Interview – Journalist and Blogger Camper English
Camper English is a journalist and blogger who is well known among the denizens of the Internet Boozisphere. His formula for success lay in his combination of intellectual curiosity and general good humor. He is a man out for a good time but also one who likes to know how things work. That translates into a man obsessed with not only finding a good cocktail but also in knowing the history behind the bitters and the science behind the ice. Good luck trying to find him as his adventures to find the best booze take him far across the globe. The best place to find him is in print. His writing can be located in the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Magazine, 7×7 Magazine and Wired, to name a few, as well as his main internet home, Alcademics.com. He also has one book to his credit as author of Party Like a Rockstar: Even When You’re Poor as Dirt.
MixPourSip.com had the opportunity to talk with Mr. English and are grateful for his time.
MixPourSip: I’d like to start off by asking you a nice and easy question.
Camper English: O.k..
MPS: What do you see as your mission in life?
CE: (Laughing) I am currently trying to help teach the world about good cocktails.
MPS: You seem to have something of the idyllic job, that of a cocktail and spirits writer who flies around the globe sampling and writing about top shelf booze and the people who pour it. Is this the life you envisioned for yourself twenty years ago?
CE: Definitely not! I’ve had three careers in that time. I sort of stumbled into this one. It’s a fun one, though (again, laughing). I started writing bar and club reviews, like City Search and Digital Cities and at one point I was invited on my first booze test trip. It really opened my eyes to the possibilities available in reporting on drinks as compared to night clubs.
MPS: Your rise to power has coincided with the spread of the craft cocktail revival and resurgence of cocktail culture.
CE: For sure. I could see it coming in a lot of ways, the overall improvement of cocktails at a few places when I first started out writing.
MPS: Do you consider yourself a cocktail snob?
CE: That’s fair to say. Cocktail geek might be better. I try not to be a cocktail snob to anyone serving me a drink, especially when they are free, but yes, I guess I am. I have a hard time drinking tonic water off the gun or anything made with Rose’s Lime Juice. If that makes me a snob then so be it. It’s hard for me to order a gin and tonic. I’m ruined for off the gun tonic forever. I’d rather just have the gin.
MPS: Have you ever tried making your own tonic water?
CE: Yes, I made a batch and it was okay but I prefer Fever Tree Tonic to my own. I’ll make a batch again, I’m sure.
MPS: What is next on your conquest of the cocktail world?
CE: A lot of what I do is reporting on what is happening out there. So most of my content is generated by bartenders. That said, I’m sort of looking into doing research projects more on my own. I’ve read a few books on sugar recently and have a lot more work to do on the topic of ice and the making of clear ice and basically just getting geekier and geekier. I’ve realized that my readership for the Alcademics.com blog are some of the biggest cocktail geeks around and I’m thrilled to be able to talk geek to geek, as it were. That gives me the freedom to not have to write about how to pronounce Cachaca but instead about the specific gravity of liqueurs or other things on the cocktail fringe.
MPS: I’ve noticed that in your writing for the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times that you, I don’t want to say dumb things down, but are writing to a more general audience.
CE: For sure. The biggest changes in cocktails happening are that people in places other than just San Francisco or New York are learning about cocktails and that in places like St. Louis or Atlanta or whatever are being served better and better cocktails. It’s a big slow change. I always have to talk to both audiences.
MPS: You wrote recently that the general quality of cocktails out there are indeed getting better. But, it seems like it is a thought that suddenly occurred to you.
CE: Well, I was working on a talk about craft and cocktails and I realized the audience I was speaking to was not aware of micro trends in cocktails. They were part of what the biggest change has been, that of a slow trend toward better quality both of the cocktails being drunk in bars and at home. What I realized coming back was that I needed to address both the small and the large trends and topics. Most of the writing about cocktails in the larger cities is about micro trends; fat washing or barrel aging and things like that. The much larger change happening across this great land of ours is that more and more are putting down Rose’s lime juice and picking up limes. It was in the context of that talk that I had that realization. Also when we look at how far this crazy cocktail thing is going it can be pretty absurd on the coasts sometimes. But trying new things and refining techniques is fine. So whether it is mezcal stepped in ginger or whatever the trend for the next six months is, I always need to keep in mind that there is an overall quality movement and that as a writer I must always acknowledge that it’s part of my job to help people to catch up.
MPS: Taking that in mind, regardless of trends is it possible to say what should be the components of a well built cocktail?
CE: I have cocktails that had seven different ingredients none of which tasted like orange yet the final product tasted like orange juice. Well, that’s a great achievement in flavor coordination but in the end you made something taste like orange juice, something we already have. I am less impressed by the flavor than I am by the skill. I think that’s what’s happening with a lot of the smoky cocktails or the extremely bitter cocktails. They are great to try but not exactly great to drink. You know really, when I judge cocktail contests, the situation is, what makes a winner to me is whether or not I would have two of these. I almost never have two of the same cocktail in a row. Never in a bar, maybe at home. The drink that makes me want to have another is the best drink. That can be because it has so many flavors together on the palette. I like those drinks a lot. I want to taste orange and vinegar and smoke and everything together. Those are the drinks that suit my palette, I guess. That said, there is a lot to be said for a drink that is just good and tasty.
