As host of the television show Booze Traveler now entering its fourth season on the Travel Channel, Jack Maxwell has traipsed the globe taking part in drinking customs of cultures around the world. Rarely has he stepped foot in the States for these lubricated jaunts, but the new spin-off series Booze Traveler: Best Bars chronicles par excellence bars throughout the United States.
Men’s Journal had a chat with Maxwell about his new television series, during which we learned about how American drinking compares to other cultures around the world, where some of Maxwell’s most memorable drinking experiences take place, and, of course, what makes a great bar.
After seeing so many customs and countries around the world, how did taking that journey in your own country compare?
It’s a really good question. One of the things I learned going around the world is that there is much more reverence for alcohol, not drink till you fall down. It’s very little about excess and really about honoring ancestors and spirits … [people] feel a connection to their god or gods. It’s more ceremonial and spiritual than here in the states.
On the other side of the coin, [in the U.S.] we have some of the greatest bartenders and mixologists and bars in the world. Some of the best bars here in the states would compare to any around the world, and I’ve been to quite a few. Being a kid from Boston and loving my country, [I’m amazed that] all these different things are right here in our backyard.
In the original Booze Traveler, episodes are organized by country. In how many cities did you shoot for Booze Traveler: Best Bars?
We scoured the country and really did it more by theme [than location], with exceptions being Aspen [episode 3] and Maui [episode 8]. Other than that, we were all over the place. We really had to do a lot more traveling [for this show].
How will Best Bars be organized, how many episodes are there?
Best Bars [episodes are] mainly organized by theme: best with a view, best dockside, best game bars, best biker bars. Every 30-minute episode has four bars, and there are 12 original episodes, two episodes back to back for six weeks of the best bars in America.
I see Vanilla Ice makes an appearance. Are there any other celebrity appearances?
[Laughs]. Running into Rob of Vanilla Ice was an accident, it was not planned. He just happened to be at one of his favorite places. I bumped into him and we knew who each other were, and he agreed to do the segment.
We don’t do celebrity or stunt casting. For us, the true celebrities are the actual people we visit. The star of the show has always been the people, the culture, and the traditions. Drinking is what gets us into the scene, but for me it’s [about] the experience.
What were some of the bars that stood out and what made them unique?
Break Room 86 in the episode for best hidden bars, a hidden karaoke room in Korea Town in L.A. It’s dedicated to the ‘80s, and you get in though a vending machine. All the walls are covered in cassette tapes, there’s a scratch-and-sniff menu, and the bartender is named Christine… and it’s not kitschy, it’s really cool. They really go the extra mile.
Trident in [Sausalito] stood out for the opposite reason. It’s a classic bar where the Tequila Sunrise was born.
In the repurposed bars episode, in Chicago, there’s the Bedford, it used to be a bank. There’s a vault you can go in, sit in and have dinner. There’s an old airplane that’s now a bar in Colorado.
The best haunted bars [episode] was so fun, there are some great stories… and there are customers that go back hoping for that experience, and then some who run out the door and never come back.
Who else do you encounter or are you speaking to throughout the episodes?
It’s the people who come into this bar. [We ask] why they like it, what makes it special to them, what [they] drink. [We also talk to] owners, bartenders… we get a sense of place and the connection to that locale.
Did you try a drink that you’ve never tried before? A cocktail or a craft beer style?
I’ve been exposed to quite a lot, but there are new drinks that I’ve never tried before because of the craft cocktail scene. [In some cases] I drink something the bartender created a couple of weeks ago.
With the country being politically divided right now, did you encounter any uncomfortable scenarios?
I did not. We were fortunate with that. The approach we take for the show is, we don’t get political, or I wouldn’t go anywhere and start espousing political philosophy. You hear offhand comments, but we really don’t touch on that. It’s a new show celebrating a country of best bars. One thing we can all agree on is we could all use a drink right about now.
What are people drinking the most? Did you notice any regional differences around the different locations you traveled?
You never want to stereotype, that’s the beautiful thing about travel… but in the South, there is moonshine. In other news, water is wet. There’s moonshine everywhere, people like making their own alcohol. America is a country of doers and makers. We put things together in life. We create. You see that with food so much now, and with alcohol, like the craft cocktails and craft breweries. Colorado [went from having] 30 to 300 breweries in less than a decade.
It’s great to be alive now if you love your booze, and the social aspect and sense of community.
So, what makes a great bar? What were your criteria for determining the “best” in the U.S.?
That’s a tough one. It’s different for everybody. I love going in and feeling like I’m home. A pub is a public living room, and you want to feel comfortable. And then, of course, it expands from there.
For me personally, you walk into a bar, and right away you have to have a sense of place. You want to get a feeling that you’re comfortable. Not too bright, a little on the dark side, comfortable chairs, very welcoming, staff that’s knowledgeable and polite. Nature abhors a vacuum. And having some good drinks isn’t bad either.
Sometimes, the innovations are what make a great bar. I love that these places that could just rely on the gimmick, don’t; they have wonderful food and drink combinations and show they really care about that.
Tune in, it’s going to be a wonderful ride around America.
Booze Traveler: Best Bars premiers Monday, April 24 at 10 p.m./9 p.m. central on the Travel Channel. Watch sneak peak videos of Booze Traveler: Best Bars here.