With both an award-winning bar and a documentary series under his belt, Erick Castro seems like the kind of guy who can’t say no to an interesting project — or a challenge. His beloved soda fountain-esque San Diego bar, Polite Provisions, took home a Spirited Award for Best American High-Volume Bar in 2014. And anyone who’s been to Polite Provisions knows that they know a thing or two about high-volume.
But Castro’s experience in the craft cocktail movement goes beyond his time behind the stick. Last year, he and a group of fellow bartenders ventured out on the highways and byways of the U.S. on a 3,000-mile long trip that took them to bars from California to Arizona to Idaho. The resulting video docuseries, “Bartenders at Large,” showcases bars and drinking culture in markets that often play second-fiddle to the usual suspects of New York, L.A. and the like. The team spent 27 days drinking and filming in places like Boise, Tucson, and Jackson, Wyoming, and came away with some interesting observations about the state of the American cocktail culture. (One gem: “The service was exceptional in all the smaller markets we went to,” he told us. “I’m sorry, the service is better. It just was.”)
Between running a highly lauded establishment and taking the time to explore lesser-known markets, we’d say Castro is pretty qualified to share his opinions on the bartending world, and how that world has changed in recent years. We asked him to tell us a little about life before and after his big win — and the evolution he’s witnessed in the years since:
How did things change for you, your career, and/or your establishment after winning a Spirited Award?
For the actual bar, we got a definite spike in business for the following weeks, as the press came in. But for the local scene, it was a massive boost in morale. Our staff and other bartenders in town received a welcome validation for what we were doing.
Looking back on the last decade, what have been some of the biggest professional/creative challenges you’ve faced since the year you won?
Moving from bartender to bar owner has been much more difficult of a leap than then I would have thought, but it was a welcome challenge and I feel stronger and more competitive than before.
What are some of the biggest differences between the industry in the year you won, and the industry today?
I feel like consumers are way more educated and harder to impress now then ever before. This is a great thing though, because they are more ready and willing to spend money, because now they have a better understanding of where the cost goes to.
What are some of the positive changes that have happened in the industry when you won, and some of the negatives?
It has definitely become more competitive of a field. There are more craft cocktail bars than ever & it is harder to stick out. But I think this is a good sign for the industry as it means that the cocktail is continuing to push into American pop culture.
What about some of the biggest surprises?
There are amazing cocktails everywhere! I can’t believe how big this has gotten.