Creating a gin specifically designed for cocktails is only one part of the Fords Gin mission, which aims to support the bartenders redefining the future of hospitality. Together, we’re profiling the industry’s most notable game-changers—the folks emerging as leaders beyond the bar by tackling key issues ranging from social justice to sustainability.
Although he’s known for his bartending finesse at Tongue-Cut Sparrow and The Pastry War, two Houston-area bars within the Bobby Heugel empire, operations director Alex Negranza says he has two other passions that extend beyond the bar: coffee and SoulCycle.
“I never expected to move to bartending,” says the California native, who moved to Seattle at the age of 18 to learn how to be a barista. Although he still describes coffee as his passion, he veered into bartending in pursuit of honing his coffee craft, which would eventually form the foundation of his bartending style. The skill sets, he says, are complimentary.
“Coffee kind of blossoms into being a training ground for really good bartenders,” he says. “Great baristas are able to find the details that go into pulling a shot, making a drink, which makes for a great bartender. It’s repetitive—the motions are the same.”
Negranza still remembers the cup that inspired an “a-ha moment” for him. Today, “that’s a large part of how I approach cocktails,” he says. “I want them to say ‘A-ha—that’s great.’” Such a moment might be inspired by a “ridiculously simple,” well-constructed drink, like the Martini-inspired The Simple Sussex, which calls on Fords Gin, Cocchi Vermouth di Torino and grapefruit bitters, or a “challenging” drink with dramatically contrasting components, like peated Scotch and dark rum. “I like juxtaposing flavors,” he says.
While continuing to work in coffee, including judging competitions around the country, he began moonlighting as a barback at Seattle’s Liberty Bar, working his way up to bartender and then general manager. Even his transition to Houston owes a debt to the coffee business: In 2010, he headed to Houston to judge the National Barista Competition, intending to pick up a few guest shifts in between. An introduction to Bobby Heugel turned into a years-long friendship, culminating in Negranza’s move to Houston, in 2014. “It was a sabbatical that turned into a 10-year stint,” he says.
Operations Director, Tongue-Cut Sparrow and The Pastry War
Anyone who inhabits the worlds of both baristas and bartenders knows that the hours aren’t necessarily compatible, and attempting to span both can mean extraordinarily long days-into-nights, with wearying physical demands. Negranza’s effort to balance these hours led to his other passion: fitness. At the beginning of 2018, he made a point of announcing on social media his intentions to help spread the word about bartender wellness. That included setting an example through his own intense SoulCycle regimen, but also encouraging others—both online and in person—to join him on rides.
“It took me a long time to be able to balance the demands,” he recalls. He says it often led to excess, sometimes in an effort to just stay awake and keep going. “I never got sucked into the drug culture of bartending, but I did get sucked into cigarettes, whiskey, not exercising, not taking care of myself.” He noted some of his mentors succumbing to serious health issues, which triggered a quest to find a more sustainable path for himself. Longer term, Negranza sees this emphasis on health and fitness as a pathway to help create community within the bartending profession—specifically by helping others connect over shared inspiration for a healthier lifestyle.
“I had to say, ‘What do I need to feel good about this?’,” he remembers. That meant quitting smoking, finding a way to balance work demands and setting fitness goals. He now describes SoulCycle as his “drug of choice,” taking cycling classes every day, often two per day. “It’s not just the fitness class,” he says. “It’s really uplifting.”
Today, he’s also a fitness advocate for other bartenders, taking on a role as “Fitness Master” during the Chicago Style conference held in May 2018 (co-founder Shelby Allison is also a SoulCycle fanatic) with plans to return in 2019. In that role, he led lively discussions about health, fitness and wellness for bartenders, and organized various workout events, including yoga and HIIT. “I had 20 to 40 bartenders showing up to work out with me,” he recalls.
He knew his fitness-related efforts were starting to make a difference, he says, when a fellow bartender flagged him down on the street to talk about a particularly challenging SoulCycle session he’d taken; Negranza had nothing to do with organizing the class, which had been sponsored by a liquor brand.
“I used to always be looped in—and now they’re doing it without me,” he says, of brands making wellness a core part of their community efforts. “It means people care. It’s kind of cool to see people inspired and doing this.”
Another watershed moment: when colleagues at Better Luck Tomorrow started to organize fitness-oriented group outings. “Instead of hanging out to go drinking or have dinner, the conversation shifted toward, ‘Let’s try this bouldering class together, or let’s have a pick-up game and go play basketball.’” The impact extended beyond just the satisfaction of seeing his colleagues getting outside, he says: “It shows up in that they are happier and healthier—and it shows in how they engage with guests when they come in.”
In addition to his emphasis on fitness, Negranza has also spoken out about advocating for LGBTQ bartenders, noting that few leaders currently exist in the bar community. “As a gay bartender I didn’t have anyone around me that was gay and also bartending,” he says of his early years as a bartender. “I didn’t see a lot of minorities or in general queer people working in cocktail bars… I didn’t see a lot of people who were welcoming me how I was.”
Today, Negranza strives to further the dialogue by “being vocal,” including adding to his Instagram profile a rainbow flag and the word “Proud.” Though it seems like a subtle touch, it didn’t go unnoticed. “When I started doing that, I’d get messages from other men saying thank you for being out and proud,” he says. “We forget how powerful social media can be.”
In addition, he has worked with liquor brands to help bring a broader range of spirits and better cocktails into gay bars, which are often “pigeonholed into flavored vodkas or lowbrow stuff,” he notes.
“How the alcohol industry engages gay bars is different than how they engage straight bars,” he says. “I’d like to be an advocate to bring those worlds together.”