Hitting Every Green Light
The life story of Elliott Clark.
PROFILE // BY CORNELIUS MCGRATH
Elliott Clark’s life resembles a Fortune 500 CEO.
Rarely in the same city for more than two days, much less the same time zone, the 29-year-old works with some of the biggest brands in the world while ferrying himself from one hotel — or Zoom call — to the next.
Yet the former college basketball player could not be further from a corporate executive. Clark doesn’t have an office, much less a desk. He dons It’s a Great Day to Be Alive (IAGDTBA) baseball caps, TAFT desert boots, and Drake-esque black tees that hug his muscular frame. His work takes place in bars, hotels, restaurants, and his apartment — a far cry from suits in a boardroom.
Most are quick to classify Clark as an influencer. And who can blame them?
Influencers get paid by brands to produce or promote content. Clark certainly does his fair share through partnerships with William Grant & Sons, Jack Daniels, Hennessy, and countless other brands who make up the bulk of his semi-notorious Instagram handle (@apartment_bartender) followed by 70,000+ people.
An audience the size of a large sports stadium seems worthy of a man dubbed the ‘founding father of the photogenic cocktail movement’. However, Clark stands out from the digital crowd of bikini-wearers, highlight-reels and get-rich-quick-schemes.
To call him an influencer seemed, to me at least, to be a gross oversimplification.
Behind his beautifully crafted Instagram feed — littered with thousand-dollar espresso machines, stunning skylines and some of the sexiest drinks you’ve ever laid eyes on— I sensed something special. I just couldn’t put my finger on what it was.
So, I asked myself: who the hell is Elliott Clark?
August 22nd, 2018. My first DM to Clark.
What was it that he did every day? Without missing a beat, Clark said: “that’s a damn good question, man.”
My first conversation with Clark was via telephone on September 9th, 2018.
I’d slid into his DMs a few weeks prior after finding myself — like 70,000 others — captivated by his content.
This call marked the first of 40 conversations I’d had with Clark over a two-year period. What started as a preliminary conversation to see if he was interested in a profile became the foundation of a lifelong friendship between two entrepreneurs.
As Clark unpacked his life story, I got an in-depth glimpse into the man behind the feed. Long after my interview questions were over, Clark and I would talk about life, family, brand, and business for hours on end.
That first call on September 9th was no different.
It fell on a rare Sunday at home for Clark. The Chicago native, born in Evanston, IL, had recently moved to Denver, CO, from Phoenix, AZ. It was evident to me, however, that his actual residence was his favourite seat in the skies.
Clark was spending his day ‘off’ getting ready for another month on the road. After a quick stint in Los Angeles, he headed abroad — travelling to Victoria, Belize, Berlin, and Belgium – before landing in New York City (NYC) for the book launch of our mutual friend, Jason Feifer, Editor-In-Chief of Entrepreneur Magazine.
I dared to ask: what was it that he did every day? Without missing a beat, Clark said: “That’s a damn good question, man.”
I knew then I was going to like him.
Clark and Jason Feifer enjoying a drink together.
We must go back to April 2015 and a chance trip to New York City to understand Clark’s arc. He spent the weekend with his lifelong best friend, Nathan Murphy (Murphy for short). The pair were close, playing on the same club and college basketball team. Clark served as Murphy’s best man at his wedding in 2014.
Murphy and his wife, Christina, received a Cocktails 101 class as a wedding present that happened to be taking place the day Clark arrived in NYC. So, naturally, they invited him along.
“The bartender challenged us to make our own drink. And I remember she told us not to judge ourselves, just make something,” recounted Clark, as he sips on an Old Fashioned at Billy Sunday — the legendary cocktail bar in Logan Square.
A year’s passed since our first call, and this is our first in-person meet. “I grabbed vodka, Cocchi americano, simple syrup, mint, lemon wedges, blueberries, and strawberries. Muddled everything together, shook it up, and strained it into a glass.”
