San Francisco is one of the great cocktail destinations of the world, up there with the likes of New York and London. The city has always had an ongoing affair with booze, but it enjoys its current perch in the cocktail pantheon due to the tireless effort and creative genius of many pioneering bartenders and proprietors over the last decade and a half. Seminal among them is one Mr. Josh Harris.
As a cofounder of the Bon Vivants (a nationally recognized cocktail and spirits consulting company), a cofounder of Trick Dog (an award-winning craft cocktail bar that every year is ranked among the World’s Best 50 Bars), a cofounder of BVHospitality, and with an extensive portfolio of successful bar projects and events across the country, Harris has established himself as one of the most successful and influential personalities of San Francisco’s cocktail movement.
Bevvy caught up with Harris over the summer, and being a true steward of hospitality, he was gracious enough to meet with us the day before he jetted off to his wedding in Paris. At a time when most folks would be stressed, busy packing, and sorting out final travel arrangements, the affable Harris spent an hour talking with us over drinks at Trick Dog. We’ll start from the beginning.
The Early Years
During the summer months of his college years as a student at the University of Southern California (USC), Harris and his peers were all trying to figure out what they wanted to do with their life. Many of his friends began taking internships—most of them unpaid—as a way to gain valuable work experience. But for Harris, that just didn’t feel like the right fit:
“Those internships sort of lacked a lot of substance in my mind, and the thought of doing something like that, combined with a slight lack of drive and a desire to be in a social environment led me to [open a different door].”
That door opened into his first bar job—a barbacking gig he had to lie to get, as he wasn’t yet 21 at the time.
[That barbacking job] lasted for three weeks. It was the best three weeks of my life. I got fired after those three weeks because it was obvious I wasn’t 21. I was a stupid kid.
Three weeks is all it took to plant an important seed in Harris’s mind.
“From that point—even though down the road I tracked academically towards something totally different from being in the bar business—in terms of summer jobs all throughout college, I remained in bars and restaurants.”
When Harris turned 21, he had a stroke of luck when another bartender quit at Wolfgang Puck’s flagship San Francisco restaurant Postrio, and he was able to land his first actual bartending gig.
“Black pants, light shirt, tie, apron, here’s a latte, here’s a Cosmo, this is how you order a lobster pizza, and go. I was fully thrown to the wolves, and I loved it. I learned more between 5-6pm at that job than at any other time, because that’s when the night bartenders came in, and I would essentially stay until whatever point they relieved me, and they would show me stuff on the fly.”
Shattered Dreams and Cosmic Intervention
Harris eventually transferred from USC to the University of San Francisco, and ultimately graduated with a politics degree and a legal studies minor.
With his heart set on becoming a lawyer, he took the LSAT, applied to law schools, and then moved to France for the summer, fully expecting to return, attend law school, and eventually become a lawyer.
Unfortunately for Harris, he learned in France that he had received a small envelope instead of a big envelope—he did not get accepted into law school—and his dream of becoming a lawyer was shattered.
This was like a cosmic intervention, to ensure that I wasn’t going to do in life what I wasn’t supposed to do, and that I was going to find the thing that I was supposed to do.
Upon returning from France, Harris began working at bars again, where his love for hospitality and his desire to work in a social environment helped him cope with his law school rejection.
He reflects: “Statistically, it made no sense. To this day, it makes no sense. But I was like, okay, things happen for a reason, keep your head up, and reapply next year. Then a year went by and I didn’t reapply. Then another year went by and I didn’t reapply… But at the time, it totally crushed me.”
Building a Cocktail Program
Shortly thereafter, Harris had an opportunity to build a fancy cocktail program for Palmetto, a bar off of Union St. Despite never having prior experience with craft cocktails, Harris convinced the owners he was up for the task, and got the job. Now, he just needed to learn how to build a craft cocktail program.
Harris began visiting and studying all of the other bars at the time doing cool things with fancy cocktails, including Absinthe, Rye, Bourbon and Branch, and Nopa. He credits Nopa—and specifically Nopa’s bar manager Neyah White—as being instrumental in his own personal growth in the cocktail business.
“Neyah was really free with information with me, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for him. From a person who never had a direct mentor, someone who I learned under… Neyah is the person I consider to be that.”
Harris did successfully create Palmetto’s craft cocktail program. And though the restaurant would eventually close, through his time there he met many of the bartenders who would go on to be hugely influential in San Francisco’s craft cocktail movement.
Palmetto became a pivotal experience for Harris, and laid the foundation for hospitality to be an actual career, and not just something he was doing while trying to figure out what he was going to do.
With his growing cocktail expertise, Harris began attending meetings with the U.S. Bartender’s Guild, entered (and won) a few cocktail competitions, and essentially threw himself into his hospitality career.
Through one of the people he met while at Palmetto, Harris landed his first role as a brand ambassador for a company called Altamar Brands, and Harris came on board to help them launch their next product called Tequila Ocho.
“Tequila Ocho and my relationship to Altamar Brands became a very important part of the launch of Bon Vivants. Even now they’re still our client, and the owner of that company is now a very close friend and mentor of mine. I can’t think of another brand I feel more strongly about, that’s been more important to our growth and company.”
Around this same time, Harris met a young bartender named Scott Baird. The two of them would go on to cofound the Bon Vivants, and eventually open the award-winning bar, Trick Dog.
