There’s a reason that, in the young restaurant’s history, Okra is known best not for Southern Comfort, the divisive fruit and whiskey-flavored liqueur from New Orleans, but rather their own brand of southern comfort: a warm and hospitable staff turning out cold craft cocktails and cult staples of bible-belt cooking.
That recipe for success will look a little different as Okra’s Head Bartender Andrew Calisterio, a New Times Best of Phoenix winner, will be taking his talents back to the Bay Area, one of the cocktail world’s largest stages. And though a U-Haul has already left with Calisterio’s life to this point in-tow, he’ll still be tending bar at Okra through December 20.
He’s accepted a job as the North California Brand Ambassador for House Spirits, the Portland, Oregon distillery best known for producing Aviation American Gin. Living and working out of San Francisco, where the bartender first got a taste for the cocktail limelight outside of his native Sacramento, while working at the fawned-over Lower Haight cocktail haven, Maven, Calisterio will be representing and maintaining the House Spirits brand in the Bay Area and Sacramento, in addition to hosting educational events and parties.
“This is sort of a weird situation, because…” Calisterio pauses for a moment, staring into the depths of a cup of drip at Giant Coffee in Phoenix. Perhaps he wishes it were a crystal ball.
“Because I don’t necessarily feel like I’m done here. I’m coming to terms with that emotionally, but work-wise I’m always excited for the next step. I’m excited to go back to a city where it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been there or how long you’ve been around it, everything is still new all of the time. That’s a new challenge for me.”
But, “I’ll still be behind the stick,” says Calisterio — that’s bartender slang for tending bar. So "stay tuned.” He’ll likely announce such a decision on Facebook. A few weeks ago, his touching status update announcing he’d be leaving Phoenix garnered over 250 responses.
He wants everyone to know where to find him for drinks whenever they’re in San Francisco.
A couple weeks ago we were able to catch up with Calisterio on a rare day off, which he’d reserved for packing up the Encanto house he shares with his girlfriend near downtown Phoenix. When he’s isn’t tending bar or spending time with his girlfriend — or that week, packing up — Calisterio is tending to media, plugged-in and listening, as avid podcast consumer; to NPR; to programs like Freakonomics and design-minded 99 Percent Invisible.
As we walk for burritos to a hole in the wall a couple blocks away, his phone buzzes away between calls, texts, and notifications. Such is life when you’re as careful as he has been to creating a social media brand. Whereas most bartenders simply have an Instagram, Calisterio, or @boozehoundCC as he’s known to his followers, has been hash-tagging various stages of his career for years. Early on in the Bay Area, it was #CraftCocktailsBro. At Maven, it was #ThatsSoMaven. When he arrived in Phoenix, he came with hashtags #PhoenixNeedsAC (A.C. being his initials) and #LoveLetterToMyLiver. These tags go with nearly every post, from In-N-Out burger to videos of Calisterio making his morning pour-over coffee, to actual cocktails at Crudo and Okra. The community caught on immediately, visiting him for drinks and using the tags themselves — #LoveLetterToMyLiver now has over 1,000 uses, with #CraftCocktailsBro close to 3,000.
“There’s this love-hate relationship with social media at the bar,” says Calisterio. “But what we do is social. The bar is the original social media. People come into the bar with their sorrows and to sulk. Some people come in to party. Other people come in just to be seen. Sometimes our bar is used so that you can host your friends and let them know that you’re cool. Because you’re in a cool place. You know cool people. You do cool stuff. We cater to that — whatever it is that you are there for, we’re going to put out what we think and we believe in,” says Calisterio. “And if you want a jack and coke, I’m going to pour you a jack and coke. I’m going to cater to that.”
Linked so closely to social media and a social bar scene, Calisterio’s metaphors often lean toward pop culture references or media applications.
For instance, Calisterio insists that people are attracted to genuineness, whether at the bar or over social media, above all things. “I’m not just standing there reading from a script like “Hey, Welcome to Fridays,” or whatever place,” he says. “No diss against Fridays. The original Tinder. Swipe!…” He inserts his hand into the space between us pushes the air leftward, as if swiping an actual person at a bar. “But yeah,” he says, laughing at his metaphor. “I don’t have a script.”
In 2014, leaving Sacramento to follow his girlfriend to a new job, Calisterio approached his Facebook network with questions about Phoenix, grasping at straws. “Within a half hour I got a few offers and recommendations,” Calisterio told the Sacramento Bee in September of 2014, in an exit profile. “But I’ve never been to Phoenix before, so I want to know the lay of the land. I want to see what’s relative to my housing and find a space that’s a good fit to learn something, and hopefully add something.”
There are the one-off competition awards, such as Best Margarita at the Margarita Mix off, part of My Nana’s Best Tasting Salsa Challenge, that Calisterio added on an individual level. More recently, he competed and with his team took first place in the international Bacardi Bar Build Competition at Portland Cocktail Week, representing Phoenix in the process.
And then there are awards like Best Bartender, reflective of the most enduring additions Calisterio made to the Phoenix cocktail scene; the dynamism and personality he brought to an already-adored Phoenix cocktail bar and restaurant, Crudo. Later, he’d help to open and anchor the owner’s second effort, Okra — this year’s most anticipated restaurant opening, which answered the hype with southern hospitality. Calisterio’s charisma behind bar showed in the cocktails and day-to-day service, but will ultimately live on in the mentorship to those who’ll now become the young front-of-house faces of Okra and Crudo — Jake Foster comes to mind, and so does Riley Jones.
Some additions came though association. When Eric Castro, Eater cocktail writer and San Diego cocktail personality, began his Bartender at Large tour aiming to highlight cocktails scenes in cities where the the national media don’t normally shine their spotlight, he chose to link up with Calisterio and Crudo/Okra Owner Micah Olson for a night of cocktails at Okra. Phoenix came out in full support.
“This is a new feeling for me,” repeats Calisterio about the move. “I don’t quite feel like I’m done but I’m very excited for this new thing, too. It’s like when you’re watching a show on Netflix and you’re three seasons in. And then this new show comes out and everyone is talking about it. And you start it, and you also go back and revisit your old show. But there’s this new show now and you’re hooked. And then you kind of forget about Jax Teller,” a character from the FX TV show Sons of Anarchy.
“And then all of the sudden you realize the last episode is coming you so better binge-watch a couple seasons so you can catch up — and then you’re like, was I even watching this?”
But Calisterio is adament that he’s not leaving Phoenix high-and-dry — as he’ll be back as soon as February for events like Arizona Cocktail Week.
“I always want people to know that I’m available,” he says.
He has a parting message for Phoenix:
“Thank you for the opportunity. Thank you for welcoming me. Thank you for letting me prove naive people wrong. Thank you for keeping an open mind. Thank you for the feedback. Thank you for the friends and the people that I’ve met and have shown me such awesome stuff,” Calisterio says.
“There’s not a single time I went on Yelp to find a place to eat or to get coffee. Everything has been word of mouth. Everything has been, ‘Oh, you haven’t been there? Let’s go.’ I love how people who are doing cool things in this city are so open and willing to share the other cool things in the city. It’s very grassroots, very heartfelt, very honest, ‘This is real, these are my friends, they do cool stuff too, and if we turn a profit, that’s also cool.’ I’m always going to speak of my time here as a fond experience, and a grateful experience, and even though it’s been short-lived I’m going to be coming back to visit….
“There’s a reason that brands are coming out here and doing so much work into this city," he adds. "Because they know that Phoenix is the next big thing. And hopefully Phoenix can figure that out, too.”
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