It all started with a photograph. In 2015, Josh Davis attended his first Camp Runamok, a summer camp for bartenders in Kentucky bourbon country. A veteran of the Chicago bar scene and a partner at 16th Street Bar & Lounge, Davis noticed that only eight out of nearly 250 bartenders in attendance were Black. From that realization a new tradition was born: “the annual Black person photo,” he quips.
The picture was just a snapshot of a problem Davis had encountered again and again at industry events, where he was often one of few Black bartenders in the room. “At the time, almost 60% of liquor sales were coming through Black and Brown communities,” he says. “We’re spending all this money, but we’re not able to get the education, we’re not able to get the access. Brand reps didn’t come to the bars where I worked.”
So Davis spoke to Lush Life Productions, the agency behind Camp Runamok, about a Black pop-up dinner at its annual Portland Cocktail Week in Portland, Oregon. This one-off dinner morphed into Brown & Balanced, a series of events that hires Black bartenders, Black chefs, Black DJs, and Black artists. Since the first event in 2017, Davis has hosted 18 pop-ups across the country, in cities from Oakland to Atlanta. Brown & Balanced is now the most popular event at Portland Cocktail Week, says Lindsey Johnson, the founder of Lush Life.
Davis might have started his organization with a mission, but he fell into bartending by accident. While working as a security guard at a nightclub in 2005, he ended up behind the bar one night due to a staffing shortage. The following Monday, Davis enrolled at bartending school, and three weeks later he started his first official shift.
His introduction to craft bartending also began by chance. “I was on a date, and the bartender was doing crazy stuff, setting drinks on fire and using fresh juices. The girl I was with was like, ‘Yo, you don’t do what he’s doing,’” says Davis, laughing. “My competitive nature kicked in.”
Davis introduced himself to the bartender, and from that chance encounter he went on to meet other industry heavyweights like Charles Joly, Bridget Albert, and Lynn House. In 2013, Jackie Summers, the founder of Sorel and the first Black distiller in the U.S. since Prohibition, enlisted him as the brand’s first Chicago brand ambassador after finding him on Twitter.
This spirit of connection has been the foundation of Davis’s career, and he aims to pay it forward. “Josh embraced the mentality that has been a core principle behind Sorel: ‘When we do well, I do well,’” says Summers. “He does not put himself front and forward in all of this. He has made a point to put other people up front.”
When the pandemic hit, Davis took Brown & Balanced to social media, where he posted daily Instagram Live videos with Black bartenders including Tiffanie Barriere, Gene Samuel, and Andra “AJ” Johnson. The episodes took on a different weight in the summer of 2020, as Davis would talk candidly with his guests about police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement.
He’s also connecting with a younger generation. Each February, for his Instagram #28BlackBartenders series, Davis showcases up-and-coming bartenders, many of whom now reach out to him through direct messages. “I know that job opportunities have opened up for people simply due to their exposure on this forum,” says Lynn House, a Heaven Hill brand ambassador and a mentor of Davis’s.
Soon, Davis hopes to launch an app to connect Black bartenders, as well as a video series of cocktails made with Black-owned liquor brands. He is also working on a collection of books that will include the drinks recipes of bartenders who have worked at Brown & Balanced events since 2017. But ultimately, Davis wants to bring the ethos of his organization beyond the bar world. He plans to train adolescents coming out of juvenile detention centers for careers in hospitality and eventually would like to adapt the program for incarcerated adults returning home.
“The purpose of Brown & Balanced is to eliminate the need for Brown & Balanced,” says Summers. “We still have a long way to go in terms of equity, not just in terms of visibility but in terms of pay scale. It is much harder for Black and Brown bartenders to not just get jobs but to get the attention in those jobs that helps them to advance their careers.”
Still, strides have been made, in part thanks to Brown & Balanced. At this summer’s Camp Runamok session, Davis counted more than 30 Black bartenders in the annual photo. Notably, Davis isn’t in it—other projects forced him to leave camp early, but he hopes to let a new generation of bartenders take the spotlight. And it’s up to all of us, he says, to embrace them.
“There’s no way you’ll find out who the talent is if you don’t start to expand your palate,” says Davis. “That’s what we tell our guests to do, so we need to do the same thing.”