At the heart of Napa’s recent focus on all things cocktail is Napa-based mixologist and bar director Josh Wade.
He has previously worked as a consultant at Napa bars such as the Palisades and the Kitchen Door. This year alone, he helped create and launch both the Bitter Bar Speakeasy at Hanks Takeaway and The Gin Bar at ZuZu, which he says was “possible because of his culinary background.”
Weed got his first experience at home working at the Ivy Deli Liquor Store in Santa Barbara, where he fell in love with making shawarma sandwiches.
Soon after, he was hired as a host at The Brew House in Santa Barbara and then moved on to being a bartender. Wade explains this as “a way for people to gain experience.”
“You get ice, you restock liquor, you build tangled connections like Gray Goose versus Kettle,” he said. “I became a bartender there the day after my 21st birthday.”
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After bartending for a while, Wade craved something more creative, so he studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Portland, Oregon. He says he had a difficult experience while he was there.
“You’re learning a lot, sure. Is it worth the tuition? Absolutely not.”
Wade says he also had a dispute over college credits he had previously earned.
“The campus president knew my name,” he says. “I ended up graduating in half the time for half the tuition.”
The final part of his degree was to complete an unpaid externship, which generally lasted a few months, and required the chef to sign off on progress. Josh went on to work as head chef at Masa’s Restaurant in San Francisco. At the time, Masa’s had a Michelin star and was ranked among the 50 Best Restaurants in America.
Wade says his experience was “like a reality TV show.”
Each night, he would design a dish based on the ingredients in the refrigerator at that moment.
“You’d come in with a dish and the chef would turn it around and say, ‘Awesome – or are you crazy?’” he recalls.
Wade says he quickly learned how different ingredients can work together to create something memorable. However, he moved on within a year.
“I was making $1 less an hour than the fried guy at In-N-Out,” he says.
He then moved to Napa in 2011, where, from what he recalls, he worked a ridiculous schedule.
By day, he was pouring wine in the tasting and harvest rooms at Black Stallion Winery while working at Fagiani (now Avo) at night.
On Fridays and Saturdays, he had to be at work at Black Stallion by 9 a.m. After his shift ended, he would go straight to Faggiani, where he would not return home until 3 a.m. He kept this up as long as he could, but eventually, his tenure at Black Stallion ended around the same time Fagiani closed for the rebrand.
In 2015, Wade became part of the Morimoto family as a bartender. By 2018, he was a bar manager, where he began doing “wilder things, like food-based cocktails, which are very popular now, but rarely seen at the time.”
He’s created a pho-inspired gimlet, a gin cocktail based on Tom Kai Gai, a coconut soup-inspired cocktail called Tom Yum, and the famous Duck Lorange liqueur.
“My culinary background gave me the inspiration to explore the world of cocktails,” Wade says. “Cocktails are traditionally more boring, they’re seasonal fruits with sugar or acid. The world opened up once I started to pull from my culinary background.
“A good cocktail is like a good dish in the culinary world: it should open the drinker to new, unexpected ideas, flavors and concepts.”
Being a bar manager also expanded his relationships with liquor distributor representatives.
“It gave me more access, which meant more liquors and spirits I could try,” Wade says. “This is a ceiling you cross once you become a reputable bar manager, which is impossible for a novice bartender who can’t even try a sip of everything.”
Another perk of being Morimoto Napa’s bar manager was traveling to Morocco to open a new location at the Fairmont Hotel. Weed was tasked with creating a menu by combining drinks that would thrive in the region with the staple foods served at Morimoto’s globally. However, some drinks require a culinary fix.
“White Lily is a popular drink, but we didn’t have access to the Calpico in it, so I had to use local yogurt to achieve the same balance,” Wade says. “Same with another drink that called for Wagyu beef; I resorted to Australian beef tallow instead.”
After seven years with Morimoto, Wade and his partner in crime Kayla Mays left to open gin and bitters bars on Main Street, launching the spirits and bar menu together. Weed and Mays worked together for 4 years in Morimoto and were a well-known bar duo in Napa.
Wade says he was responsible for “anything that was liquid and how it was put on paper.”
Today, Weed is back in Morimoto Napa, where his next goal is to create cocktail programs at multiple locations. Weed said to be on the lookout for Morimoto. “While many new bars have opened in Napa, our new cocktail menu will go beyond boundaries in the near future.”