Campbell is the beverage program director for Edward C. Bailey Enterprises, which includes the Bailey’s Prime Plus steakhouses and Patrizio restaurants. The barman, who decries the title “mixologist” as a “vanity move,” started his cocktail career seven years ago—on the day he stopped drinking. After stints at some of the best watering holes in Dallas, including Bolsa and the Mansion on Turtle Creek, he opened the Chesterfield with a partner last month.
I haven’t had a drink in seven years. But I love alcohol.
I used to drink a whole lot. I always did, from the time I was eleven years old. That’s when I first became obsessed with bars. My mom was a Marine, and a friend and I broke into the officers’ club at Camp Lejeune, in North Carolina. I had just seen Cocktail. Mesmerized by the tall, colorful bottles, we grabbed a golden Galliano one, thinking it was tequila. We knocked back a shot, and the anise flavor was terrible. But the all-wood back bar, the smell of cigars—I fell in love. I knew right then that I wanted a life in bars.
I moved to Texas nine years ago to pursue a career in real estate. When I got here, I wanted to tend bar at night. But this is Dallas: you gotta know somebody to be able to do anything in this town. So I took a job as a bar back at Suede Bar and Grill, down on Greenville Avenue. It would get pretty rowdy in there. One of my duties was breaking up fights. And drinking, I guess.
I bounced around a lot after that. I waited tables at places like Texas de Brazil and Kent Rathbun’s Jasper’s, up in Plano. Dallas prides itself on having more restaurants per capita than any city in the U.S.—the number comes mostly from chain restaurants—but we’re new to the classic-cocktail movement. I quickly gave up on real estate; I realized that what I truly wanted was to be a bartender. But no one would let me. I think they could tell how badly I wanted to be behind the bar. I was so desperate. I’d say, “I’ll work for free! I just want to be back there!” I felt it was a calling. I kept trying to express that and—well, I think I was weirding out my employers.
Then I had a really wild weekend. I went to jail, got a DWI. I vowed to God I would never drink again. I asked him for help. I prayed that night and asked God to take the temptation away.
The very next day, the manager of Culpepper Steak House, in Rockwall, asked me to be a bartender. Since then, I haven’t had a drink, but my whole life has revolved around alcohol. It was divine intervention. The desire is gone, but the appreciation—that’s grown. A lot.
That very appreciation took off when I got the bartender position at the Mansion on Turtle Creek a couple years later. I would cherry-pick drinks, like the Flirtini, off Sex and the City, because that was the hottest show at the time. I thought a champagne-based martini was the most brilliant thing I had ever heard of. It was so the Mansion, and it took off like gangbusters. Then I started thinking I was some kind of prodigy. I quickly found out I had more to learn. So I began studying up on old cocktails.
The crew at the Mansion showed me a lot of things, like what goes into wine. I trained my nose to detect minute details. Before, I thought all red wines were plum, cassis, and oak. And all white wines were citrus, grapefruit, and buttery chardonnays. Suddenly, I was noticing burned orange, asparagus, charcoal—these interesting tasting notes. Of course, then I refined it and applied it all to spirits and started honoring the cocktails of yesterday. That’s my passion. I just can’t try them.
But I smell them. I get really close, right up to the surface, and breathe in deeply. Memories trigger. Like with aromatic bitters—as cheesy at it sounds, when I smell the spices, I feel like I’m transported back in time. Or whiskey. Like with Maker’s Mark—I can smell the smooth oak, and it makes me think of great hotel bars like the Algonquin, in New York, or the Melrose, over on Oak Lawn. Then I get serious. I visualize the interaction between acidity, sugars, and bitterness. A good drink needs balance. Now that I have my own joint—it’s in a building once frequented by Jack Ruby, and naturally it has an all-wood back bar—I’m making drinks like the Kentucky Colonel, with Bénédictine, lemon oil, and bourbon, or my new daiquiri, with Bacardi, Thai basil, fresh lime, and maraschino that I infuse with ginger. Maraschino is like steroids for citrus. I top it off with a dollop of fresh ginger foam.
I use my ears just as much. I ask guests a lot of questions. A good bartender loves his guests, but me, I need them. I drink vicariously through my customers. That’s how I create. It might take me longer to get the final copy on a drink, but it’s so worth it, involving guest after guest. I have a base memory of some things, like the twang of extra-dry gin. A palate’s memory is like muscle memory. But I’ve never tasted the exotic spirits like the Punt e Mes vermouth we’re all using now, with the return of pre-Prohibition-era cocktails. That’s where my guests’ palates come in.
And I still do a lot of research. I sometimes find that I need to correct a cocktail, and that takes considerable time. I’ll look up related recipes, reading up on how a certain one was categorized. Was it considered a sour? Was it a fizz? What was the sweetness?
As for my nickname, I ended up with it after working at the Catalina Room, on Lemmon Avenue. The owner would say, “Hello, Lucky!” whenever a special customer needed a free drink. That was my cue to make a couple of cocktails on the house. For years, people thought that was my real name.
Some people have called me the Beethoven of cocktails. I think that’s a stretch. It’s only relatable because I have to spend a lot of hours buried in old cocktail books, flying blind, trying to imagine how the spirits will work together as I mix drinks I can’t taste. I can almost visualize flavor profiles the way he imagined the chords. I can see the flavors I am going for. But that’s where the similarity ends. I would love to think I’m some kind of genius like that, but really I’m just a guy who loves making drinks.