I asked Clark how it tasted.
“The drink had fruit and mint chunks floating at the top, so not the prettiest drink, but it wasn’t terrible for not knowing what the hell I was doing,” said Clark, laughing. “That was a lightbulb moment for me.”
Suited and booted. Clark pictured with childhood best friend, Murphy.
The cocktail bug bit Clark pretty hard after that trip.
On his return to Phoenix, he went straight from the airport to Total Wine, spending $250 on spirits and liquors while frantically looking up recipes.
“I went full blast into the world of spirits and cocktails,” said Clark. “I learned the classics first — old fashioned, negronis and martinis — before creating more innovative riffs on those recipes.”
Clark loved that he could make a world-class drink in just a few minutes. He’d never experienced such an accessible creative outlet before. “I like cooking. But drinks were just a little cooler to me,” said Clark. “The industry seemed cool. The bartenders seemed cool. It was a good vibe, and I was all about that.”
It wasn’t long before Clark started his first Instagram channel.
It was called @EMakesDrinks.
“I started Instagram out of necessity; there was no vision to it,” said Clark. “I wanted a way to document my recipes without creating a website or drudging through Google. Instagram was the only place I could do both with ease.”
Clark refused to broadcast his work early on. Only close friends, his work manager, and his roommate at the time knew he was taking pictures. “I felt like there was a bad stigma associated with working in the world of alcohol,” said Clark, who suffered from imposter syndrome in the early days. “I’d never worked as a bartender, in industry or at a restaurant. Who was I to be posting cocktail recipes?”
Drinks were a purely selfish creative outlet for Clark, the only space where he took a break from the scheduled monotony of software sales to nerd out on cocktails.
“It was the only thing in my life I wasn’t trying to make something of at the time,” said Clark. “I took the pictures because it took my mind off the fact that I wasn’t satisfied with my life at the time.”
Murphy, Clark and his father Rory.
Clark’s closest friends certainly helped him get over the imposter syndrome.
Murphy sent him some of his first lenses, while a work colleague called Marcus gave Clark his first proper camera lens — a Canon 50MM 1.4.
“I was hesitant about pulling the trigger on my first big upgrade for my camera, but Murphy told me that I’d never regret an investment in myself,” said Clark. “He was a pivotal person in my life, always in my corner and my ear telling me I was on the right track even when I felt like I wasn’t.”
The name for Apartment Bartender, however, came from Marcus.
“Marcus brought me into his family at a tough time in my life,” recounted Clark. “One evening, we got together with his brother-in-law for dinner. He’s an excellent cook, so he did the food, and I did the drinks. After one too many negronis, I said I didn’t even know why I called myself a home bartender as I lived in a shitty apartment. Marcus said, without missing a beat, you’re apartment bartender.”
Clark leans on his dojo: the bar.
Not everybody was entirely supportive of Clark’s new venture, however.
Friends made jokes and laughed when he first started taking pictures. “My roommate was supportive, but he’d be like: oh, are you taking stupid pictures again?’” said Clark. “I’d be at work all day trying to learn new techniques and then rush home before sunset to get that one perfect photo to post.”
Despite the critique and lack of broadcast, Clark still managed to catch the eye of the world. On March 8th 2016, he came home to find a random influx of new followers on Instagram. “I got home and was tired,” recounted Clark. “I opened up IG, and bang, I had 50 new followers. I refreshed it, and bang, 50 more. I fell asleep, woke up, and bang, the same thing happened again.”
Clark had no idea where these followers came from until a friend sent him a link to a BuzzFeed article titled: “19 Instagram Accounts Every Cocktail Lover Should Follow Right This Second.” The piece describes Clark as a “home bartender” living in a shitty apartment with a roomie who drinks excessively.
The writer then aptly follows up: “Apartment Bartender takes a simple approach to beautiful cocktails. These are the kind of drinks that’ll have you scanning Craigslist for shitty apartments to share with a cocktail genius.”
