For veteran bartender Robert Björn Taylor, the recent COVID-19 pandemic, which temporarily shut down Austin’s bars and restaurants, has given him the space to reflect on his career and think about his future. And as a sober, Black bartender, he’s devoting that future to industry education, marketing, and support, especially for BIPOC.
Taylor has been a familiar face on the city’s bar scene since arriving from Houston almost 10 years ago. Though he remembers himself as a quiet, introverted child, today, he’s known as a confident force within the industry who exudes warmth and instantly puts people at ease. He credits much of this evolution to his time in hospitality: He’s worked behind the bar at institutions like Péché, Qui, Otoko, Emmer & Rye, and Midnight Cowboy. Most recently, you may have seen him at the Arrive East Austin hotel, where he worked as the assistant general manager until June when he left on his own to pursue his other goals.
Since then, he’s been working with Sourced: Craft Cocktails Delivered, an Austin-based cocktail kit delivery service, where he hosted virtual happy hours for local companies and private events. Here he explains the basics of cocktail making, from balancing flavors to comparing methods like shaking vs. stirring, in a way that complements the company’s simple cocktail kits.
While education is at the core of what Taylor wants to do with his career, he is also dedicated to supporting BIPOC and bringing more diversity to the industry. To that avail, Taylor is working with the Ideal Bartender Collective, a community of BIPOC bartenders and service industry professionals, to highlight stories about the history of rum and the Caribbean islands, as well as BIPOC food and culture at large.
“We want to tackle stuff that’s not spoken about a lot in the cocktail world,” Taylor says of Ideal Bartender Collective. “There’s a very European-centric view when it comes to cocktails, but there’s a rich history of people of color in cocktails.” Rum’s past is intrinsically linked with the slave trade, as enslaved people from Africa’s coast were forced to cultivate and process sugarcane in Europe and the Americas for the spirit’s production.
Taylor hopes this work will reach people in lower-income neighborhoods, and inspire them to pursue a career in hospitality. “You’re not a ‘Mammy,’” referring to the racist stereotype of Black female slaves who were portrayed as being content with their servitudes, “and this isn’t service like you’re a slave. There’s an enjoyable, creative aspect to it.”
Working in the hospitality industry has helped Taylor tremendously, and he wants to share that with others. “It’s a great career and it’s done a lot for me, my self esteem, and my natural growth,” he says. “And there aren’t a lot of people that men who look like me. If people of color can see me, they can say, ‘Oh my God, I can do that too.’”
This year’s Black Lives Matter protests, which were prompted in May in response to the death of George Floyd, who was killed in police custody, have emboldened Taylor into action. “What better place to start out than Austin, which is a very white town?” he asks with a warm laugh. According to the United States Census Bureau, 73.5 percent of the city population identifies as white, and only 7.8 percent identify as Black or African-American.
While Taylor recognizes that race is an uncomfortable topic to talk about for some, he feels it’s necessary. “People want to avoid the uncomfortable things,” he says, “but if we don’t approach and talk about it, there’s no way to go forward and figure out solutions, or how to combat it.”
Though he’s passionate about his industry now, Taylor found his way to hospitality mostly by accident. In 2005, he gave up his “boring” graduate job as a graphic designer in Houston and spent two years working as a Starbucks barista, before becoming a runner at a wine bar. There was no looking back after that. “There’s this thing about being behind the bar, and creating people’s experience that really attracted me,” he explains. “Creating beautiful food, drinks, and atmosphere for those who seek it is magical.”
He moved to Austin in 2011, which was a pivotal time for bars and restaurants in the city, which were just on the cusp of gaining national recognition. He counts himself lucky for this timing: “If I had come in 2012, I wouldn’t have had the same career. I was always at the right place, at the right time, and with the right people.” But it wasn’t always easy.
His first bartending gig in Austin was at Péché, a buzzy, upscale absinthe bar in the downtown area serving craft cocktails to what felt like a never-ending stream of guests. He describes it as an “eye-opening experience” in his own amateurism. “I wasn’t fast enough, I wasn’t knowledgeable enough, I didn’t take it seriously enough. I was caught up in the look of being a bartender.”
“He really wasn’t ready at that time,” says Justin Elliot. Elliot was Taylor’s manager at the time, who now works as the director of mixology for beverage distributor Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits. “I remember training him twice as long as any other person because we genuinely adored the guy. It just wasn’t clicking, but he never complained. He stayed humble, worked really hard, and showed up better each day than the last.”
Despite trying, after several months, Taylor was let go from the bar. He describes it as the “slap of reality” he needed. It inspired him to truly dedicate himself to his work, and expand his knowledge and skill set behind the bar.
To do so, Taylor took a job as a barback at the popular Red River music venue and bar the Mohawk, and worked his way back up to being a bartender. Compared to Péché, Mohawk was the polar opposite. Whereas Péché focused on intricate cocktails and fine dining, Mohawk had a dive bar-vibe and focused on simple spirits and mixers. The change of pace gave him the space to develop his foundation as a bartender.
At Mohawk, he stopped trying to play the role of the “rockstar bartender,” and focused on evolving into a self-described “cocktail nerd.” In the process, he discovered that his passion wasn’t the lionization of bartending, but hospitality itself. “I get so much out of engaging with people; I was built for it,” he says. “When guests talk to you and ask questions about your drinks, it gives you a sense of purpose and really drives your creativity.”
Part of that purpose is advocating for responsible drinking. “It’s like food,” Taylor explains, “you wouldn’t go and binge 1,000 truffles, so why binge whiskey? You’re not enjoying it, you’re just getting messed up.” He quit drinking completely on September 30, 2019, and has since stayed sober.
“I didn’t even know I was an alcoholic until it started to affect my life,” he remembers, attributing that to the prominence of binge drinking culture, especially among the service industry. “No one teaches you how to drink. You see people drinking, and you do what they do, and, in most cases, it’s binging.”
Navigating work as a sober bartender is a challenge, but he credits Ben’s Friends, a national service industry support group, with keeping him on track. “If I didn’t go to that meeting in October, I probably wouldn’t have stayed sober. It’s a good community of industry folks, and it’s open to people who still drink.”
“There’s a duality here, and I’m battling myself,” Taylor explains. He wants to be a successful bartender, “but now I have a heightened awareness of how I speak about drinking, and how I approach people in my industry. I’m trying to put knowledge out there and advocate for safe ways to drink.” Recently, he’s been exploring the world of zero-proof cocktails, a part of his own efforts to make the bar experience more accessible and healthy for everyone.
There are few people better suited to shape the future of the industry and teach the art of hospitality. For Elliot, it’s the lasting legacy of Taylor’s time in Austin. “He’s done a lot to center true hospitality in the guest experience,” he says. “People want to be around him. He genuinely cares and wants to give of himself. It’s what’s always drawn me to him.”
“I feel like I’ll do a lot more good in this realm of education than I would behind the bar,” Taylor says. “COVID opened my eyes to the fact that I have more to offer, and I’m ready. The hospitality community has given me so much and I saw what I was capable of giving back,” whether it’s in service or through the popularization of zero and low-proof cocktails. “Our community needs new innovative ways to move forward. I want to make a mark in evolution.”