Brad Phillips discovered alcohol at an early age, but only later realized it could be a career.
Alcohol was never something Brad Phillips had to hide from his parents, even as a teenager. In his family, exploring wine, beer and spirits was not only tolerated, it was encouraged.
"For me, my interest really started at an early age," Phillips explains. "My family had always been interested in cocktails, wine and great beer, so I was always around it. As I got older and was able to consume these things legally, I was naturally inquisitive and began asking questions."
Now the beverage manager at Blood and Sand (1500 St. Charles Street, 314-241-7263)
, as well as president of the St. Louis Chapter of the U.S. Bartenders Guild, Phillips traces his start in the industry back to those teenaged years. Growing up near the Lake of the Ozarks, he got a summer job waiting tables at one of the area's nicest restaurants, where he learned the ins and outs of fine dining.
The industry appealed to him, but he did not choose to pursue it as a career. Instead, he went away to college to study political science and sociology. During his time at school, he had the luxury of not having to work, and he used that time explore the restaurant business as a customer.
"I'm not an avid chef, so I thought it was best to let others make dinner for me," Phillips laughs. "In doing that, I got to experience a lot of different foods — the good and the ugly — and would make mental notes about what I liked and didn't like."
After finishing graduate school, Phillips returned to the industry, working on the bar side of the business. Though he loved making drinks and managing bar programs, he felt the corporate world's pull and left the business for jobs in finance and then retail. Though he was making good money, he felt disconnected from work, spending his days on conference calls and feeling out of touch with the customer.
Still, Phillips stuck with it until fate intervened. His job was eliminated when his company went through a restructuring, and though he was offered a position in another part of the business, he saw the situation as his chance to make a change.
Phillips got back into bartending, working at the Feasting Fox in Dutchtown before landing at Blood and Sand, the acclaimed cocktail-focused bar and restaurant downtown. Unlike in his corporate gig, where he felt a lack of connection with the customer, his current job allows him to share his passion with his guests, educate his staff and, through his work at the bartenders' guild, champion the St. Louis bar scene on the national level.
"I always tell my team that when a guest sits in your chair, they are a guest in your home," Phillips says. "They may ultimately make decisions, but you are in the driver's seat and need to take them on that journey."
Looking back, Phillips may have taken a few detours on his own journey to bartending, but he feels the better for it. He knows he is exactly where he is meant to be.
"In retail, I lost touch of why I did what I did because I didn't ever see a real customer," Phillips explains. "Now, I love what I do. I think everything happens for a reason."
Phillips took a break from the bar to share his thoughts on the St. Louis food-and-beverage scene, his idea of a dream night of barhopping, and the candy that gets him every time.
What is one thing people don’t know about you that you wish they did?
I am pretty much an open book. Maybe people don’t know that I wish I didn't share as much as I do.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
My daily cup of coffee and yogurt. When I am traveling, I often bring yogurt just in case the place I am staying doesn’t have any.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
Speed. I want to get from point A to point B as fast as possible. The time spent traveling is exhausting.
What is the most positive trend in food, beer, wine or cocktails that you’ve noticed in St. Louis over the past year?
The art of pairing. There are so many immersive experiences in the dining scene here that allow you to really take the guest on a trip through the pairing. It is quite exciting to see.
What is one thing missing or that you’d like to see in the local food-and-beverage scene?
Better ice programs. Ice could arguably be the most important ingredient in a cocktail, but it is often overlooked. Creating a custom ice program is the next step for St. Louis.
Who is your St. Louis food or drink crush?
I have many. Logan Ely at Savage is doing amazing things. Tim Wiggins at Yellowbelly and Retreat is the new force in food-and-beverage development. Gerard Craft and Ben Poremba are individuals I look up to in regards to concept development and execution. Terry Oliver at Frazer’s is always trying to push the envelope of cocktail development even if the city is not ready for it. Tai Nalewajko at Blue Ocean is always making me jealous of his cocktail creations. And I have to recognize Ted Kilgore at Planter’s House for being the consummate professional and a sounding board when one is needed.
Who’s the one person to watch right now in the St. Louis food-and-beverage scene?
Kira Webster at the Bao is killing it. Her ability to take simple ideas and turn them into something magical is really neat to see. Charlie [Martin] and Morgaine [Segura] from Olive + Oak are well known in the scene, but they are the ones I look to to see what is new to come.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality?
Amari. Bitter is better, they say. I love how this category is finally catching on across the city and we, as beverage professionals, are getting the opportunity to explore the category’s versatility with the guest.
If someone asked you to describe the current state of St. Louis’ food-and-beverage climate, what would you say?
Emerging. The scene is pushing the envelope of what is acceptable to the guest in regards to price point, ingredients, and combinations.
If you were not tending bar, what would you be doing?
I'd be a lawyer.
Name an ingredient never allowed behind your bar.
What is your after-work hangout?
I have several, quite frankly. If I was to envision the perfect evening, I would get off early and head to Taste and say hi to Nick [Digiovanni] and grab some fries. I would then head over to the Haunt and grab a beer, a shot of whiskey and a shot of tequila. Next, I'd go to Whiskey Ring and say hi to John [Joern] and see what new treasure was hiding in the cabinet. Then a jaunt over to South Grand would be in order and I'd stop in at CBGB and have my Stag and a neat pour of something fun. I would end my night at Mangia and get to say hi to those who had to work later than me.
What’s your edible guilty pleasure?
Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. I cannot get enough. I have been accused of having an obsession. I can live with that.
What would be your last meal on earth?
A roasted whole fish of any kind with root vegetables. A bottle of anything French would be in order. If I had my way, I would start with some Champagne, vintage of course, then some Chinon Blanc, then Cab Franc, and would end with a wonderful pour of cognac.
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