In the last decade and a half, few people have documented and contributed to the growth of cocktail culture than Camper English. Through his website Alcademics.com he has shown all of us ways to taste drinks more efficiently, the history of many of our favourite spirits and how to make clear ice. He took some time to answer some of our questions about his career(s) and his newest project cocktailsafe.org.
Bartender Atlas: Usually we start these with “what kind of bartending were you doing when you first started” but in your case, as a computer scientist and journalist, when and why did you start writing about cocktails and alcohol?
CE: My previous careers were in science and computer science, but in 2001 I found myself unemployed along with a lot of other people. I was writing nightlife reviews in my spare time for fun for a few years already, and in my unemployment I turned that into career number three. In 2006 I guessed correctly that the craft cocktail renaissance was going to be a big deal so I began focusing exclusively on cocktails and spirits. Later, I began specializing in the science of cocktails, so it wasn’t a complete waste of a physics degree.
BA: Does/did living in San Francisco, a bastion of cocktail culture in the mid 2000s and today, help push you toward being a journalist that dealt with booze primarily?
CE: Yes, around 2006 I saw a critical mass of cocktail bars locally in San Francisco that I knew there was enough material to work with. If I had lived anywhere besides SF or NYC I’m not so sure I would have made this my career. Also, spirits brands had the budgets to fly me to distilleries (and other international cities) where I learned a lot about production, and this helped tremendously toward my education in the area.
BA: You have made drinks at some events though. With all the access you have had to high minded and highly skilled bartenders, whose advice do you ask for when you are asked to bartend an event?
CE: I’ve taken so, so many classes in drink-making that I get by doing events on my own. However the bartenders on Facebook generally have been incredibly helpful when asking questions like, “How much ice do I need to estimate for 800 drinks?” I get great answers from all corners of the internet.
BA: Almost a decade ago on your site alcademics.com, you showed how you developed what is still the most effective way for bartenders and home enthusiasts to make clear ice. When you figured that out, did you realize that this would be your legacy? How do you feel about that?
CE: I was delighted with the discovery, especially as it took about nine months to make it, but outside of a small group of bar nerds it didn’t catch on right away. But then people started replicating it on YouTube and it began to really spread. Not everyone cites the source of the technique so I’m not sure if it will be my legacy or lost to time. I’ll know it was me, though.
BA: Your newest project, CocktailSafe.org is aimed at making sure bartenders know that some cool and interesting ingredients are not always good ideas. Where did the inspiration for this come from, how long have you been building this database for and does your science background help you with the process?
CE: Over the years people like Darcy O’Neil from ArtofDrink.com and Avery Glasser of Bittermens Bitters had been writing about potentially unsafe ingredients like tobacco infusions and homemade tonic water, but dangerous drinks were spreading onto cocktail menus faster than the safety warnings were. I really wanted to make a dedicated website to put all this information together in a formal way, and then Tales of the Cocktail Foundation launched their grant program not long after. Their grant provided the budget to build out the site so I spent several months pouring over government websites and medical journals to figure out what was safe, legal, or somewhere in between. My science background definitely helps me makes more sense out of the journal articles, but people including Avery Glasser and a couple of medical doctors have contributed their medical and government regulatory expertise as well.
BA: How are you planning to expand on the resources available on Cocktailsafe.org?
CE: I have a huge to-do list for other techniques and ingredients to research and add to the site, many of which come up as questions in the seminars I’ve been giving on safety around this project. I’d also like to expand on the legality of limited or banned ingredients in other countries (I have good info on the US and what I was able to find in Canada). There is a ton of work to be done but I might need to find additional funding sources to do it. Ideally I will be able to book some trainings to staff at larger bar and restaurant groups to help fund the work.
BA: While this isn’t the first time in your career that the focus has been on one of your achievements, do you ever feel awkward having the lens focused on you?
CE: It’s not so awkward as I’m sharing information, not collecting awards. I’m proud of the work I do, and luckily people are more excited about the work than the person who did it!
Thank you Camper to taking the time to speak with us! We are excited to see you at Toronto Cocktail Conference!