Sobriety and cocktail culture 'go together and grow together' for Dunedin bartender Taylor Bush

Cocktail Issue 2020.

click to enlarge Taylor Bush at Sonder Social Club in Dunedin, Florida. - Melissa Santell
Melissa Santell
Taylor Bush at Sonder Social Club in Dunedin, Florida.

Nothing says “curveball” like interviewing a sober bartender for this year’s cocktail issue, but after spitballing topics in the newsroom, I saw a post from a friend of a friend, Taylor Bush, a 30-year-old local bartender, and it left me shook.

“3 months,” it said. “That’s 90 nights of not driving myself home drunk, 90 mornings of waking up not hungover and 90 days of loving myself more than I ever have. With that being said can somebody please drink a mich ultra for me because I’ve been craving one. Cheers!”

That post was from last October, making Bush nearly seven months sober when this article hits a newsstand near you. My curiosity took over. Aren’t recovering alcoholics not supposed to be around booze?

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Days later I found myself pulling up to Sonder Social Club, Dunedin’s craft cocktail bar where Bush has been working since its debut last July. I needed answers, which meant a one-on-one to find out how being a sober bartender works exactly—and she was ready and willing to candidly answer my questions while photographer Melissa Santell fluttered around the bar taking photos of cocktails while Sonder general manager Mike Linden was on his laptop stationed in the corner on the concept.

“Be careful, she might not stop talking,” Linden said with a laugh. Bush and I started with how long she’s been in the business, which adds up to nearly five years after she got a taste for bartending at The Bricks in Ybor.

“I was hired as a manager, but they taught me how to tend bar if we were short-handed. I realized how much I liked how bartenders were treated,” Bush said. After her short stint at The Bricks, she transferred to St. Pete’s Ichicoro Ane to be a full-time bartender. Although her love and talent grew for mixology, she found herself being sucked into the binge drinking that sometimes came along with the industry scene. After a heavy night of drinking the young bartender said, “the hangovers were almost crippling, waking up at 6 a.m. with the worst anxiety wondering, ‘What did I do last night? How much money did I spend? Did I say something stupid to offend someone?’” 

Bush started continuously trying to go a month sober, and giving in after a few days or weeks.

“There’s always a reason to drink—someone is in town, it’s a special event, you’ve had a long day, you are about to get off work and go to the gym and you run into someone you haven’t seen in a while and you grab drinks and get to talking,” Bush said. “Next thing you know, you’re too drunk to go work out.” 

Her habits led to managers at Ane to restrict her from drinking at the bar, even on her days off. A seemingly hard task for a bartender in a lively night scene (or maybe someone who might want a shot to take the edge off once the snowbirds start flocking.) But Bush carried on, getting a tip from a former boss to sing a song or acquire a mantra to recite when you’re annoyed and want a drink; it’s a practice she’s kept until this day. Linden, still in the corner, shouted, “[sometimes] she just sings the same line over and over.” Bush laughed and admitted that the right lines don’t always stay in her head.

click to enlarge Taylor Bush, working a blackberry sour at Sonder Social Club in Dunedin, Florida. - Melissa Santell
Melissa Santell
Taylor Bush, working a blackberry sour at Sonder Social Club in Dunedin, Florida.

In April 2019 she landed in the top 40 out of 888 applicants, and competed in the semi-finals for the 2019 Woodford Reserve Manhattan Experience national cocktail competition (just a year after she transitioned to full-time behind a bar.) After competing in Kentucky, Bush traveled to Thailand for a month, which proved to be a life changing experience.

“There’s a whole other world out there, I went by myself and explored, and didn’t really drink throughout the trip,” she said. But once she got home, Bush slipped right back into the same routine when it came to alcohol. “I was hating life, and I would get really bad about drinking and driving, which is one of the most selfish things you can do.”

One night Bush was driving after a night of drinking with her friend and dog in the car.

“I hit a curb and blew out two tires. Since we were just a few houses away from my friend’s place, I kept driving, went inside and passed out,” she said. Bush woke up, promptly at 6 a.m. with anxiety and looked out the window to see her car in shambles. “Right then I was like, ‘you’re done.’ I turned to my friend and said, ‘I’m so sorry I could’ve killed you.’”

That was on July 29, 2019, which just so happens to sync with Sonder’s opening date—Bush says it is convenient to track her sobriety and the bar’s debut.

To stay true to her path to sobriety, Bush bribed herself with a computer if she made it a month without a drink. Check. A few more months passed before she reached her first real test in December during a trip to Costa Ricks, so she reached out to a close friend to accompany her to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting; Bush realized it wasn’t quite the right fit.

“After hearing other attendees stories, I thought, ‘Maybe I don’t have a problem, you guys are way out of my league.’ I’m not going to meetings anymore,” she explained. “I realized as soon as I talked about it; I haven’t had a desire to even drink again. It’s been a cakewalk ever since.” 

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I asked her how customers and her friends have handled her transition. The most common question she gets is, “How are you able to not drink while working at a bar?,” to which Bush says. “I can see firsthand what alcohol does to somebody. I’ve come to realize that craft alcohol is an art, and I don’t think people drink for the right reasons.”

She explained how some people try to get as drunk as possible off of $20. She was that person; her drinking was about quantity over quality—Michelob Ultra and well whiskey was her go-to. I shivered, thinking about the reflux I got after shooting well whiskey just weeks ago.

Although her former drinking buddies have been supportive, Bush realizes that her change means less invitations out.

“It's kind of sad, people don’t invite me out anymore. I have nothing against it, but I’ve realized my friend group has changed. I don’t see them, and it's not because I don’t love them.”

One friend, Danny Guest—a bartender that’s been behind some of the most exciting drink menus in Tampa Bay— dropped this nugget of wisdom on the Bush: “If it doesn’t grow together, it doesn’t go together.”

The line refers to flavor pairings for cocktails, but was adapted into Bush’s new way of life.

“If it isn’t growing with me, I’ll get rid of it,” she said with a shrug. Recently Bush has been bartending for local events, which allows her the best of both worlds: she gets to see her former drinking gang without the hangover.

“I get to slide out before they end up at The Hub. Because if you end up at The Hub, you know you’re hurting the next day,” Bush said. But just because she doesn’t partake, doesn't mean Bush is any less of a bartender. The Sonder Social Club mixologist often tastes whiskeys and other spirits to be knowledgeable in her craft. 

After her brief struggle in December, Bush said that the new year, and new decade solidified her sobriety. She’s working out daily (which wasn’t a priority when she was drinking), her relationships have strengthened and her money now goes toward traveling and experiences. 

“The day I woke up after I blew out those tires I knew for a fact that this is one thing I needed to do for myself,” she said. “Now that we’re in 2020, my 20s are over, and everything else has fallen right into place.”

click to enlarge Taylor Bush, sipping on a mocktail Old-Fashioned at Sonder Social Club in Dunedin, Florida. - Melissa Santell
Melissa Santell
Taylor Bush, sipping on a mocktail Old-Fashioned at Sonder Social Club in Dunedin, Florida.

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