Chris Lowder is no slouch when it comes to making drinks. He proved that in his time at Booker & Dax and as the former Head of Bar Education at The NoMad Hotel in New York. He’s also pretty nifty with languages having studied East Asian Studies at University of Delaware and Chinese at Beijing Language and Culture University. It was only a matter of time before he combined both passions, first in his tenure as Head Bartender at Four Seasons Hotel in Seoul and in his current role as General Manager at Proof & Company in China.
Speaking of China, we couldn’t publish this post without mentioning the current situation in Wuhan. As Chris says on his Facebook page: “As the coronavirus evolves, more and more families are affected by the school, travel, and business closures taking place. Pair this along with the lack of medical supplies and travel bans, and well, the storm continues to brew.
While the virus is so far only lethal to 2-4% of those infected, the spread has been exponential in China, infecting more than 14,000 at this time. At this rate, we can expect that the 304 reported deaths as of 2 Feb is sadly only the beginning. The situation continues, and these people need help. There are a few non-government organizations that are independently stepping up and helping the hospitals. One of our friends and Proof & Company partners in the area, Jiada – a beautiful soul I was lucky enough to spend time with when representing Ferrand brands across APAC – formed an alliance to deliver supplies to the hospitals in partnership with these independent groups.
We want to ask for your help in donating funds or supplies to these groups for them to get access to anything and everything they need during this time. You can safely send money via the PayPal link below, and we will forward the funds from there so that these independent organizations can keep helping people on the ground in Wuhan. Or, we can share an address with you so that you can send supplies directly to Wuhan (right now, they need masks, goggles, gloves, and protective clothing). If you send funds, we will provide updates so that you can see where the money is going and how your efforts are appreciated. Fully transparent.
Please do all you can to support.
And now, the interview…
The early years…
Tell us about young Chris, what were you like growing up?
My teen years were a wild time. I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland in a working-class household – my mom worked in the city as a nurse in shock trauma and my dad was a merchant marine captain who taught sailors how to fight fires aboard cargo ships. They both worked long hours, and so my brothers and I mostly had the house to ourselves. My older brother and I used that time to start a punk rock band called Flash Grenade, eventually recording a few albums and touring shows around the east coast. To pay for studio time, we all got jobs washing dishes in the local crab house, and eventually all became line cooks there. I lied about my age in my interview, and that’s how I started working in restaurants at 15 years old.
On weekends and all summer, we would wake up and work eight-hours in the restaurant doing prep and cooking lunch, then we’d go straight into the basement and play music for four to five hours, then I’d sit at my computer for three to four hours booking shows, burning and printing demo CDs, and promoting our band on Myspace to get radio play. Nothing teaches you to hustle like trying to sell yourself when you don’t have anything else. I wouldn’t trade that time for anything.
Is there a song that takes you back to this particular time?
Journey to the End of the East Bay by Rancid. It’s a song about the journey of being on tour and playing music with your best friends, and then grappling with what to do when those years have come to an end. That song just about sums up those years for me. The memories are bittersweet, but I’m forever grateful for the experience.
What about a drink?
Ha, ha! Monster Energy Drink? Dr. Pepper? We were all underage and straight edge when we were touring, so all of our shows were fuelled by litres of soda, mounds of candy and endless energy drinks. I didn’t get drunk for my first time until I moved to Japan as a 19-year-old translation student. I remember not knowing what a hangover was. I thought I had food poisoning. I thought I was dying. I thought the feeling was going to last for the rest of my life. Japanese Gatorade is called Pocari Sweat, and yes, it’s as gross as it sounds. Suffice to say that my first hangover was a really bad time.
First bar job…
How did you get into bartending?
After graduating from a Chinese linguistics academy in Beijing, I got a job building an industrial economics translation firm in Delaware. The work was fascinating, but ultimately my heart wasn’t in it. Truthfully, I missed the rush and creativity of the kitchen. I started reading recipe books and cooking increasingly elaborate dishes at home, and eventually stumbled on the world of craft cocktails. It wasn’t before long that I started driving across state lines to find esoteric ingredients like Maraschino liqueur and Chartreuse. I drove into Philadelphia each weekend to attend a bartender academy, learning how many ‘counts’ of Southern Comfort went into an Alabama Slammer and memorizing recipes for layered shots. I was juicing pineapples by hand in a colander in my kitchen… I have no idea what my poor girlfriend must have thought about it all.
Eventually, I decided to just pull the trigger and start applying to jobs on Craig’s List. I had just read David Chang’s book, and was determined to get a job at a Momofuku restaurant come hell or high water. I applied for everything – dishwasher, busser, host, server – I didn’t care where I started, I just wanted to work with the best. As fate would have it, I saw a posting for a barback position at a newly opened place called Booker & Dax by Dave Chang and Dave Arnold. I took a sick day and drove into New York for the interview (I lied on my CV and said I was living in Manhattan already).
When I met Dave, he didn’t ask me any questions about cocktails. Thank goodness! I’m sure I would have unironically spouted off the recipe for a Flaming Dr. Pepper shot and blown the interview. Instead, we talked for an hour about industrial economics and ball bearings (not a surprise if you know Dave) and he hired me on the spot.
The job was insane. I was working 12-hour days, five days a week from 5pm until 5am. I was technically a barback but almost my whole day was spent using a centrifuge to clarify juice, carbonating cocktails, vacuum-infusing cucumbers with batch Martini, working with liquid nitrogen, and whatever other crazy ideas Dave had that week. Booker & Dax was also where I met Sother Teague, Thomas Jones and Josh Perez – three of my biggest influences and best friends in my bar career.
Which song best captures this period of your life and why?
