It’s not often that we’re able to remember when and where we first met our dearest friends. But with mi hermano en cócteles, Dave Stolte, I know the exact date: April 28, 2011. Of course, in a sign of the times it wasn’t an actual IRL meeting but rather an introduction via Twitter. The legendary Tiki-Ti, which opened on April 28, 1961, was celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2011 with four days of festivities and a stunning 50th Anniversary Tiki Mug designed by Sven Kirsten.
On the day of the 50th anniversary, Allan Katz – co-owner of Jammyland in Las Vegas and at the time the bar manager at Caña Rum Bar – tweeted an offer:
— allan katz (@allanvkatz) April 29, 2011
And who should reply? None other than Dave Stolte, who was planning on going to Tiki-Ti on April 30, the final night of the 50th anniversary celebration.
— Home Bar Basics (@HomeBarBasics) April 29, 2011
@HomeBarBasics for real, and if the mugs are sold out grab some swag like a 50th anniversary keychain or pen 🙂
— Thirsty in LA (@ThirstyInLA) April 29, 2011
Sure enough, Stolte went to Tiki-Ti and on Monday he wanted to claim his prize:
— Home Bar Basics (@HomeBarBasics) May 2, 2011
We met him at Caña and the rest, as they say, is history.
Since that fateful day, Stolte has become an in-demand designer and illustrator in the bar industry. Read on for a deep dive into his prolific career, from his acclaimed self-published cocktail book to his Drinkify Me cocktail portraits and numerous commissions for bars, restaurants, spirits and special events.
Home Bar Basics
During that first meeting at Caña, Stolte showed us a prototype copy of a book he was working on called Home Bar Basics (and Not-So-Basics). The pocket-sized book would feature 25 cocktail recipes and Stolte’s whimsical illustrations of anthropomorphized cocktails.
A friend had recently put the bug in Dave’s ear about writing a cocktail book. “I had been trying to get work as an illustrator and had been doing these cocktail calendars, and pitching them to art directors in New York trying to get commissions. Got nothing, no replies. But I was putting the illustrations out there – I think on Facebook, and a friend of mine suggested that I take my home bartending knowledge – such as it is – and the illustrations and put them together and do a book.”
“Kickstarter was just getting going at that time, so I just kind of rolled the dice and took a chance and it worked.” During the 60-day funding period from July to September 2011, Stolte raised nearly $17,000, which exceeded his $12,000 goal, paid for the printing of the book, and got the project off its feet. The initial run of 1,500 copies “went fairly quickly.”
Home Bar Basics appealed to a wide range of readers – cocktail geeks appreciated the knowledge that Dave acquired from two decades of home bartending, while his breezy writing style made the book approachable to novices. And everyone loved the design, from the convenient size to the water- and tear-resistant paper, spiral binding and of course the cocktail illustrations. Home Bar Basics garnered praise from heavy hitters like Gaz Regan and went on to become a Top 10 Finalist for Best New Cocktail/Bartending Book at the 2012 Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards.
An updated second edition came out a couple of years later and those 3,000 books also sold out. Stolte is playing around with the idea of a third edition – doing a “square one thing” and thinking about what the concept of “the basics” means. “I’m getting my head around the idea that it’s maybe not a set of specific drink recipes that would be a core competency, but ‘drink families’ and templates.”
“The idea of, if you know how to make a Manhattan then you know how to make a Martini, it’s the same template. If you know how to make a Daiquiri – it’s a little more complicated but you can make a Mai Tai, it’s basically the same concept of the spirit, the sweet and the sour.”
Stolte credits Cocktail: The Drinks Bible for the 21st Century by Paul Harrington and Laura Moorhead as the main influence for Home Bar Basics. “[The book] was based on a lot of work that [they] had done for WIRED magazine. [They] had a spinoff site called Cocktail Time in the ’90s and every Friday they’d publish a classic cocktail recipe with the history of it. If you go back and look at his specs from the ’90s the drinks are all pretty much solid.”
“Paul was a student of architecture who was working as a bartender in Emeryville at the time and the staff from WIRED just became enamored of him and they worked on this website together. Unfortunately, the book went away when Condé Nast bought WIRED – I guess it competed with their other food and beverage stuff – it’s still very much an inspiration. There have been many others but that was the big one.”
I get a lot of inspiration from anybody who’s taking creative risks and doing weird things.
I get a lot of inspiration from anybody who’s taking creative risks and doing weird things.
