Houston in Hollywood – Part I
While liquor companies continue to pour huge amounts of money into new brand development, billboard advertisements, and global duty free promotions, I will tell you here and now that the future of the boutique liquor industry lies not in public recognition, but rather the curation of the public. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: brand loyalty is dead in the booze business. Frank Sinatra isn’t around anymore to inspire budding Jack Daniels drinkers into a glass of Tennessee whiskey. There are no more Marlboro men. Fewer and fewer members of the modern generation define themselves by the label, choosing instead to focus on quality, rarity, uniqueness, or historical fascination when selecting a bottle, and that means liquor companies have to be flexible. Today’s adventurous customer is continuously looking for a new experience, rather than a trustworthy and familiar face, and that scares the holy hell out of marketing men, whose job it is to make you a life-long loyalist. But it’s a mistake to assume that the current consumer is short on loyalty because, if anything, the modern drinker is more discerning than ever—they’re just loyal to the cause rather than the company. It’s for that very reason that the success and progression of the liquor industry will rely on better curation, rather than better brands; because it’s no longer about a consistent product, but rather a consistently positive experience that’s constantly changing, constantly in flux, and constantly thinking outside the box.
In writing a blog about spirits for the last six years, I’ve tried to put those theories into cyber-practice. I’m always looking to intermingle technical information, brand specifics, and distillation data in with romanticism, travel imagery, pop culture, and booze history. I might write about a new Bourbon release one day, then an romp through the streets of Paris the next. I’ve done interviews with master distillers and podcasts with brand owners, while simultaneously transcribing my conversations about drinking with rock stars, actors, and famous athletes. I’m obviously in the business of selling bottles, but my ultimate goal has always been to sell an idea and then continuously curate that idea with a revolving theme of interesting and dynamic experiences. Entertainment always comes first. I want quality, but never at the expense of pleasure. Like today’s liquor consumer, I’m not interested in repeating the same experience over and over and I’m always on the hunt for the next big adventure. I want to be consistently influenced, inspired, and exhilarated, and I’m willing to take risks, put myself out there, and bust my ass to make that happen. More importantly, I want to meet people who think along these same lines, but simultaneously can challenge my expectations and help me to move beyond any limitations I may have unconsciously imposed on myself. I’ve always considered myself at the forefront of this mindset in my industry—usually I’m the person who’s moving beyond the status quo and pushing the limits, while continuing to stress the importance of fun as the ultimate goal—but this past week I realized how incredibly behind I am. There’s a pair of fraternal twin brothers in Hollywood who are already far ahead of me. Their names are Mark and Jonnie Houston, and they’ve already taken all of my dreams and fantasies for curating the ideal drinking experience, and harnessed them into ten incredible bars and restaurants around Los Angeles.
I first met Mark Houston at the Magic Mike XXL premier party this past June where we were both guests of producer Steven Soderbergh. A series of introductions had brought us together and we ended up chatting intensely for about ten minutes, piggy-backing upon each other’s observations while coming to the same breathless conclusions. Despite coming from two different sides of the industry, we had a lot in common in terms of the way we viewed it. When Mark mentioned he owned the bar Good Times at Davey Wayne’s, I immediately perked up. “I love that place!” I exclaimed. “That’s the Hollywood spot that’s literally a house that’s been transformed into bar, right?” I had been there previously with friends while visiting Los Angeles, and I couldn’t stop talking about it to my colleagues when I returned home. The experience had imprinted itself upon my psyche. Here was a thematic bar—a giant house party from the 1970s—that actually had a serious cocktail program, yet simultaneously embraced the more carefree and fun-oriented aspects of the genre—like alcoholic snow cones, or tall cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon. It was easily the coolest bar I had ever been to, but at the same time it didn’t take itself seriously in the slightest. “That place is so refreshing,” I continued telling Mark. “The quality of the program has already been established, which allows everyone to just move on with the pretense and simply enjoy the show. It’s incredible. I’ve never been anywhere like it.”
“I can make you a kick-ass Manhattan. That’s not an issue,” he told me as we shared a drink. “But so can five thousand other guys around the country. Proficiency isn’t enough anymore. It’s expected. What about fun? Don’t you want to have a memorable time when you’re out?”
“What’s funny, is people think you have to do one or the other,” I said, taking a sip of my cocktail. “They think only intensely-straight-faced bartenders are going to be taken seriously. Smiling, showing emotion, and being enthusiastic mean you don’t know what you’re talking about, and that’s the kiss of death for snobby booze people. But you’ve really put yourself out there with your thematic elements. You’re inviting people to make a judgment as to whether they’re going to feel comfortable doing both simultaneously. Anyone who can’t have a good time at your bar isn’t someone I want to hang out with anyway, so I’m sure you bring in a pretty laid-back crowd.”
“I think if you can strive towards quality while having fun, people will ultimately respect you for it.”
“Amen, brother,” I said. “You and I are cut from the same cloth.”
“You need to come down and visit my other bars,” Mark finally said. “You know my brother and I have nine other spots, right?”
I had no idea there were nine other Houston brothers bars and restaurants in Los Angeles, but suddenly I was intrigued. As it turned out, I needed to head back down south for business towards the end of August, so Mark and I made plans to meet in Hollywood at that time. He wanted me to at least see Butchers and Barbers—the New York-inspired American bistro, No Vacancy—the Hollywood speakeasy set in a historic Victorian mansion, Dirty Laundry—the subterranean DJ club, Break Room 86—the 80s-themed Karaoke bar, as well as La Descarga—a latin-style cigar bar with live salsa dancing. How could I say no to such an invitation? Especially considering how much I liked what I heard.