MPS: The cocktail landscape is beginning to remind me of the chef driven fine dining industry of the 1990′s. There seems to be the experimentation along with an almost Slow Food like approach with the seasonal cocktails that also contain local sourced ingredients. Are you noticing that as well and are
CE: The Internet has had a big impact here. Around the world, in a big city or small one, people can now be at the same level of knowledge about cocktails and they can read about what is happening in New York and then go make it for themselves at home. So if there is a drink made with two obscure ingredients that is popular at a bar and then gets written about online it becomes a challenge for those following along at home to source and try. It becomes a pulling together of information on an international basis and that’s been very good. Because of it, you’ll find pockets of great cocktails in the middle of nowhere due to one dedicated bartender. It’s part of the larger trend of everything is getting better, the bartenders and the cocktails are getting better. It’s due to increased communication and sharing of information.
MPS: With all that said, do you still enjoy a good dive bar?
CE: I do, yeah. I’ll find myself in them from time to time. I’ll go and typically get a beer at a dive bar. I still like bars. That’s really how I got into all this. I was spending a lot of time in bars and was lucky enough to find a way to get paid for it.
MPS: That said, what is your favorite dive bar in San Francisco these days?
CE: Um, I haven’t been going to some of the crazier ones like I used to, some of those in the Tenderloin, so I can’t call them my favorite anymore. I guess I’ll be lazy and go with Zeitgeist, the sort of biker beer bar with the grill in the back yard place. It’s nice and friendly, except for the bartenders.
MPS: I have heard bartenders who gripe that they have a hard time getting a larger percentage of patrons to try new things and that they are often being asked for ingredients they are not carrying. It is as if people are stuck more than just what they like but in what they think is cool. Have you noticed this?
CE: I see that tension a lot. There are a lot of people who think that they should be able to get whatever they want at any bar. This is because a lot of people think of bars as alcohol filled versions of McDonald’s or Burger King. People haven’t opened their eyes to think of fine cocktails as fine dining. I haven’t thought of another term, but I think we need one to differentiate a modern cocktail bar from a bar bar. I have seen people be angry that a given bar doesn’t carry cranberry juice as well as those who go into a dive bar expecting to find a Laphroig project or some other fancy cocktail they heard of from a mixology bar. The heart of the battle of getting people interesting in new cocktails is getting the point across that there are different bars of different levels of quality of cocktails just like there are different levels of quality in restaurants, different concepts, different ingredients that are used from one to the next. Chez Panise uses a different bakery than another fine dining restaurant. They don’t have bread in all fine dining restaurants just like all bars don’t have the same booze, or increasingly, the same ice.
MPS: Along that quality spectrum and how it relates to bars, how do you feel about the resurgence of the speakeasy? The place you enter around the corner or the alley or through the hot dog place and if you are a guy you have to stay in your seat and there are only twenty or thirty seats in the place and the drinks are all $12 and up, reservations are same day.
CE: I like a lot to do with it. I don’t they all have to be a speakeasy just because they are hidden. A lot of these bars have rules in place to distinguish themselves to prevent them from becoming overwhelmed or swarmed with Miller Light drinkers and that is the way to absolutely prevent that from happening. I also like to, from time to time, just enjoy drinking a good cocktail without all the rest that sometimes goes with being in a bar. So I like the reservation only bars and the limited capacity bars and the theme required bars and thoughts of them. I love all that. Thematically does it need to be a speakeasy for me to have a hidden essence or specialness about it? Not really, but I enjoy what those bars bring in terms of environment and time. The more the merrier as far as I’m concerned.
MPS: Outside of San Francisco, if there was one bar in the United States that you would hit what would it be?
CE: I do love PDT [in New York city] for the drinks and for the environment inside.
MPS: What is your favorite canned beer?
CE: Tecate, hands down.
MPS: How do you describe yourself to a new acquaintance?
CE: I don’t know. It changes for me. I consider myself to be a journalist and blogger. Some people refer to me as just blogger which I guess could be kind on an insult but I choose to see it as not.
MPS: With your humor, curiosity and general disposition, you strike me as a modern day Americanized Kingsley Amis?
CE: Yeah, I have often thought I should play that up more, actually. I started talking about more of the culture around drinks of cocktails and returning to quality. I am afraid of becoming the ingredient Nazi who says “you should do this.” I think that, generally, is wrong most of the time. This whole movement is built on people doing things others said not to do. I’d rather just continue to be a cheerleader for what’s going on. ”Oh, look at that! Someone tried something new and cool,” is more of what I do because I love it. In truth, I never really thought I would make a career out of this but I love what I’m doing so much I keep extending my length of time in it.
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