Over the next 24 hours, Clark went from 1,500 to over 10,000 followers, a reach only 10.9% of all accounts on the platform ever reach. Today, Clark has the second-largest audience of all 19 accounts listed in the article, behind Death & Co., arguably America’s most infamous cocktail bar brand. Not bad if you ask me.
The piece of press that changed everything for Clark.
Clark got his brand deal six months later. It was a call from Express.
“I’d come off a great month at Infusionsoft at the end of 2016,” recounted Clark. “I’d joined the sales team and hit my quota for the first time. I was on cloud nine.”
A local agency contacted Clark about the campaign.
“I get on the phone, and they tell me they’re going to fly me out, give me a budget and pay me for my time,” said Clark, half-smiling. “It was a massive shock. I was used to grinding away and pounding the phones all day.”
Clark had to take the entire week off work since the shoot was in New York City.
Luckily, his manager was incredibly supportive.
“He told me to go do it,” said Clark. “But pleaded that I hit my quota that month, especially if I was taking a week off.”
As fate would have it, one of the first questions Clark got asked on set was how it felt to quit his job. There was just one problem: he hadn’t quit yet.
“Initially, I was worried about my work or manager seeing the interview,” said Clark, who answered as if he’d already quit. “But honestly, that’s when I knew it was time,”
He’d spoken it into the universe. “The money from the [Express] shoot helped me realise I could get by financially for a few months. I told myself I would give Apartment Bartender 60-90 days. And if it didn’t work, I’d just get another job.”
I said to myself that I would give Apartment Bartender 60-90 days. And it it didn’t work, I’d get another job.
Elliott Evan Clark grew up in a family business.
Elliott’s father, Rory, grew up on the South Side of Chicago. Elliott’s mother, Laura, grew up one of five on the city’s West Side. Both came from humble beginnings.
Rory majored in Radio, TV, and Film (RTF) at Northwestern University before entering Southern Illinois University (Southern U) to study for his graduate degree.
Laura did not attend college, opting to enter the workforce.
Rory left Southern U a few months before graduating to take a killer sales job at CBS in downtown Chicago. It was during the Walter Cronkite era — Cronkite was famously voted the most trusted man in America in 1972.
Laura had just returned to Illinois after a brief stint in California. She was working as a secretary in a legal office downtown when, one night after work, she met Rory.
The pair hit it off and moved in together after a month. A year later, they were married. Laura was 21, and Rory was 28. Rory started a consulting company called Focus Selling and travelled nearly every week. Laura spent most of her time at home with Elliott and his older brother, Zachary.
“My mother had a few side jobs here and there, but ultimately, her focus was on us: the kids,” recounted Clark. “For me, she’s the closest thing you could get to God’s love on earth. Always there for me and always knows when to listen or shed some insight and wisdom. She means the world to me.”
Elliott travelled around the world with his father as much as he could. Mostly during school breaks. “I grew up wanting to do the same things my Dad did,” said Clark. “He was my hero. I didn’t know how to get there but knew I wanted to be as successful as my dad.”
Together, the pair visited London, Scotland, Italy, India, Germany, Egypt, Israel, China and Japan and travelled across the United States.
“Destinations would either be places he was teaching or just fun stops along the way,” recounted Clark. “I would help him along the way, building presentations, consulting manuals, or taking care of other administrative tasks.”
Rory and Laura Clark.
Clark and his father were joined at the hip growing up. When the family first moved to Arizona in 1994, they lived on a golf course in the suburb of Gilbert. His Dad started a small business for Elliott and Zach to stay occupied one summer.
The service was smart and simple: resell lost balls to golfers on the course. “Our little business was called ‘hit ‘em again, McDuff.’ We collected lost golf balls, cleaned them, packaged them up and resold them,” said Clark. “We categorised the different packages as a hole-in-one, eagle, birdie and bogey quality.”