For Stolte, inspiration comes from everywhere. “I’m always looking – anybody who’s ever been on a road trip with me knows that at some point we’re just going to have to pull over so that I can obsessively take a picture of a neon sign that I saw or some weird quirky thing, and I just retain all of those things. That goes back to my childhood in Southern California, it was things like cereal boxes and gas station signs – anything bold and graphic just kind of imprints itself and I draw on that. Music and film – it’s all the same thing, I get a lot of inspiration from anybody who’s taking creative risks and doing weird things.”
Stolte continues, “I’ve always been a designer or visual artist in some way. It’s really the only thing I think I’m capable of doing. Thankfully I’ve been able to figure out a way to survive doing that. I couldn’t be a salesperson or a doctor or something like that, it’s always been about design and visuals for me in one way or another.”
Stolte is perhaps best known in the industry for his Drinkify Me! illustrations that transform bar industry folk and cocktail enthusiasts alike into drinks. As noted on his website, after you send a reference photo and favorite cocktail, you’ll get “a museum-quality fine-art print and a digital copy for personal use on social media.” Dave even Drinkified yours truly as a birthday gift in 2014 – the namesake cocktail was created by Mia Andreoli (née Sarazen) when she consulted on the bar program at the now-defunct Churchill at the Orlando Hotel.
Stolte says his signature cocktail portraits started with Trevor Easter (The Snug). “It was Erick Castro‘s birthday and I think they were all in New York. [Trevor] had seen my cocktail illustrations but I had never done one as a caricature of a real person – it was always about the character of the drink. He said, ‘Can you do a Negroni and make it look like Erick Castro, and we’ll do t-shirts that say the Erick Castroni.’ So that was the first one. The style wound up being a little different from where it ended up. But that just led to the idea – people would commission me to do portraits of them.”
Stolte did a Drinkify Me set for Pernod Ricard at Tales of the Cocktail – David Wondrich as the Quill is one of his personal favorites. Pernod Ricard gave Stolte free rein, so it was his choice to depict Wondrich as the Quill, a Negroni variation with a touch of absinthe.
“I just try to get my head around what their face looks like and how that’s going to translate into the shape of the glass. The color of the drink can be a challenge sometimes – to do a white guy as a Manhattan is a little tough. [laughs] Some people want to be a Coors Lite in a bottle [or] a whisky in a Glencairn glass. Some of these shapes can be challenges. But if someone wants to be a rocks drink, a coupe or even a Collins I can usually pull it off.”
The subtle details of the Drinkify Me illustrations can be lost on a smartphone screen. Stolte says, “I have a morgue [file] of photos and textures, watercolor, all kinds of different things. I do a pencil sketch first – pretty small, I do it about maybe 1.5″or 2″ square. Tiny. I just snap a photo with my phone and Airdrop that to Photoshop. Open it up, clean up the sketch so that it’s nice and dark. The sketch essentially floats on top and layers underneath I will either hand draw with a Wacom tablet the colors and brush in all of the textures, but then for the garnishes – if there’s mint, cherry, orange or whatever I’ll usually take a photo of that and crop it to fit in there.”
Wexler of California
Stolte has worked with numerous bars, restaurants, brand ambassadors and spirits companies through his design studio, Wexler of California. Following are selected designs from the portfolio.
Stolte was approached by Martin and Rebecca Cate to create some illustrations for Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki when it was in development. The critically acclaimed book went on to win the 2017 James Beard Book Award in the Beverage category and Best New Cocktail/Bartending Book at the 2017 Spirited Awards.
When Smuggler’s Cove re-launched their cocktail menu with a new design and new drinks, they reached out to Stolte. “After the book came out, they were happy with the illustrations and the style, so they commissioned me to redesign the menu, which was a blast. It’s a huge, big binder, the pages are crazy – they’re 9″x12″ in full color.”
Stolte explains, “They have these illustrations that were previously done by a guy up there named Hanford Lemoore. I took some of his original illustrations and applied color to them – they’re black and white – but also created new illustrations for the menu, some in his style [and] some in the style of the book. That was fascinating – very technical, very intense menu.”
