Seven Questions For Tobin Ellis

The BarMagic owner on his new cocktail station, his deal with Starbucks and his go-to local bars

Tobin Ellis | Photo by Anthony Mair

Tobin Ellis | Photo by Anthony Mair

Give me the 25-cent tour of your résumé.

Started as a dishwasher and a bar back. Became a bartender and traveled the country opening bars. Started to realize that there were so many other things besides training bartenders and making drinks that help bars be better. So people started paying me to do that. I worked in advertising for a while and then just kind of put it all together.

What does BarMagic of Las Vegas do?

BarMagic is a full-service beverage consulting agency that specializes in the design-build process, but we do everything. People think that I’m a mixologist who does cocktail menus and bartender drinks; that is 1/60th of what we do, the easiest and the smallest part of what we do. The reason I’ve been hired by Starbucks is because nobody does what we do: proforma analysis, union reclassifications, investor-level analysis for entire hotel properties, video/TV styling for liquor companies, interior design, operational design, engine design for bars, and CAD [computer-aided design] equipment schematics—I mean, pretty extensive.

Calling on those myriad skills, you’ve pulled off some incredible, innovative live events in Las Vegas over the years. What are the memorable ones that come to mind?

Taste of the Nation [at the Palms in June 2010]. It was for a great cause.We did an ice assembly-line welcome cocktail: As guests walked in, they watched their cocktail being made and it followed them as they walked into the party. When they got to the end, it was ready and put in their hand. It was a lot of fun using ice ramps, jumps and spheres. Also, the 150th anniversary of the Model T that we did for the Ford Motor Co. [at the Convention Center in November 2008] that was fun. We made fresh vodka tonics for 5,000 people using the same concept of the circular ice assembly line.

In February, you launched the Tobin Ellis Cocktail Station by Perlick, a bartender-designed bar that improves service, speed and efficiency, but I understand you had a very different name in mind.

“Quantum.” I’ve always been shy of using my own name. I thought it represented a quantum leap in bar-equipment design, so it seemed like a pretty appropriate name. Something memorable, simple, but [Perlick] decided it was going to be my name.

Sounds like a sleek automobile.

Sure, it’s designed to improve efficiencies in bartender comfort and ergonomics. We basically tried to figure out how to get bartenders the tricked-out cockpit they’ve always dreamt about, and that included things like equipment that’s closer to the bar counter—so they’re working closer to where they’re making drinks and interacting with guests—separated health-code-compliant sections for various ice programs; insulated, refrigerated juice caddies; curved speedwells that fit any size bottle all the way up to Grand Marnier and Patrón.

I tried to design a zero-step station, and that’s not been done before to my knowledge without custom fabrication. Thirty-six liters are within a zero-step radius, meaning you don’t have to move your feet to make a vast majority of drinks on a given shift; you can stand in one spot—and that’s really the one thing that I believe bartenders will get right away. Every step you take is a wasted step. Walking doesn’t help produce drinks.

And what about protecting the health of the bartenders?

We took out all the sharp corners. We made the front wall of the speed rail from thicker steel and much taller, so when bartenders put their thighs against it, it doesn’t squish and trap the bottles. We added a bartender’s caddie that’s protected from water underneath the sink that allows them to store anything from extra towels, bitters or soda bottles to their smartphone, wallet, or keys—whatever they might want nearby. There are foot pedals to operate the sink, a high-speed glass rinser to wash out tins and glasses. It’s health-code-compliant. and that’s a big thing. Many people are MacGyver-ing, adding all these things into their stations to try to get functionality and none of it is compliant, so it’s getting ripped out of bars left and right. We give them a solution they don’t have to worry about—all NSF  [National Safety Foundation] approved and health-code-compliant.

Where would you guess the first bar is going in?

It’s either going to be a hotel in Central America or there is a bar in Colorado that we tried to do a rush order for. It’s being produced right now. And we know that there are already a couple of orders in for Las Vegas bars.

Couldn’t help but notice you mentioned Starbucks earlier. What are you working on right now with them, and how did you get the gig?

I’ve been brought into the Global Innovations team. They were searching for someone in the beverage world who had a lot of design-build experience and who had a reputation for innovation and creativity, but who also has solid, proven, practical, operational experience in casual dining chains, five-diamond hotels and high-volume night clubs, right down to geeky cocktail bars. I went in for a one-day innovation session with about 15 people and at the end of the day, one of the directors pulled me aside and said, “You’re the clear rock star in the group. What are you doing tomorrow?” And I was like, “Whatever you want me to,” and that’s it, now I’m up in Seattle two days every week.

Being that they’ve hired a beverage expert, should I assume they’re going into the liquor business?

I’m working on everything. I’ve not been hired because of my beverage knowledge; it’s much more about design, operations and sort of creative operations, but I can tell you what’s already public knowledge, which most people don’t know: They already operate a concept called Starbucks Evenings in select markets and they have for two years. [Those locations] serve beer and wine.

