Address him as Yusef Austin, The Cocktail Architect, if you please. “I’ll design it, but I don’t want to have to make it (anymore),” says Austin, though he iterates he’d contemplate returning to the scene—“If you pay me enough money, I’ll bartend any day.” This shunning of the speed rack was a labor of love a long time in the making, the embodiment of which can be scoped on his newly vamped website, thecocktailarchitect.com.
Similar to one of those choose your own destiny books, Austin’s career path stemmed from a series of chance encounters and false starts. He moved to Manhattan from Pennsylvania in 1997, a vivacious blue-eyed Irishman in his early twenties quite bitten by the acting bug. He studied with heavy hitting thespian authority Susan Batson whose most notable students, both past and present, include Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Jamie Foxx and Puff Daddy. Batson might have successfully schooled Mr. Combs in the ways of the Mind Fuck, but Austin eventually grew tired of being on the receiving end of said MF at the hand of that cold and unforgiving panderer, show biz. Like so many other great service industry compatriots before him, he began to shirk auditions and rely more heavily on his work as a maker of “beautiful drinks.”
Around that time, Austin met a man whose sage advice would change the course of his life entirely. The man: South African party planner to the upper crust, Colin Cowie. The advice: well, this was six years ago, but Austin recalls it went something like, “You’re never going to be a doctor, but there’s something to this drink think. Be a rock star mixologist.” And so, with the help of his new mentor, Austin set about honing his craft as a cocktail guru. Today, he’ll thank you not to call him a bartender. And, please, for the love of his favorite drink—a Bombay martini, slightly dirty—do not use the word mixologist in his presence. It’s so 2006.
Beginning with his first event at Colin Cowie’s swank private home in South Beach those many years ago, Austin has since accompanied Cowie to Palm Jumeirah in Dubai for the twenty five million dollar Atlantis, The Palm grand opening celebration; to Basel-Stadt, Switzerland where pent-up the pubescent spent excessively on naughty nectar; to Florence, Italy and even to Columbia. Columbia, Missouri that is. Scoff not, for there in that young and restless Midwestern state took place the wedding of one Paige Laurie, otherwise known as billionaire heiress to the Walmart fortune. The affair cost upwards of twenty million dollars. So much for Walmart’s slogan, Low Prices. Every Day. On Everything. Oh, the irony.
Austin minded his P’s and coupes (a little cocktail humor) at Laurie’s and other illustrious affairs. Each drink he created bested the one before it, he claims. He perfected his potable palate with the help of his trustiest mixed-drink-making-tool, a coffee grinder. “Take any dried herb like rosemary, time or sage and grind it up with salt in a coffee grinder,” he says. The resulting rim garnishes tend to garner high praise from Austin’s growing list of clientele. And slowly but surely, like the handful of Hindu-inspired tattoos that adorn his arms, he saw his once temporary side gig begin to expand and blossom.
Budding success afforded him the courage to leave Boom Boom Room, a fortress so protocoled the doorman almost barred his patronage (while he was still employed there) despite the behest of one Gerard Butler, the star powered pal he accompanied.
While the bulk of his current work schedule consists of private event commissions—he just hosted a build your own margarita mixer at Manhattan’s Core Club—Austin has no intention of resting on his laurels. His long-term business model laid out looks something like this:
1) Become a full-time consultant / right-hand-drinks-menu-man for renowned fine dining establishments. To set himself apart, he intends to deliver glossy pamphlets depicting his specialty libations to various celebrated chefs, like his buddy Todd English (humble brag).
2) Goad the human race into evolving a sixth sense more mystifying than seeing dead people. In collusion with Firmenich, the Swiss perfume and flavor company, Austin merged taste and smell—smaste?—during one of Firmenich’s recent fragrance campaigns to make desirable those things typically consider offensive. “Socratese died from the poison of a beautiful flower,” says Austin in an effort to explain the concept of creating something all at once toxic and tantalizing.
Shitake mushroom dust, fish sauce, grappa, sardines, wormwood, the bitter dandelion; these are but a few of the ingredients Austin used to create delectable drinks that taste the way Firmenich’s scents smell. A far cry from the rose water, fresh raspberry, gin, lime and rosé champagne blend that comprises Austin’s second favorite original whistle wetting recipe.
3) Become a proprietor. “Bottle service killed New York City nightlife,” says a scornful Austin. He fondly remembers the days of the Limelight when drag queens, Wall Streeters, skate boarders, models and fashion designers communed in an uninhibited, unpretentious atmosphere. The self-proclaimed James Bond of booze envisages rock-and-roll music and leather—a sort of second coming of the West Village’s Employees Only— in the establishment he hopes to open.