Big Bar NYEx10
One of the best New Year’s Eve events in L.A. is hosted by Big Bar, which gets the party started at 3pm and travels through 10 timezones, 10 countdowns, 10 cocktails and 10 playlists. There’s always a theme and each year Stolte has designed a keepsake for guests – everything from postcards to a Cocktail Passport, a Wheel-O-Cocktails (my favorite), and most recently a “suitcase” with luggage tags and travel stickers. “Sometimes they have pretty fleshed out ideas and sometimes they collaborate, but it always involves my little cartoon people and a different drink for every hour and every timezone as you go through New Year’s Eve. It’s super fun.”
Big Bar doesn’t just collaborate with Stolte on NYE menus – in April 2015, he was the guest bartender for the monthly Mixtape Mixology, which features a special cocktail menu and curated playlist. If you’re in need of a tropical headphone vacation, let Capt. Dave be your pilot:
Art Beyond the Glass
In 2012, Stolte created the logo for Art Beyond the Glass, the nonprofit bartender art showcase that I co-founded with Zahra Bates, National Brand Ambassador for Courvoisier. The Banksy-inspired design (featuring The Varnish cocktail coupe donated by Eric Alperin) made an immediate impact and helped make our inaugural event an unqualified success.
For our five-year anniversary, Stolte revamped the ABTG logo – the figure holding the coupe is now a stylized version of bassist Paul Simonon from The Clash’s iconic “London Calling” album cover.
SHAMELESS SELF PROMOTION: Tickets for the eighth annual Art Beyond the Glass on Sunday, June 23 are now on sale at Eventbrite.
Don Amado Mezcal & Panamá-Pacific Rum
Two high profile design projects were commissioned by Jacob Lustig of S.F.-based Haas Brothers. Stolte says, “Jake had put some feelers out about one of his mezcal brands – Don Amado, that is a good quality, legit product but was suffering in sales because the label was so bad. It was this super ’90s – it had this weird illustration of a guy’s head, the type was hard to read, it looked like a bottom shelf spirit.”
“So Jake reached out to me, and I just got a good feeling from him and I saw an opportunity there. He said, ‘I don’t have a huge budget but I really like your work, can we work something out?’ This was a total roll of the dice, but I proposed, ‘I’ll redesign the label for free if you fly me down to Oaxaca, show me around and teach me about your product so that l can immerse myself and do a good job.’ And then going forward we’ll be on the clock and I’ll be getting paid after that, but the initial project to redesign that label was a barter and it has progressed into a really wonderful working relationship with Jake. I’ve been with him for years now – believe in his products, believe in his spirit, and happy to work with him.”
Several years after that initial revamp, Stolte is redesigning the Don Amado labels again. “The [first] redesign that I did executed Jake’s vision, he was thrilled with it and I like the work as well. But then eventually as it got out into the field there was some feedback from bartenders that it felt too ornate and too overdesigned or frivolous. There’s this idea that mezcal labels should look like [Mezcal] Vago – very stripped down, kind of rough paper, black and white ink with just a series of technical specs. That’s what bartenders want out of their mezcal labels now.”
Stolte continues, “So we’ve taken some of the elements that we like from the previous label of the illustrations of the different agave varieties and redesigned the label, so those will be forthcoming in the next couple months I think. We’re currently working on getting [the labels] approved by the regulatory agency in Mexico [CRM] and they also have to be approved by the TTB here in the states. That’s a technical side of the design thing, that you have to know that that little line that says the percentage of alcohol by volume has to be a certain size, you can’t go smaller than that or they’ll flag you.”
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Now arriving ashore at ports of call across the USA are three additional members of the Panamá-Pacific Rum family. In addition to the 9 Year and 23 Year expressions you already know and love, we are proud to share with you two new Reserva expressions: 5 Year and 15 Year, plus a 3 Year Blanco. Read production details, tasting notes, and recipes at panamapacificrum.com
Haas Brothers launched Exposición Panamá-Pacific Rum in 2016 with a 9-year and the superb 23-year. The Spanish-style, molasses-derived rum is made at the famed Ingenio San Carlos (“Las Cabras”) distillery in Panama. Stolte collaborated with Lustig to create the label design and a custom bottle. Last month, Panamá-Pacific added a 3-year Blanco, a 5-year, and 15-year expressions to the range with Stolte’s designs featured across the line.
When Dave was working on Home Bar Basics, he became aware of the Orange County Bartenders Cabinet, founded by O.C. cocktail luminaries Jason Schiffer (320 Main), Gabrielle Dion (The Mixing Glass) and Forrest Cokely (Glass Bottom Spirits).
