Adventurous ‘drink designer’ takes customers to exotic locales
by Chuck Gordon

For customers of Brian “Russ” Johnson ’96, the destination is important. Give him a place near and dear to your heart – say, a favorite vacation spot – and he’ll do his best to transport you there, at least for a little while.

But for Johnson himself, it’s the journey that matters most.

Even on his days off, the bartender barely stops long enough to enjoy a beer. With a job that keeps him at work until nearly midnight, Johnson does as much as possible in his two (nonconsecutive) days off each week. On many of those days, he’ll get little more than a catnap after a late-night shift before driving to the beach for a deep-sea fishing expedition that leaves before dawn.

When we meet at Legion Brewing Company in Charlotte’s Plaza Midwood neighborhood, a stone’s throw from Johnson’s house, it’s 4 p.m. on a sizzling summer Wednesday, and already that day the big, friendly bartender has driven to the mountains to fly-fish, played 18 holes of golf and mowed his lawn.

“I like to live my life,” he says. “If you’re not living, you’re dying. Isn’t that what they said in Shawshank Redemption?”

Russ Johnson pouring a mixed drink

Johnson and his 6-foot-4, 265-pound frame have big appetites, and later on this particular evening he’s planning to head back to his place of employ, the highly regarded Italian restaurant Stagioni in Charlotte, to savor the first day Wagyu is available this year. He’ll have a cut of the famous Japanese beef and an expensive red wine before heading home to crash after cramming a weekend’s worth of leisure activity into the span of a few hours.

But first he nurses an American Wheat beer and talks about his unconventional career path, which currently has him something of an elder statesman among Charlotte mixologists, at the ripe old age of 46.

Johnson has been a bartender, a bar owner (Loft 1523 in Charlotte), a part-time carpenter, a flight attendant and a wound-care salesman, among other vocations, but he’s an artist at heart. These days he works in potable liquids, rather than oils, watercolors or clay, but no matter the work, he brings an artistic edge to it.

With his large frame and hipster beard, Johnson is one of the more recognizable bartenders in Charlotte. And with good reason: He makes delectable cocktails. Since his early days learning the trade via the TGI Fridays training program, Johnson has become a Gordon Ramsey of the cocktail shaker, using “shrubs,” reduced wine, gastriques and all manner of herbs, fruits and vegetables to create unique, tasty martinis, high balls and Old-Fashioneds.

He has been featured in Charlotte magazine and is a regular on WBTV’s QC Morning. And he stole the show on the national-cable-TV show Drinking Made Easy, where he told the host, Zane Lamprey, that he would define himself as a “drink designer.” He proved it by serving Lamprey the “Wakin’ Bacon,” which consisted of bacon-infused vodka and orange juice and was rimmed with bacon salt and garnished with country ham and a slice of fried green tomato.

It’s the type of drink Johnson relishes concocting at Stagioni. “If you can give me a fruit, a flavor or a destination,” he says, “I can make you a cocktail.”

Acing the pour test

Johnson’s interest in bartending – and his ability to match a meaningful “destination” with a patron’s next favorite cocktail – was sparked during several school-sponsored travel opportunities at Wingate in the early 1990s. During his five years at Wingate, Johnson not only collected enough course credits for a major (art) and three minors (religion, English, communications) but developed something of a wandering soul. The University’s vaunted international-travel program gave Johnson his first experiences in foreign surroundings, and after a W’International seminar in Italy, he traveled to France with W’International’s former sister program, Springnational, and rounded off his European trifecta by signing up for the Wingate-in-London program.

It was during that semester in the UK that Johnson first became enthralled by the idea of mixing drinks. One evening he and some friends went to TGI Fridays in Piccadilly Circus, where Johnson was intrigued by the show the bartenders were putting on, cocktail shakers and glasses flipping and flying behind the bar. For the movie Cocktail, Tom Cruise was trained by Fridays bartenders, and soon Johnson would be too.

"I don’t own a bourbon company. I don’t own a tequila company. Any way you want to mix it up, that’s fine. I’ll try to guide you in the right direction.”

