Behind the Bar: Charlie Zeiler of The Mix Up Bar
Charlie Zeiler may have taken a convoluted path that led him through Michigan, Arizona, California, and back to Arizona, but it’s a path that has brought him right to where he wants to be – a family man creating cocktails and entertaining guests as lead barman and mixologist at the historic Royal Palms Resort.
His journey started in Temperance, Michigan, “a small town outside of Toledo, Ohio, right on the state line.” He recalls growing tomatoes, peppers, and pumpkins on his family’s 13 acres that they farmed by hand. “It was more or less like a big hobby and a lot of work, but it was good growing up. Dad was pretty good about teaching us to work hard. I learned a lot and we had a lot of fun as a family.” His family owned Zeiler’s Market for many years, which they recently sold. “It was a farmer’s market originally. Over the years it expanded, with a deli and wine and beer, so I grew up working on the retail side of the food and beverage industry.” In 2000 at the age of 24, he decided he was ready for a change.
He started by exploring the States. “I drove around the country for a month and a half trying to figure out where I wanted to go. I knew I wanted to get out of my family’s business and move out of the area I grew up in, but I wasn’t really sure where, so I drove around the country by myself. It was really a great experience. I learned a lot about myself, and the country, and where I wanted to be. I just fell in love with Arizona.” What drew him? “I love the mountains, I love the desert, and I love the climate. Where I’m from, the Toledo area, it’s older, so moving out here everything was new. I remember walking through the Civic Center downtown and my shoes were squeaking on the sidewalk. It was so clean, I couldn’t believe it. I’ll never forget that experience. It was something very simple, but it was kind of a defining moment."
After brief forays in the real estate industry and as a baggage handler at America West, he found himself back in the food and beverage industry. “I ended up going to a bartending school since I knew the spirits, but needed to learn the basics of mixing drinks. My first bartending job was at the Pointe South Mountain by the pool. It was a lot of frozen drinks with pre-mixed sweet and sour, typical for poolside, and we were busy.” “At first I was a little down that I was going backwards, back into the customer service industry, but then I realized I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it when I worked for my dad, but I had really never stepped outside of it to see what other things were like.”
For the next few years, Charlie kept himself busy, frequently working two jobs. He spent a year in California, “which is when I first started working for Marriott, at the Santa Clara Mariott. I missed Phoenix, though, so a year later I moved back and transferred with Marriott to the Camelback Inn.” He also helped open the Marriott Desert Ridge, and worked at Keg Steak House, and the Arrogant Butcher and Phoenix Sheraton downtown. He even found time to get his pilot’s license. “My girlfriend at the time, now my wife, said to me, ‘well, what is it you want to do?’. I said I always wanted to try flying and I ended up getting my private pilot’s license and then studied for my commercial pilot’s license. But when my wife and I got back from our honeymoon, we found out we were having a baby. I did get my commercial pilot’s license but never ended up pursuing it.” Any regrets? “No, because what I have now, having my family, my wife and kids, is really so much more than I could have ever had flying airplanes, or doing anything else, really."
Tell me more about your journey in creating craft cocktails. At the Camelback Inn, I worked with Trudy Thomas and learned to think more outside of the box than what I was used to. Trudy was making bitters and falernum and using different flavor combinations. All those things stuck with me and she definitely pushed me along on my journey. Around that time, my wife had lost her job and I needed to make more money. A friend told me about an opening at the Montelucia Resort. While working there, Kyle Mason joined the team and he really showed me a lot more about stirred cocktails. I also joined the USBG [United States Bartenders' Guild] during that time.
What made you join? I had made the decision that I was going to stay behind the bar in this industry and wanted to progress. I took BarSmarts and it is probably one of the best things I ever did. BarSmarts and the USBG are really the two biggest things that helped me in my career. After that, I started trying out for competitions.
How did you end up at The Royal Palms? The Royal Palms was getting ready to reopen T. Cook's and The Mix Up Bar. I knew Kim was running the program, so I came over, interviewed and got a job bartending. There was a great pool of talent – Tyler French was here, Brian Downing was here, Eric, Angela, Erik, Jill. Everybody I was working with was very seasoned and knowledgeable. Really, the bartenders I have worked with over the years are the ones who have helped me. I learned a little bit from everybody and that experience has really made a big difference in my career. Then Ross was opening up Bitter and Twisted so Brian was leaving, and I was offered the position to run the bar program here.
How much creative freedom do you have? I can do whatever I want and that is really one of the things I enjoy about working here. Of course, there’s the business side of it and you have to look at things like cost and what products you will be able to use.
Favorite spirit? We just got in Vago Mezcal and I really like that. For rums, there’s Diplomatico Exclusiva. For Scotch, I’ve always been a fan of Oban 14 year, but there are so many great scotches.
A favorite cocktail for the summer? In the summertime, or anytime I guess, would be a Last Word. It goes great with food, it’s refreshing, it’s strong; it’s a little bit of everything.
A favorite cocktail for the winter? When it’s cold out, I like a nice warming spirit. A Vieux Carré is an awesome cocktail. It’s one of those drinks that I wish more people would know. Actually, both of those drinks – the Last Word and the Vieux Carré - I would like to see people order more of.
What do you like best about working at The Mix Up Bar? Meeting people from different places all the time. I love having a guest that is interesting to talk to, that is well traveled and tells me their life story. I like to listen. I don’t want to be the center of the attention. I’d rather the guest be the center of attention, and listen to their stories, because that’s what I’m here for – I’m here for them.
I like introducing things that are unexpected, that somebody has not tried before, getting them to try something different. There’s this couple I’ve been waiting on a long time. She would always tell me she hates gin, but asks me to make her something. So I’ve been making her gin cocktails for the last year. When I told her, she said, “really? I guess I do like gin!” That’s what I enjoy the most about my job. Being able to change people’s outlooks and concepts. Like tequila. Someone may only be familiar with tequila like Cuervo Gold from college. You give them something like Fortaleza, and they realize “wow, I can sip on this.”
Any favorite cocktail spots besides The Mix Up Bar? I don’t get out as much as I’d like to just because of the family, but Bitter and Twisted definitely has one of the best cocktail programs out there and group of bartenders I’ve seen. I also like Crudo. Micah is awesome, and he’s been working with Jason at Counter Intuitive too. Second Story Liquor Bar is also a great place to go, and I like The Last Drop at the Hermosa.