There’s no doubt the man who helped to introduce the idea of craft cocktails to Austin — and then revamped bar programs on national TV — has a sophisticated palate.
But as we sit down to talk at the long bar in his new Warehouse District watering hole, Academia, Russell Davis pours himself a cold glass of milk to go along with a cup of espresso. Milk is one of his favorite things to drink, a way to balance all the booze.
Finding balance is one of the ingredients in Davis’ multistep recipe for a successful career. He achieved international fame as one of the experts on the popular show “Bar Rescue.” After a run of 18 episodes in 2013, he left the show to take his bar consulting firm around the world, opening up different concepts and training staff.
Now, he’s taking what he knows about the business to open a bar of his own. Academia — a long, narrow downtown hangout with exposed-brick walls, stately banners hanging from the ceiling and lighting that changes in hue and vibrancy to set the mood — is intended to be what Davis calls “the university of drinking.”
“Each one of these flags is an homage to one of the great creative thinking drinkers of our era,” he said. “So it’s kind of the great hall, if this was the university of drinking, and people like Hemingway were our professors. Ernest Hemingway, Hunter S. Thompson, Winston Churchill, F. Scott Fitzgerald, all these great thinkers, orators, writers, they were incredible. But also absolute drunks. This is their academic hall.”
Davis is particularly inspired by the daiquiri-loving Hemingway, who famously said that people should get to know a culture by spending a night in its bars.
In many ways, Davis has come full circle with Academia: Austin is the city where he first became enamored with the speed, knowledge and showmanship that he believes are important to create a proper cocktail that people will enjoy drinking. After many bartending stints at high-volume spots like Cain and Abel’s and the now-defunct Lake Travis restaurant Carlos’n Charlie’s, Davis found his way to Péché and developed a love for absinthe, green chartreuse and other esoteric spirits and liqueurs.
“I wasn’t the opening bar manager, but I came on very quickly after Péché opened and helped set up that program,” he said. “And that’s when I saw this kind of craft cocktail bartending — it was really the apogee of bartending. It was cool, you could do things fast, you could throw bottles around, and yet you could still make these perfect drinks for people.”
After that, Davis’ career accelerated. He was recruited to San Francisco’s Rickhouse and was part of the bar team that led the whiskey-focused haunt to win Tales of the Cocktail’s Best High Volume Cocktail Bar award in 2011. People took notice, and “Bar Rescue” came calling not long afterward.
But he owes a lot to his time at Péché and to Péché’s owner and his mentor, Rob Pate, from whom he purchased the space that became Academia and was previously Pate’s tropical-inspired Isla, which closed in the spring of last year. One of the things Davis discovered at Péché is the alcoholic beverage he’s drinking when he’s done with the milk: a shot of green chartreuse chased by an icy glass of root beer.
The complementary concoctions are herbaceous, complex and such an odd but delicious pairing that Davis prices green chartreuse at Academia at $5, well below the $13 or $14 that a shot of the bright green liquid often costs at other bars.
“That thing is the bane of my existence and the love of my life at the same time. I can’t tell you how much trouble I’ve gotten into and how many crazy, amazing things I’ve done drinking that,” he said with his exuberant, infectious laugh.
Academia is one of the crazy, amazing things.
It might also seem just plain crazy to people who first heard about Academia as a bar that would rely on principles of cognitive psychology to deliver a fun and comfortable night out. An early Eater Austin article about Academia’s arrival last fall noted in the headline that the Ivy League-themed spot “is already exhausting” thanks to promised elements like ambient scents and pheromones.
But Davis is earnest when he talks about the psychological reasons behind some of the decisions — like the aromas and the lighting — he made to help Academia stand out. The lighting was designed by the technical director of Cirque du Soleil, he said, and it works in tandem with the subtle scents and the music to give visitors the best possible experience.
Behind the bar “is a little screen, and behind it I built a little system of machines that release aromatics into the air so that sometimes it amps you up, sometimes it calms you down, sometimes it makes you feel sexy, and it comes on at different times. We worry so much about how flavors are in the cocktails, but we forget about all the other senses. They’re just as important,” he said.
He also wants the drinks, the backbone of any bar, to be memorable on their own. They are a mix of classics, riffs on classics and “faculty signatures” — cocktails that either Davis or his staff have created.
Order the Mellowed 50/50 Sazerac if you want nuanced and boozy, or the Waiting for Chinola (rum, passion fruit, lemon, Becherovka, Uncle Billy’s Lazy Day Lager and pomegranate) for a lighter, fruitier flavor. While you’re there, you’ll notice something, and it’s not those lighting shifts. The bartenders are courteous, friendly and conversational and the true mark of what Davis is aiming to do with Academia.
“Everyone can make a great drink, but not everybody can be nice to people,” he said. “I want us not only to be at the forefront of what’s happening in the bar industry but also (of what can) be done in a high-volume environment with no pretentiousness. That’s where the hospitality comes in. “
What: A bar in the Warehouse District with a mix of both classic and original cocktails. A full food menu is coming in mid-May, and happy hour with $5-$6 cocktails has recently been introduced from 5 to 8 p.m. daily.
Where: 208 W. Fourth St. Unit D
Hours: 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily