Craig Mrusek is a Pittsburgh-based illustrator and writer who amidst creating his wonderful illustrations, writes regular columns on vintage and contemporary cocktails under the name “Dr. Bamboo”. Craig also does a column titled “Last Call” for the tongue-in-cheek retro quarterly Bachelor Pad Magazine, as well as a monthly column for BarNoneDrinks.com. This is one multi-faceted and busy guy. We were lucky enough to have him answer some questions for us about his art and love of spirits.
You can check out lots more of his artwork at his site: www.cm-id.com
And for your cocktails and “spirit”ual pleasure, be sure to check out Dr. Bamboo: www.drbamboo.blogspot.com
Click the link below for the complete interview and more artwork!
I like working in pen and ink. There’s something about using just a pencil and pen on paper that’s very gratifying in a physical sense…it has an immediacy and a permanence that I don’t necessarily feel when I’m working digitally. That being said, I almost never do anything these days that isn’t tinkered with to some degree in Photoshop…even if it’s just cleaning up some goofs.
You have an impressive client list. Do you prefer the client-based work or the non-paying personal work?
Obviously, personal stuff is a lot of fun because I can pretty much do whatever I like, and I think most people enjoy that latitude. But I’ve had jobs for clients that I enjoyed the heck out of because the subject matter or the angle was interesting. For me, the enjoyment boils down to the idea. If I can get jazzed about an illustration conceptually, I’m there. I’ve done pro bono work where I’ve put in a lot of time & energy because I was excited about the idea.
You’ve noted, along with many local creatives, that you “get defensive when people treat the ‘Burgh like a cultural wasteland. And “often have to point out all the stuff we have going on to out-of-towners”. What do you think we have to do to get the old industrial stigma to go away?
There’s already been some great progress in shifting the traditional perception of Pittsburgh, so I think we just need to keep that momentum going. Whatever you choose to attribute it to, this city managed to avoid becoming a rust belt casualty, and that can’t be overstated. I think continuing to emphasize and promote the ways in which Pittsburgh accomplished that is the best way to put our best foot forward, collectively speaking.
The phrase I find myself saying over and over again to visitors is, “Pittsburgh has the same things that much bigger cities have…you just have to look for them.” This town rewards effort, and if you’re willing to poke around a bit, you’ll find plenty of interesting things going on. In my experience, the best thing you can do to really show what this city has to offer is to simply get people out in it. Every time I drive a friend or relative around and point out various things, the reaction is always, “I had no idea Pittsburgh had anything like this” or, “I’d never have guessed you guys had this kind of stuff going on.” Cities like Portland and Austin get a lot of press for having a quirky, distinctive cultural scene, and I don’t see any reason why Pittsburgh can’t gain a reputation for that too. We just need to promote it effectively.
Just to stroke your ego, you are my new hero. I just so happen to love vintage/retro culture and Dr. Bamboo, shall we call it your alter-ego, writes intoxicating reviews and recipes for cocktails. How did this come about? Were you a bartender in a previous life?
Thanks! That’s very kind of you, so consider it stroked. I do get asked frequently if I’m a bartender, and although I make drinks for friends & family, I’ve never worked behind a bar professionally.
As for how I got started writing about cocktails, it wasn’t something I set out to do with any particular goal in mind. I’d been casually interested in cocktails in the mid-90’s when my wife gave me a copy of the Mr. Boston’s book (a widely published bar guide that is a handbook of sorts for bartenders). I didn’t really get caught up in the history and techniques of making them until a few years ago when my mother-in-law gave me a copy of Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, which really opened my eyes to a number of great classic cocktails and ingredients.
Right around that time I also stumbled on a great cocktail-themed blog called Kaiser Penguin. Rick Stutz, the guy behind the site, encouraged me to start my own cocktail blog, and I figured it would be a way to explore drink-making and an excuse to do some fun artwork. That was in early ’07, and since then, Bachelor Pad Magazine and BarNoneDrinks both invited me to write and illustrate regular columns for them.
As an example for the home audience of why you are my new hero…you actually broke your spiced rum reviews into such nit-picky categories as whether or not there is a pirate ship or map on the label, spice-itude, and Coke compatibility. I love it. Can you just enjoy a drink when you go into a bar, or are you constantly judging?
I tend to only notice if a drink is really bad or something is drastically out of place. I think people expect us booze nerds to put every drink that comes our way under a microscope, but that’s silly and pretentious. I hate snobbery, and going out of your way to be judgmental is poor manners in my opinion. It’s also unrealistic. I wouldn’t expect your average bar to make a flawless Sazerac or Mai Tai any more than I’d expect to walk into the local diner and be served a 4-star meal. So when I go to a bar, I’m just looking for a good, solid drink. But I do admit I’ll sometimes take a peek to see if they’re using fresh juices, what kind of ice they have, etc. Sometimes I can’t help myself.
You write monthly drink columns for BarNoneDrinks.com as well as in Bachelor Pad Magazine, as well as your own Dr. Bamboo blog. If you could, would you give up illustration to be a full time cocktail columnist?
I don’t think I could ever just completely walk away from drawing. As much as I enjoy writing, it doesn’t scratch all the creative itches. There’s times when picking up a pencil and doodling is the only thing that will do.
You were also recently listed as one of “The 25 Most Influential Online Cocktail Pioneers” in the book Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails. That’s a pretty awesome title to have bestowed upon oneself. Does that put the pressure on when hosting parties?
I avoid that pressure largely by not hosting parties! Seriously though, I’m generally a social guy and I love getting together with people, but I’m not a big party-thrower. Every so often I’ll have a friend or two over, but that’s about it. However, I’m often tagged as the drink expert and that can be a little intimidating…like I’m expected to have comprehensive knowledge of all facets of the cocktail universe. I tell people I’m an “enthusiast”, not an expert. I’m just a geek with a slightly larger-than-average liquor cabinet.
Is there a possible career in providing label designs for alcohol and merging your talents?
I doubt there’s anyone who makes a career solely designing labels for alcohol brands, but I bet it would be a fun gig. I got a small taste of it when the two guys who do the cocktail blog The Scofflaw’s Den asked me to design labels for their homemade bitters and Amer Picon. It was a blast, and I’d love to someday do a label for a mass-market spirit, wine or beer brand.
Any future plans of producing your own liquor brand, vintage cocktails book, or maybe a Dr. Bamboo Tiki lounge?
Although I’ve had a few original cocktail recipes published in other people’s books, I don’t currently have any plans to put out one of my own. But I’d certainly love the opportunity to work on one! As for starting up my own liquor brand or theme bar, both of those require a tremendous amount of knowledge (and work!), so I’ll leave that to the professionals for now.
And don’t forget…you can also check out Craig’s regular columns/articles/illustrations in:
Bachelor Pad Magazine: http://www.bachelorpadmagazineonline.com/