When he was back in Wingate the following spring, Johnson got a job at TGI Fridays on East Independence Boulevard in Charlotte. He says it’s the best training an aspiring drink-slinger could ever hope for. Fridays bartenders must have an encyclopedic knowledge of their craft, with the recipes for more than 500 drinks committed to memory, down to the ounce, type of glass and garnish.

They also have to pass the pour test. Bartenders at the restaurant, even during a hectic shift, often have to stop what they’re doing and and test their ability to pour appropriate amounts by filling unmarked tubes to precise quantities, such as a quarter, half or three-quarters of an ounce. It all makes for a disciplined barkeep. To this day, Johnson makes perfect pours.

Then there’s the “flair”: flipping and spinning bottles in order to put on a show. “Being behind the bar, you’re a showman,” Johnson says. “It’s always a show. You’re always performing.

“I liked it. It was fun. High energy. You had to be creative.”

The creative aspect keeps Johnson the artist interested in the cocktail trade. He still remembers the first drink he ever created for a customer. Working the lunch shift at Fridays, he was approached by a woman who said she was craving banana cream pie. Johnson found a new Schnapps concoction called 99 Bananas, added some Bailey’s Irish Cream and milk, and crushed up graham crackers for the rim. “I rimmed it, shook up the cocktail and gave it to her,” Johnson says. “She said, ‘This is the best thing I’ve ever had.’”

Fridays is also where Brian Johnson became “Russ,” which is how most people refer to him these days. “There were five different Brians that worked there, and each one had a nickname,” he says. Johnson chose “Russ,” after the character Russ Griswold in the Vacation movies (“There are way too many similarities with the movie Christmas Vacation and what has happened in my life,” he says). The nickname stuck.

On the move

Johnson is far from rootless – he’s lived most of his life in North Carolina and has owned his house in Charlotte for almost 15 years – but travel of one sort or another has helped shape who he is. It’s probably why he connects “destinations” so firmly to his craft.

A couple of years after graduating from Wingate, Johnson began to feel some delayed mourning for his father, who died in a car accident when Johnson was a student at East Wilkes High School. “It had been almost 10 years, and I said, ‘I really need to come to terms with it,’” he says. Travel helped him get his emotions in check.

Johnson thought about what he terms the “last great father-son moment” he had with his dad, on Mount Katahdin, in Maine. The dangerous peak is best known as the exit point for Appalachian Trail hikers, so Johnson decided he’d hike the entire trail, but in reverse, starting at Mount Katahdin.

Russ Johnson dressed as Santa Claus

After setting up mail drops in small towns along the trail, Johnson bought a one-way ticket to Maine. Using the trip to raise money for PUSH, the charitable initiative supported by his fraternity, Pi Kappa Phi, he completed the trek, solo, breaking off only to fulfill a promise to help his sister, Stephanie Johnson Cartwright ’98, move to Florida for medical school. He hitchhiked back to where he’d left the trail and continued his journey to Springer Mountain, Georgia. The experience was cathartic.

“I reconnected with myself,” Johnson says. “To me, that was the only person I needed to prove anything to.”

Unsure what to do next, Johnson took a series of jobs, working at an outdoor store in Winston-Salem, moving to the Florida Keys to work for the Boy Scouts of America, heading out west to sell Gore-Tex. Then, on a lark, he answered an ad to be a flight attendant for U.S. Airways.

“Why not?” he says. “I just wanted to be able to travel around. I was based in Philly, but the next thing you know I’m getting to see more of the West Coast. I’d never been to Canada or to Mexico. The bug was all from Wingate, from being in Wingate-in-London. I had that travel bug.”

Johnson took full advantage of his five years flying the friendly skies. He wandered the streets of cities throughout North America, getting to know the places he’d only read about before. He pumped more-experienced flight attendants for information about the cities they flew to. Where can you find the best deep-dish pizza in Chicago? What’s your favorite pub in Vancouver? Any suggestions for a dive bar in San Francisco?

Five nights a week at Stagioni, those experiences combine with Johnson’s innate artistry to bring flavorful happiness to Charlotteans.

