Brett Esler, a bartender at Whisler's in Austin (image: Aaron Ingrao)
Good cocktail photographers find beauty in the glass—the stillness of a perfectly chilled Negroni, the textured curl of a citrus peel. But it takes a special eye to animate the people that make what’s in that glass and the everyday drinking establishments in which it’s served. Aaron Ingrao is such a photographer.
He has been traveling the country photographing bartenders where they work behind the stick. His images will be compiled in a book he hopes to release in the coming years. Like any passionate creative putting themselves out there, he has doubts.
Aaron Ingrao (image: Luke Copping)
“I don’t know what kind of impact this book will have,” says Ingrao. “I hope people look at it and think it’s a cool thing. There are a gazillion recipe books out there. But there’s no book that captures a moment with a bunch of bartenders across the country. I hope my work itself speaks for itself.”
Ingrao’s journey is chronicled on his website and has already taken him from coast to coast. He started in his hometown of Buffalo. During the course of the effort, he has witnessed how the cocktail movement has spread to the most unlikely places, and he has gotten a sense of the culture of bartenders and the mentality of those who work in the profession.
Ingrao’s interest in the cocktail movement began when he traveled to San Diego to visit Tim Stevens, a friend who now owns Lucky Day in Buffalo. Stevens says the experience had a lasting impression on Ingrao.
“I don’t think he ever lost a taste for it,” says Stevens. “It was a different style of consumption. Buffalo back in those days was very singular. And to see it evolve into how drinking can be a more thoughtful venture, I think it opened his eyes to a better way.”
Justin Lavenue (image: Aaron Ingrao)
When Buffalo cocktail bar Vera opened in 2011, it became a hangout for Ingrao. At the time, he was working on a passion project of his in which he wanted to document people working in various professions who were deeply committed to their jobs. The first place he photographed was Vera.
“The photographs turned out great,” says Ingrao. “I put it up on my website and got a few jobs because of it. I was sort of thinking over time to sort of do a project on bartenders alone, the cocktail culture. Contextually speaking, bars are always cool. As a photographer, I appreciate these things. And there are the bartenders, who have a rock star status. There’s a mystique about it.”
After conceiving the book in early 2015, Ingrao traveled to New York City, where he shot the famous Employees Only. It took him a while to gather enough money to take the concept nationwide.
“I took a small chunk of money I had and decided that it was a crap shoot with the odds against me,” says Ingrao. “I tried to make it by offering the pictures to the bars for a small amount of money and to get sponsors.”
When he shoots his portraits, he tries to capture the enthusiasm of the bartender. Like most other photographers in the business, he wants the barkeeps to be comfortable in what they wear and what they look like.
Matt Williams, the bar manager at The Volstead in Jacksonville, Fla., was one of the many bartenders who crossed Ingrao’s path.
“He just relied on us,” says Williams. “The process was very mutual. He gave us the direction of telling us to do whatever we wanted to do. And then we had different ideas rolled back and forth. It wasn’t just him telling us to go over there and stand there.”
Ingrao says he has learned a great deal about the cocktail trends dominating the market. The Old Fashioned reigns as the most popular of any drink, according to him.
He expects to shoot a total of 100 bars in all and is currently looking for a publisher. But if he can’t find one, he will self-publish.
Any royalties he makes off the book will be sent to Flashes of Hope, a nonprofit dedicated to creating uplifting portraits of children fighting cancer and other life-threatening illnesses.
“I never conceived of the project to make money,” says Ingrao. “I hope the impact it has will result in a big check to them. Bartenders from all across the country are all in this one book. And there are these beautiful photos. I’d like to say it would be a neat way for people to recognize each other.”