or three pages recommending all the spirits and tools he needed, along with some basic recipes. After reading that monstrosity, he said I should turn it into a book illustrated with my cocktail drawings.”
Thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign, Stolte was able to do just that. Home Bar Basics, a pocket-sized guide for novice cocktail enthusiasts, earned him a place among the top-ten finalists for Best New Cocktail/Bartending Book at Tales of the Cocktail’s Spirited Awards, one of the most prestigious awards in the industry. Followed by a two-year stint as Vice President of the Southern California US Bartenders’ Guild, it certainly wasn’t a bad start.
Around the same time, Stolte began to transition from his day job to focus on his home design studio, Wexler of California. And as his name got around the cocktail world, he found that his client base became something of a who’s who of bars and spirit brands.
“Through the process of editing and publishing the book, I got to know a lot of great bartenders, bar owners, and restaurant owners in LA and beyond,” he explained. “And then I started to get design jobs from them. So now 100% of my design clients are food and beverage, hospitality, liquor brands, brand ambassadors, and the like.”
In addition to his aforementioned work with Smuggler’s Cove (which also included a number of illustrations for the bar’s 2016 cocktail book), Stolte has earned accolades for clients as wide-ranging as Don Amado Mezcal, the Bon Vivants, and Clover, an acclaimed bar and restaurant in Spokane, Washington.
Somewhat closer to home, though, is Barley Forge Brewing Co., a craft brewery Stolte co-founded with a close friend in Costa Mesa, California. His business partner, Greg Nylen, had long been an avid homebrewer, and was finally able to turn his hobby into a business in 2014.
“We’d been working on the brand design together for, I don’t know, ten or twelve years off and on,” Stolte said. “So then when it came time to go professional, we worked out an arrangement for me to come on as a co-founder and contribute as a partner with design services. His wife, Mary Ann Frericks, is also a very acclaimed artist. She has a really strong visual sense for interior design and brand design, so we all collaborate on that.”
Beyond the Basics
Stolte’s has been an exuberantly meandering career, to say the least. He’s taken every twist and turn in stride, and ended up at the heart of an industry he never dreamed he’d work in, his wry humor anchoring him throughout. And now, it seems, that career may have a chance to come full-circle.
“I’ve started doing some work with Club 33 at Disneyland. It’s this exclusive, ridiculously expensive club—there’s literally a 14-year waiting list to even be considered. If you do become a member, I believe your initiation fee is $35,000, and then from there it’s $10,000 a year just to be a member. And you still have to buy your food and drinks,” he told us, laughing. “It’s been a super fun project. I’ve been working with them on some really interesting menu designs, primarily as a series of faux-vintage cocktail books.”
An added bonus, though, is Club 33’s proximity to the construction of Star Wars Land, a reminder of what got Stolte into this business in the first place. “Now, there’s a possibility that Star Wars Land will have a cantina that serves alcohol—the whole park is actually licensed to serve alcohol, which not a lot of people know. If I could do a cocktail menu for Star Wars Land at Disneyland, I could pretty much just be done,” he chuckled, clearly only half-kidding. “That’s the last design gig I would ever need in my life.”
In the meantime, Stolte’s not exactly twiddling his thumbs. He’s been batting around ideas for a third, expanded edition of Home Bar Basics, overseeing the branding of a number of new Los Angeles cocktail bars, occasionally popping in for guest bartending stints at others, and continuing to create his vibrant personifications of classic drinks when he can find the time. Having taken such a wandering path through the intersecting worlds of art and booze, it’s a fitting thread to tie it all together.
Dave Stolte is a Bevvy advisor.
Feature Photo: Dylan + Jeni