Bartender Russ on set

Johnson is known as “Bartender Russ” on QC Morning (formerly Morning Break), where he provides seasonal drinks for the Christmas holidays, Arbor Day, the opening of the NFL season or pretty much any occasion the show’s producers can dream up to get him on-set.

For the first day of spring one year, Johnson dug deep, creating a mixture of carrot juice and habanero-infused tequila, beet juice spruced up with gin and St. Germain liqueur, and another drink featuring kale and cucumber. For Super Bowl LII, in which the Patriots and Eagles played in Minneapolis, Johnson came up with drinks inspired by Philadelphia (boilermaker), New England (dark-and-stormy/Cape Cod combination) and Minnesota (Bushwacker). Other favorites include the Santa Clausmopolitan (which he served while wearing a stylish Santa suit) at Christmas and the Villa Amore (featuring raspberry and white-chocolate liqueurs) for Valentine’s Day.

Russ Johnson and host on morning TV show

Johnson is a master of seasonal cocktails, which is one reason chef/owner Bruce Moffett sought him out to tend bar at Stagioni, routinely rated one of the top restaurants in Charlotte. Stagioni is an Italian restaurant and the menu turns over alongside the seasons, creating a welcome challenge for Johnson. “Normally, we have to change the menu,” he says. “I’ll use Google to find out what’s in season locally, and what’s in season in Italy. What are they using in their culture for drinks? I try to incorporate Italian liqueurs in cocktails. It’s great to be back in a restaurant where people expect that level of creativity.”

Lately, Johnson has been working a lot with “shrubs” – vinegar-based beverages that date back to at least the Mayflower. He also makes and incorporates into his drinks truffle oil, honey gastriques and several other somewhat exotic ingredients, many of which he makes himself.

Although he loves a creative challenge, Johnson’s top priority is making his customers happy. He’s certainly not pushing any particular product. “If that’s what they want, that’s what they want,” he says. “If that’s the way they like it, then make it. I don’t own a bourbon company. I don’t own a tequila company. Any way you want to mix it up, that’s fine. I’ll try to guide you in the right direction.”

Although Johnson has an impressive bourbon collection at home – bookshelves lined with bottles in all shapes and sizes – he’s far from a drinks snob. On his days off, he’s just as likely to pour himself a Jack Daniel’s on the rocks or a Natural Light as make a Manhattan with top-shelf bourbon. “I can appreciate a lot of different spirits,” he says. “I drink like I eat; it just depends on what kind of mood I’m in. I love an ice-cold filthy martini. Vodka, gin. Depends on the social setting and what I’m in the mood for, what my palate’s telling me I want.”

But often customers are looking to live a little higher on the hog than they usually do. That’s what Johnson found when he co-owned Loft 1523. The bar, a virtual speakeasy in a nondescript office building on Elizabeth Avenue in Charlotte, had an amazing view of uptown Charlotte from its patio.

Johnson developed a loyal following during his time at Loft 1523. Often customers wouldn’t even have to order; Johnson would start mixing their favorite as soon as they darkened Loft’s door. For others, he’d have them dig deep in their memory bank.

“What’s the last place you went on vacation where you had a really good time?” he might ask. “Maybe it’s New England. Typically it’s the islands. They just went to St. Thomas or the Virgin Islands. Could be San Francisco.” He’d concoct something special that would take them back.

A few years ago Johnson decided to get out of the drink-mixing trade altogether. He left bartending to work with his brother-in-law, Chris Cartwright ’00, at Prism Medical, Cartwright’s Elkin-based wound-care-supply business. Then, in early 2016, Moffett lured him back behind the bar, where Johnson supplies a different type of care. He says people now refer to him as one of Charlotte’s bartending “OG’s.” He’s been around a while now, and he has developed his own clientele, people who come in to have Russ mix them a drink.

To Bartender Russ, no matter what he’s doing, or where he’s doing it, it all boils down to one thing: “It’s not about martinis and it’s not about wound care,” he says. “It’s about the relationships you’re able to build.”

And a little bit about the destination. Not to mention the journey.

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