Would you say this your biggest break yet?

I think so, yeah. Perlick was pretty huge, too. Having Caesars Palace call me up 15 years ago to come out to Vegas to be the head bartender—that was kind of big. They’re all connected, but Starbucks is probably the biggest.

You co-founded the Flair Bartenders Association in 1997. Are the worlds of flair and mixology mutually exclusive?

They are inherently inclusive and codependent. I don’t know how you could possibly stand behind a bar and exclude one or the other, because a bartender is both a chef and an entertainer and if you’re not passionate about your work you have a hole in your game. If you’re fully passionate about your work then you should be passionate about your tools, technique, ingredients, knowledge and your cocktails.

You should also be passionate about your ability to create guest rapport, interaction and to basically “DJ” a room. If you don’t know how to change the entire mood of a room when you’re behind a bar, I’d wonder what kind of bartender you are, because bartending is about people not about drinks. The drinks should come second; the drinks should be automatic. I tell bartenders all the time: You need to learn the drinks, so you can forget them.

My flair career was in the media and now in people’s minds. But everything I did in bartending, I was doing cocktailing and mixology as long as I was flipping bottles. I learned them together. It just wasn’t in style yet; no one gave a shit about cocktails. To me it’s all bartending, and I’ve always worked with fresh ingredients trying to make the best drinks I can possibly make and respecting the classics. And I’ve always loved to entertain and fuck with things and throw shit around and have fun. So they’ve never been mutually exclusive, and it’s clear even in my tone of voice that it does bug me that I’ve sort of been typecast or pigeonholed as “the flair guy who now does other stuff,” because I’ve always been the bartender who enjoys all of it.

When you come home to Vegas to roost, for which bars do you make a beeline?

You’ll see me at 365 Tokyo for a daiquiri. I’ll be at Herbs & Rye for a pisco sour. And Velveteen Rabbit for whatever’s on their menu. And don’t be surprised to find me somewhere in Bellagio or Wynn just rolling around having a Negroni.

In addition to cocktails and cats, you have a love for all things Star Wars and an obsession with Chick-Fil-A. What will be your first order when it comes to the Valley?

Same as it always is: spicy chicken sandwich, pickles, done. No fries, no drink—just give me my chicken.

Since you’re designing businesses from the ground up, you can’t indulge in every little trend, you’d go broke. What trends are you embracing now in a big way and why?

It’s about focusing on things that are timeless. [At BarMagic,] we’re not trend chasers. I want to build a program/bar/piece of equipment that’s going to stand the test of time. It’s like, OK: This is great now; is it going to be great in 15 or 20 years, or is it going to be a joke after 6 months or a year? The things I know that are not fads, that are going to stick around: cocktails on tap—that’s absolutely something we are pushing clients to do and we do have to push them right now because they are terrified of it.

If you had your way, what will be the next “it” thing?

I will die a happy man if I see the bartending world wake up and once again embrace technical free pouring. It is a system of free pouring that is more than just counting. It involves body position, understanding fulcrum and centripetal force. It’s a class I teach and many people do not teach it, but it’s not just pouring out of a pour spout into a glass. That’s what everyone thinks free pouring is. It gets a bad name unfairly.

Is there a beverage-related controversy that you follow closely?

Yes, I do follow some of the beverage controversy. On the larger scale: the lawsuits related to labeling. But I don’t get bogged down in it, because most of my work these last few years isn’t really in beverage operations; it’s in design build so I geek out more on changes to ADA and building codes and discussions about materials and applications of those materials.

What do you say to eager, yet very green bartenders who are designing their logos on cocktail napkins and launching consulting companies while still working their first-ever gig?

I tell them bartend as long as you can. It’s the easiest money you’ll ever make, and it’s a blast. And burn your logo.

The people who are most successful with anything are the ones they didn’t choose it—it chose them. Bartending chose me. I didn’t choose it. I honestly never was like, “One day I’m going to be a bartender!” It just chose me. I was behind the bar. It happened. And there, I’m more comfortable than in any other room. I’d rather be behind the bar then in front of it any day of the week.



Your perfect Old-Fashioned: fruited or fruitless?

Both. It is the Marcovaldo Dionysos [bartender, Smuggler’s Cove, San Francisco] Old-Fashioned; it’s what I train, and it uses orange and lemon zest oils only. Although I secretly like an orange.

“Bartender” or “mixologist.”

Bartender, period. Proudly.

What has no business being on a menu?


Frozen, blended—yay or nay?

Hell, yeah! Piña coladas all day. Frozen Negronis, frozen coconut mojitos—pretty much you can put anything in a blender, I’ll drink it.

Guilty pleasure beverage?

I love a shitty margarita, and I’ll drink “the Champagne of beers,” Miller High Life, until the cows come home and join me. 

What is the coldest you have ever been while working?

On the roof of Pure Nightclub in the middle of winter, wearing fingerless gloves.

And the hottest?

Every night, baby.

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