Why This Bar Industry Leader Just Gave Away His Secrets for Free
Last month, Chris Lowder posted his manual for making 178 modern cocktail classics on Facebook, which has since blown up with thanks, praise, and questions from knowledge-hungry bartenders around the world.
Chris Lowder is an influencer. Not one of those social media influencers who posts his outfit of the day to millions of followers, but an IRL leader in the bar industry. He's worked in some of the world's best bars. He's actively changing the landscape of drinking in Korea. And now, he's unceremoniously giving away his industry secrets—for free.
Last month, Lowder, who currently serves as the head bartender for the Four Seasons Hotel in Seoul, posted on Facebook:
Attached to the post was a link to "Lowder's Easy List of 178 (Modern) Classics to Know 2016." Soon after, hundreds of people liked, commented, and shared the post, flooding Lowder's feed with thanks, praise, and questions.
"Now let me say right now that I do not think these are the only drinks you should know. I also don't think these are necessarily the most delicious drinks cocktails ever invented," Lowder writes as a disclaimer in the document's intro. "In short, it's a starter kit of recipes that your bar can use, master, and then grow from together."
It's a well-written, humble, and funny guide, with six drinks for each major spirit in addition to some notes and rants. MUNCHIES checked in with Lowder about his guide—which has already been translated into Korean—as well as his bar experiences and future publishing plans.
MUNCHIES: What inspired you to give this document away? Chris Lowder: After spending ten years working in restaurants as a cook and a bartender, I have come to deeply value free education. I think that in bars and restaurants, a high tide really does cause all boats to rise. A more knowledgeable workforce means that more guests have a better experience when they dine out, and that positivity does reinforce a culture where more people are encouraged to spend their money in bars and restaurants. I sincerely believe that the more that chefs and bartenders share knowledge, the better that everyone does.
In this past year, I have had the incredible opportunity to give staff trainings and guest bartend in 12 major cities across seven different countries around the world. This experience has really opened my eyes to just how beautifully diverse the cocktail industry has become around the world, and has also shown me some of the common challenges that bartenders are facing globally. One of the largest issues that I found in peeking behind the scenes in these bars is the problem of tackling bar staff education.
The problem is that if you are a complete beginner who wants to learn how to work in the service industry, the information that is readily available out there is either this extremely broad, encyclopedic knowledge, or it's some hyper-specific niche book that's completely useless for beginners. There's nothing that's a practical step-by-step guide to take you through that important transition from zero to professionally functional. I mean, sure, Joy of Cooking is great, but where's the chapter on bringing coffee for Chef or making sure to take the tape off your sauce containers so that you don't get screamed at? Sure, your bar or restaurant might have its own in-house service/recipe manual, but that's surprisingly rare; The catch-22 of craftsmanship is that the more mastery you gain over your bar or kitchen, the more responsibility you are given; and the more responsibility you have, the less time you have to articulate your wisdom to those at the bottom.
I wrote this recipe guide as the first step toward putting together a larger step-by-step practical training manual for my trainees. Back when I only had a few bartenders to train, it was easy to keep everyone on the same page just through constant teamwork and oral tradition. But hotels force you to build systems and scale your knowledge. At Four Seasons, Seoul, there are 12 different bar programs functioning simultaneously, all of which I'm responsible for. As much as I hate to admit it, there are people who I hire and then only get to see for 30 minutes per week. I figured there had to be a better way, and so I started working on this guide.
I was just about finished with my recipe list when I went to do a bar training at a hotel in Shanghai. I remember finishing the bar training and thinking of how much I wished I could spend another month working with that team. These people were hardworking, earnest beginners who just didn't have access to first-hand mentorship. Then I remembered when I started bartending for the first time in Philadelphia. I went to a bartending "school" where we started every four-hour class making buckets of colored water. Yellow for sour mix, orange for pineapple juice, green for soda, red for cranberry. And I paid money for that. Disgusting and ridiculous, but I just didn't know any better. That was when I decided to make my education free for everybody. I just want to help people like that who want to get started.
How long did it take you to make this guide? In a sense, this is something that I have been picking at for years. I'm a big recipe nerd, and I love collecting notes on how different bars make the same drinks. I used to be a translator, and so I have a lot of software on my phone and computer for tracking that kind of information. I have a deck of flashcards in my phone with my preferred recipes for just over 500 different cocktails. I'm not bragging—it's a sickness.
If there's a bar that I think has particularly interesting or thoughtful recipes, I will usually reach out to see if they will share their recipe list with me. I keep a Google Drive of this kind of stuff so that I can reference it when I work on new menus. A cocktail may only have four or five different ingredients, but even within that creative space, there is endless room for nuance. It's like a language in and of itself. As for the actual guide, it didn't take long. Once I knew what I wanted to write and how I wanted it to look, I had it finished in the space of about three days. I would just pick at it after work. I have almost all of these recipes memorized, so the real challenge was deciding which ones would make the list.
What was the feedback like when you first posted this on Facebook? Genuinely heartwarming. I think within 72 hours the guide had been reposted more than 100 times on different bartending sites and forums. It's always nerve-wracking to put your thoughts out there, especially into a sea of heavily opinionated craftspeople. But I think people saw the guide right away for what it was. I'm not trying to make any money on this stuff. I just want to do something nice to help people who are just starting a career in this incredible industry.
What was the best or most surprising reaction you got? An old friend of mine named Alexa actually took the time to code the guide into its own website. LowderSpecs.com is now a real site! I didn't ask her or anything, she just came back to me with a finished website and said that she really believed in the project. People are the best.
You mentioned your guide has since been translated into Korean. Any other languages in the pipeline for translation?
That was a huge surprise. I'm in the middle of putting out a version in metric units so that it's more accessible to European and Asian bartenders. And I hear that there's a Mandarin version in the works, which I will definitely be contributing to. Great chance to brush up!
Have you thought about writing a book? There is definitely more value that I want to contribute, but I'm not sure if a book is the best medium. I'm currently working on a dynamic bar and restaurant training program that will [be ten times] what I started in this recipe guide. When I launch it, we will make sure that your readers are the first to know!
What's next, now that "Lowder's Easy List of 178 (Modern) Classics to Know" was so well received?
For now, just keep swimming.
Recipes are great, but in the words of Tony Robbins, "what you know doesn't mean shit. All that matters is what you practice consistently." Training manuals like this are nice because it helps me to bring up everyone's baseline and ensure that we can move forward together. But now that we have pulled up the floor, our next job is to work together to push out the ceiling and exceed our guests expectations. That can take a lifetime.
Anything else you'd like to say about bartending or the guide? Of course, I wrote the guide with the aim to help new bartenders, but at the same time I have also had some friends who don't at all work in the industry reach out to me and say how useful they found it. That really means a lot to me. The first real cocktail I ever made was a Manhattan in my apartment after I watched Alton Brown make a martini on Good Eats. A few Manhattans later, and I started looking online for bartending schools. And, strange as it may sound, that was one of the best decisions I ever made in my life. It led me to an amazing and exciting industry, and I am lucky to say that I truly love my job.
I know that inspiration comes in all shapes and sizes. If helping to simplify a complex skill set can inspire a few people to try their hand at service and drinks making, then I would find that extremely meaningful.
Thanks for speaking with us.
Follow Lowder on Instagram at @GetLowderNow.