At the monthly OCBC gatherings, industry professionals and civilians get together at a hosted event and learn about a particular spirit and discuss cocktail technique. Stolte says, “It was a really good way for me to educate myself but also to network.” Through OCBC, Stolte met Schiffer and did some cocktail illustrations for 320 Main.
Matt Ellingson, who was at the time the Beverage Director at Disneyland’s exclusive private club, Club 33, saw Stolte’s work on the 320 Main menu and reached out. Ellingson had recently updated the cocktail menu in a new lounge at Club 33 and commissioned Dave to create some cocktail images. “I was thrilled and totally on board. From there it just kept going.”
The concept of the lounge is that it’s an old library, and when the construction crew broke through a wall there was a bookcase with a collection of dusty, forgotten cocktail books on the shelves. “That’s the story. It didn’t really happen, that’s the Disney story.”
Stolte explains, “The cocktail menu is presented in a faux vintage cocktail book that rests on the table, standing up. It’s a hardbound cover and the pages sit in a three-ring binder on the inside. Matt had ideas to a series of four or five books from different time periods with different styles, so that when you look around the room there’s this eclectic collection of books.”
The first book Stolte designed was called Rum, Rye, Brandy & Why. “It was supposed to look like a late ’60s, early ’70s cocktail book.” The next one was called The Modern Gentleman – “it was a kind of a riff on a Jerry Thomas mid- to late-19th century cocktail book.”
“And of course we had to get a Tiki one in for the Rongo Bar at the ‘Grand Manele’ hotel in Hawaii. Matt is a very creative writer, has an interesting mind and comes up with all kinds of great ideas. He’s been a great partner.”
Stolte was commissioned to do a series of book covers, special event graphics, posters, and “a ton more illustrations.” From there he worked on two other properties at Disneyland. “One is a fine dining space called 21 Royal. And over at California Adventure there’s a bar for Club 33 members called 1901 and the theme is the Nine Old Men, the original Disney animators. You walk into the space and there’s some of their original pencil sketches on the wall and it’s just RAD.”
Throws and Maskers
“I had been working with the guys at Club 33 for a while and they were planning a Summer of Tiki event. They called me in for a meeting and said, ‘We want to do a Tiki mug. Can you do that?’ I said, ‘Yeah I can do that.'”
Club 33: “We need a clay sculpt of the mug to work from, can you do that?”
Club 33: “Really.”
“So of course as soon as the meeting is over I went out to the parking lot and I’m on Google, ‘How the fuck do you sculpt a Tiki mug?'”
Club 33 wanted Stolte to create a mug for a Matt Ellingson drink called Throws and Maskers. [“Throws” are the beads, coins, etc. thrown from Mardi Gras floats; “Maskers” are the float riders.] “My initial thought was, but Tiki is Polynesian and I know it’s this fake fantasy world of a mish-mash of Polynesian cultural elements and Caribbean rum, riffs on Daiquiri and Planter’s Punch, Crab Rangoon, all of these things thrown together.”
“So thinking about that, Tiki – the visual part of it at least – is primarily Polynesian, and New Orleans is not Polynesia, it’s Caribbean. So I started thinking about what are the cultural elements that I can draw on to do a Tiki mug. And we explored a few different designs, but wound up on this Mardi Gras-themed, weird looking face that’s in sort of a goblet shape and has a mask and coins for teeth and beads going around.”
The mug was only available to Club 33 members, only if they were sitting in the lounge, and only if they ordered the Throws and Maskers drink. “Club 33 has a merchandise booth and you can’t just walk in and buy the mug, you actually have to experience the drink.”
Club 33 released a brown glaze in the summer of 2018 and “they were all gone by July.” Later that summer, a second edition (limited to 450, per Ooga-Mooga!) was released with a bone white and royal blue glaze with hand-painted gold accents. “That was my favorite, it looked really nice.”
For a SoCal native and lifelong Disney fan like Dave, the Club 33 work has been a dream come true. “It’s crazy, I was thinking about this recently. When I was maybe eight [years old] my parents got me The Art of Walt Disney coffee table book for Christmas – huge, heavy, thick, I think it was 400 pages. And it just blew my mind looking at all of the work that went into this. That was one of the little light bulb moments of what it could possibly look like to be a creative professional. I had no idea there were actually people sitting there drawing these things.”
It’s not hard to imagine that someday that light bulb moment will happen to an aspiring artist that comes across a dog-eared copy of Home Bar Basics or sees a Drinkify Me portrait and thinks, I want to do that.