Takeover – Jay-Z.
Early in my career, I was fuelled 100% by attitude and grit. I was getting out of the bar at 5am and taking the N train for another hour deep into Queens to fall asleep at dawn on a friend’s air mattress. Nutrition was Momofuku family meal and then at night a to-go container of free pork belly buns. All my possessions were in a single duffel bag next to my air mattress, including a basic cocktail tool set that I bought at Cocktail Kingdom with my first paycheck. If I lived in a world of options, I probably wouldn’t have done it. But the reality was that I needed every dime I had to afford that first month of Brooklyn rent. If cocktails didn’t work out, I didn’t know what I was going to do.
Do you have a drink that transports you straight back to this time?
During those first few months in New York, I was staying on the floor of an old friend I used to do Improv with back in college. I couldn’t afford to pay him anything, so I would make him and his girlfriend cocktails when they came home from work. In that time, I was still learning the classics, so I was making flash cards to memorize every classic in the PDT Cocktail Book from A-Z. If I had the ingredients to make one of the drinks in the book, I would add it to the lineup of “rent” cocktails. One of the first drinks that we all loved was the Cloister. We came back to that drink over and over during my time in Queens. It put a roof over my head when I needed it most.
Key moments in your career…
Who are the people who have inspired you most in your career?
In cocktails, I’m influenced by my biggest mentors Sother Teague who I met at Booker & Dax and Jess Gonzales from my time working at NoMad.
Sother taught me the importance of humility, service and hospitality. He’s the reason I put my guests first in my work, and also why I’m always thinking about how to guide a room towards having the best possible experience at the bar. He also trained me to value the institution of the bar, understanding that a bartender is not only here to serve the community, but must also make money for himself and his/her institution if both are to be able to serve that community long-term. Very importantly, Sother broadened my understanding of bartending from a being person who makes drinks to being a person who acts as the axis around which people, drinks, business, creativity, opportunities and emotions all ebb and flow. I’m deeply grateful for that perspective shift. It changed my life.
Jess, on the other hand, was a tactician. She demanded discipline and commanded respect from her bar team. There was a right way and a wrong way to make drinks under Jess, and she didn’t allow you to choose incorrectly. If Sother was a wise monk in a temple of bitters, Jess was a drill sergeant preparing me for cocktail World War III. And boy, was NoMad ever akin to hand-to-hand combat. The four of us on the bar were each doing 300-500 cocktails per night while working clopen doubles and giving Michelin Star dining service. In the words of our bartender Jim Kearns, “our goal here is to just keep the wheels on the bus as long as possible, and then when they fall off, our goal is to keep people from noticing.” Jess prepared us for that war, marched us through it, and drank with us when the long days were finally over. There’s not a single person who worked with us in those days that I wouldn’t go to bat for. Jess cranked out the best of the best.
Outside of cocktails, my mentor is Proof & Company founder Paul Gabie. He has helped me open our China office, and expand our staff from two to 26 people in three years. Paul has given me a serious corporate training, cutting my teeth at a Wall Street pace. There’s a reason why Proof & Company is the world’s most-awarded creative bar consultancy. That man takes no prisoners.
Is there a song that you associate with these people and the effect they’ve had in your life?
True Believers – The Bouncing Souls.
This is a song about the people you meet in your journey, saluting the handful that you know will be bonded to you for life. That bond is especially deep when you’re doing something together that’s unusual or misunderstood like bartending or selling alcohol. That’s how I feel about Sother, Jess and Paul. I have their backs for life.
And a drink?
This is my after hours drink. It’s the drink that has accompanied hundreds of late-night conversations with close friends and loved ones. It’s the drink on top of which lifelong bonds have been built in my life.
Moving on to the present, where are in your career and life in general now?
I’m currently the General Manager for Proof & Company, China. As GM, I lead the 23 members of our China team to import and distribute craft spirits in China, consult on high-quality beverage programs, and support bar industry education and professional development. I honestly almost never drink these days because I need my energy each day to lead our dynamic China business. At a certain point in my career, the marginal benefit that I was getting from social drinking was eclipsed by my need to really show up and be a leader in my family and business. But that’s not to say that I don’t enjoy a good cocktail or spirit! I had a Daiquiri yesterday made with David Cordoba’s Lovers Rum that made my whole week. My word for 2020 is “growth.” I’m 100% focused right now on growing as a husband, leader, athlete and professional so that I can contribute more value to those around me.
What’s the track that best sums up your current stage in life, giving your reasons why.
The Catch Up – Drake
This is a song about putting on blinders and just focusing on your own mission without considering the norms or expectations of your industry and peer group. Amen.
Now tell us the drink that captures your current mood.
Black coffee and a protein shake. Let’s go!
If you could only have one spirit while stranded on a desert island what would it be and why?
Blanche de Normandie. It’s an absolutely delightful and tragically underrepresented spirit category. Delicious warm, delicious neat, delicious all day.
If you could only have one cocktail on your desert island what would it be and why?
Michelada. On a desert island? There’s no way that’s a bad idea.
What would be the one song that you would pick to accompany you on your desert island?
There’s a 16-minute live version of The Seed, Melting Pot, Web by The Roots on YouTube that’s phenomenal. If I’m stuck on a desert island, then I vote for the longest-possible cuts of excellent music please.
What luxury item would you take with you on your desert island?
One last thing…
Are there any other songs that were close contenders but you couldn’t fit in?
If you want the hype, please check the 28 HongKong Street playlist below.
If you want the big energy, then there’s “GetLowderNow Big Energy.” If you don’t know, now you know.
Download a free copy of Lowder’s Easy List of 178 (Modern) Classics to Know here