Todd Brutcher vividly recalls the moment that bartending first piqued his interest.
As a nineteen-year-old bussing tables at Olive Garden, Brutcher would watch in awe as the restaurant's bartenders were treated like rock stars by anyone they encountered. The staff, the customers, the ladies — everyone loved to be around them, and he knew he wanted to be that guy.
"Back then, I already knew restaurants would be my career, because I had zero interest in school," Brutcher said. "At Olive Garden, I saw how the bartenders always got girls laughing and guys giving them high-fives. They were the celebrities of the restaurant. I told myself, 'I've got to figure this out.'"
Now a few decades later, Butcher has both realized that dream and expanded upon it. As the founder of the Bloody Mary and sangria mix company Southside Alchemy (@Southsidealchemy)
, the longtime barman is no longer behind the stick, but is instead arming his compatriots with the tools they need to make exceptional drinks.
Early on, however, Brutcher didn't know if he'd ever get his shot to tend bar. He spent the first few years of his food and beverage career waiting tables and lucked out during a daytime shift when the restaurant he was working needed some help. The bartender failed to show up for her shift, he explains, so the manager asked Brutcher to jump in and handle the lunch bar business. That lunch shift turned into happy hour, and when he looked down at how much he'd made for the day, he was both exhilarated and determined to never go back to waiting tables. When his manager, who only hired female bartenders, refused to put him behind the bar permanently, Brutcher packed up and headed to the former Pitted Olive, and eventually Onesto Pizza & Trattoria. It would prove to be a fateful move.
"When I first started at Onesto, we only had a license for beer and wine, but after two years, we got our full liquor license," Brutcher says. "At that time, we were going through about a case of Zing Zang [Bloody Mary mix] about every two or three months. Once I started infusing my own vodkas, it turned to a case and a half every month."
Not content to stop at infused vodkas, Brutcher made a deal with his boss. He'd been playing around with his own Bloody Mary mixes at home, and suggested that Onesto should begin using his instead of Zing Zang. His boss suggested a taste test: He'd blind taste Brutcher's version against the bought-in mix, and whichever was better would be put on the list. Brutcher wasn't surprised when his won out.
In no time, Brutcher developed a cult following for his Bloody Marys and sangria, another of his specialty concoctions. Even after leaving Onesto, he'd still hear praise from his former regulars who insisted that he bottle up and sell his mixes. Eventually, he began to test the waters at a pop-up market his friend put together to showcase local makers. Though Brutcher was hesitant to participate at first, he came around to the idea and was thrilled with the response. He did it again the next year, never thinking of it as more than a way to make some extra spending money — but a run-in with a St. Louis health department official made him reconsider.
"He couldn't have been nicer, but he told me I had to start doing things on the up and up to sell to the public," Brutcher says. "He gave me all of the information I needed to go legit. I discarded it, because I was bartending full time, but about a week later, I was having one of those nights at work. The barback didn't show up, I was the only bartender and five kegs blew. I was a week away from my 40th birthday and said to myself, 'I am so sick of this shit.'"
Brutcher talked with his wife about going all in with his Bloody Mary and sangria mix. As he explained it, he'd done a lot of things in his life for which he had no regrets, but he felt that this would be that one thing he'd look back on as a missed opportunity if he didn't act. With her solidly behind him, Brutcher got all of the logistics in order and launched Southside Alchemy in 2019.
Two years later, Brutcher could not be more thrilled with his decision. Not only has his Bloody Mary mix gone on to receive national awards, it's also afforded him more of a work-life balance. No longer out of the house from 3 p.m. until 2 a.m., he gets to be a more present (and, he admits, less grouchy) husband and father. For him, that's the most important thing that has resulted from him taking the leap.
"When you grow up aimless and lost, it's scary to finally take the plunge," Brutcher says. "If my wife didn't support this, it wouldn't be happening. To have that support of the people in your life who mean the most to you is key. A few times in the past, people have told me that I had to go for this, and I thought they were insane. Finally, I figured that I've chickened my way out of pretty much anything else, so I have to do this. I'm glad I did. I'm very humbled — and lucky."
Brutcher took a break from Southside Alchemy to share his thoughts on the state of the St. Louis food and beverage scene, the things you'll never find at his bar and why you shouldn't be afraid to approach him, even if it looks like a bad idea.
What is one thing people don’t know about you that you wish they did?
I am not constantly pissed off, even if it looks like I am. I'm generally in a great mood. You see, I have resting dick face. It's the male equivalent to resting bitch face.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
Coffee is definitely non-negotiable. I cannot function without it, and I am a miserable, miserable person to be around if I don't start my day with it. It sets the tone for my day, and its the only way I'm getting anything done without half-assing it.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
I'd love to be able to just snap my fingers and be somewhere new without traveling. I get antsy quickly and don't like to sit in the same place for long, but I hate the process of traveling. It's exhausting to me.
What is the most positive thing in food, beer, wine or cocktails that you’ve noticed in St. Louis over the past year?
Honesty this past year has shown how much the industry as a whole cares about each other. When the pandemic started and restaurants were shutting down, everyone shifted their focus. Whether it was to-go windows installed at a sidewalk or shifting to frozen pizzas or breweries making sanitizer, these places fought for their survival, and innovations were on quick display. My friend Tiffany [Unger] owns the Wandering Sidecar Bar and had to shift from weddings and events to pre-batched cocktails. As she's doing that, she sees me losing the farmers market, STL Barkeep losing the farmers market and their events, so what does she do? She calls me to buy my Bloodys and my sangrias to sell in these pre-batched cocktail kits; she calls Matt at Barkeep and gets him involved. Instances like that were the trend I saw — us fighting for our lives but helping our colleagues out as we go. It was beautiful to see unfold, despite the uncertainty and fear. It was survival but it was a far cry from every man for himself.
What is one thing missing or that you’d like to see in the local food and beverage scene?
I think I'd really like to see more festivals or block parties unique to each neighborhood like how Macklind Days does it. Like, how each parish has their "school picnics" but it's three blocks on a street shut down to traffic, and the restaurants are the anchor of the neighborhood. I really wish someone would hold a giant tomato festival.
Who is your St. Louis food or drink crush?
Thai Pavilion on Bayless. Outstanding and fast. Great selection of dishes and unpretentious.
Who’s the one person to watch right now in the St. Louis food and beverage scene?
My boy Kore Wilbert is a magician. Alex Salkowski has a great Instagram that shows how much he loves what we're doing. I'm also such a big believer in 9 Mile Garden. It's a great concept, and I've discovered so many amazing places that I never would have without it.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality?
I have no idea. I'm an unashamed dork and a wiseass, so use that information as you will.
If someone asked you to describe the current state of St. Louis’ food and beverage climate, what would you say?
Patient and resilient. Riding this pandemic out while getting shit on by antimaskers for enforcing health code protocol designated by someone else while just waiting for business to get back to normal is astounding.
If you were not tending bar, what would you be doing?
This, I guess, since I haven't bartendered in a year.
Name an ingredient never allowed behind your bar.
Gimmicky things like Loopy or Wedding Cake vodka. Pre-made simple syrups. Those smoker things.
What do you do after work?
Stay home. I'm sober now and I don't have any desire to be out. Those days are long past.
What’s your edible or quaffable guilty pleasure?
Bold Spoon Creamery's goat cheese and fig ice cream — if I can hide it from my daughters.
What would be your last meal on earth?
The Cuban from Little Havana food truck. It's perfect.
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