Competitions, Vegas, and a Six Foot Check
Cocktail competitions have been a popular vehicle for talented up-and-coming bartenders to get noticed and gain valuable career exposure. Such was the case for Harris. As a former college athlete, and someone who’s played competitive sports year-round for most of his life, it was no surprise that Harris found his way into cocktail competitions:
“I just really like to compete. It’s fun. And I don’t even think it clicked with me at the time that this was something that could benefit your career.”
After winning a number of local competitions, Harris also found success at the national level. Two such highlights included winning the Yamazaki Japanese Whisky competition and the 2012 Shake It Up! competition hosted annually by the Nightclub and Bar Convention. There he earned himself a six-foot check for $15,000.
When asked about any pointers for young, aspiring bartenders seeking similar success in cocktail competitions, Harris had this to say: “If you read the rules, it’s probably a good start.”
When pressed further for additional advice, Harris added: “If you analyze the rules, then you’re doing good.”
So there you have it (and we’ll paraphrase): Reading the rules is a good start, understanding the rules is even better, and if you then follow said rules… hey, good things can happen.
Meet Trick Dog
Harris recounted Trick Dog’s beginnings with us as we sat inside the bar enjoying a beverage. From idea to opening date, it took a full three years for the doors to open. “Basically, you could see the sky through here. Dirt floors… there was nothing in here. This was nothing, absolutely a dilapidated warehouse. And we were like, ‘it’s incredible, we love it.”‘
Trick Dog opened in January of 2013, but we like to joke that Trick Dog was San Francisco’s most anticipated bar opening of 2010.
These days, Trick Dog enjoys a well-earned reputation as an award-winning cocktail bar, and one of the top ranked bars in the world. It’s been nominated numerous times for the James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Bar Program. It’s been nominated for World’s Best Cocktail Bar and Best American Cocktail Bar, and won World’s Best Cocktail Menu and Best American Bar Team at the Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards. It’s won Nightclub & Bar Media Group’s Cocktail Bar of the Year Award. And it’s made it onto the prestigious World’s 50 Best Bars lists for 2014-2017. The accolades go on… and on.
Since Harris and his partners signed the deal for Trick Dog three years before they opened, they had plenty of time to focus on growing the Bon Vivants as their bar concept took shape.
“If we had just rolled right into [Trick Dog], it’s totally possible that the Bon Vivants wouldn’t be a company today, because we might have just thrown ourselves into this and been like oh, that was a fun little hobby,” said Harris. “But because we were only like a year down the road with the company at that time, it couldn’t really define what it did. We were just doing stuff. When Trick Dog opened, the Bon Vivants actually then knew what it did, and so it was a viable company that was sustainable.”
As the Bon Vivants began working with bars and spirit brands, they also began throwing a few parties. At first, they were events mostly attended by their friends and others they knew in the industry, but it quickly grew from there.
Pig & Punch & Menus for Charity
Another Bon Vivants initiative, Pig & Punch launched as a charitable party in New Orleans pairing people, food, cocktails, games, and fun—where proceeds raised from donations and T-shirt sales benefitted local communities and services. They cooked whole pigs, provided music and lawn games, and mixed massive punches in 40-gallon lined trashcans, complete with five pounds of garnishes and a 100-pound ice block in each.
The event was a success and well-received, and today Pig & Punch (along with its counterpart Swig n’ Swine) has grown into a series of events across the country. To date, they have donated tens of thousands of volunteer hours and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for charities in New Orleans, New York, San Francisco, Portland, Miami, and Austin.
The altruistic streak for Harris didn’t stop there. Known for creating beautiful, award-winning cocktail menus, Harris and his team at Trick Dog had an idea: Why not change the menu out a couple of times per year, make them available for purchase, and donate the proceeds to charity?
“When people see that you’re selling your menu and donating to charity, two things happen: 1) They feel like they’re stealing if they put it in their purse or pocket, and 2) They feel good about buying from you.”
Like his other endeavors, the menus proved to be quite the success. New menus are launched twice a year—January 8 and July 8—and become covetable items among bar regulars. And every January 7, the bar throws itself a birthday party, donating those proceeds to charity, too.
No one could blame Harris if he chose to slow down and enjoy his success, particularly after getting married recently—but that’s not Harris. He’s already charging forward on exciting new projects under his BVHospitality umbrella with long-time partner Morgan Schick.
In collaboration with Proper Hotels, Harris and Schick developed the entire beverage program for its San Francisco outpost, including the city’s latest rooftop bar, Charmaine’s. The hotel, which celebrated its official opening just a few weeks ago on November 16, is housed in a full flat-iron building at the corner of Seventh and McAllister. It’s touted as “the first luxury lifestyle lodging to open in over a decade” in San Francisco, and Harris was very excited to be involved with the project, believing it signifies the first chapter in the next book of hospitality for the city.
Bon Voyage! is slated to open in early 2018. It will be the second bar from Harris, and should land approximately five years after the debut of Trick Dog. Located at 584 Valencia St, Harris and Schick are currently in the design phase with long-time creative partner Wiley Price, and looking to create an “eclectic, global design inspired by Asia, Africa, and equatorial tropical beach towns” (Price had previously helped design the interior visual concept for Trick Dog). With rotating menus similar to Trick Dog, the drinks will be unique to match the bar’s concept.
Harris has come a long way since that first three-week-long bar gig. Over the years, he’s won numerous accolades for himself, for his bars, and for his partners and clients. And along the way, he’s left his mark on cocktail culture locally, nationally, and around the globe.
His philosophy seems to stem from a place of true hospitality. It’s not about the drinks—yes, the drinks are important—but more important are the people, camaraderie, and service. If past successes are any indication, we expect to see great things from Josh Harris and his team for many years to come.