Golfers bought the balls because they respected the hustle of a couple of elementary school kids. “For me, that was the first time I experienced selling a product, brand, and making a little bit of money,” recounted Clark. “Making $50 in a day’s work is like a million dollars to a 3rd grader.”
Clark’s father always spent time educating his boys on creating their own businesses. “He taught us how to create value and think about ourselves in a different light,” said Clark.
Growing up with my Dad wasn’t easy in the slightest bit. But he paved the way for us in many different domains.
Rory never treated Elliott or his older brother, Zach, like kids.
His mindset was simple: he wanted his kids to have adult souls to match their adult bodies when they left his house.
“He wanted us to be men that stood out, men of impact, and people that made a difference in every person’s life we came into contact with,” said Clark. “He was very active in my life; he made it to every game. He was my biggest cheerleader. I even remember him getting kicked out of a few games for arguing with the referees!”
Rory also played a very active financial role, providing every resource Elliott could have dreamed of. “Growing up with my Dad wasn’t easy in the slightest bit,” recounted Clark. “But he paved the way for us in many different domains.”
Clark’s parents split after 22 years of marriage in July 2004. He was 13.
“The divorce was tough, but honestly, I saw it coming,” said Clark. “I remember my parents having a pretty contentious relationship, so when it happened, I was emotional, but I wasn’t surprised.”
The hardest part for Clark was seeing his childhood best friend — the first kid he met in his neighbourhood after moving to Arizona — lose his life from a malignant brain tumour around the same time.
“We were only 12,” recounted Clark. “Having my best friend, Chris, pass away, then see your parents split up a year later is jarring. I sought solace in the game.”
Clark’s best friend childhood, Chris, who died from a brain tumour in 2004.
Clark had two goals as a teenager: to make the NBA and take over his Dad’s business. When he wasn’t travelling the world, Elliott played ball. And he did it well. Clark was one of the bigger kids growing up but didn’t join his first League until seventh grade. That ended once Clark’s seventh-grade P.E. teacher, Marcia Ellender, caught a glimpse of him on the playground. She immediately invited him to try out for her son’s club team, Team Arizona.
“I was always obsessed with basketball. I don’t know why; I just loved it,” said Clark. “As a kid, I religiously watched all the AND1 videos. I worshipped guys like Allen Iverson. Kobe Bryant. Michael Jordan. We were big Chicago Bulls fans.”
Clark didn’t realise he was good at basketball until he started playing competitively.
“I’d go watch my brother’s games in junior high,” recounted Clark. “And I’d be that kid at halftime putting up shots and catching the coach’s attention.”
Elliott immediately impacted club ball — dropping nearly 50 points a game in his first few starts — and his successful basketball career continued at Gilbert High, a public school of 4,000 kids, where Clark was also a straight-A student.
“When it came to school, my Dad had a simple message: get all A’s,” said Clark. “I didn’t even want to think about coming home and having conversations with him about why I got a B, so I took care of my shit.”
Elliott became a talented shooting guard at Gilbert with dreams of going to the League. He started playing varsity ball his sophomore year and received letters from Brown University and several other D2 schools that same year. Clark became one of the better players in the state of Arizona. But with no social media profiles to aid his recruiting efforts, he was forced to play in many tournaments in and around the state to get noticed by college coaches.
The hard work paid off. Northwestern — his father’s alma mater and the team Clark grew up rooting for — recruited him to play Division 1 Big 10 ball back in Evanston. Clark decided to pass because Northwestern could only offer him a walk-on spot. Their precious scholarship money was reserved for a few point guards they were hotly pursuing at the time.
Clark’s prowess in the local paper.
Clark practicing ahead of state title game.
Clark caught his big break at Double Pump camp in California in the summer of 2008. “The crazy part is I nearly missed the flight to camp because I came home from Japan after a summer trip with my Dad” recounted Clark.
He made it to the camp by the skin of his teeth and played well, walking out with serious interest from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). Clark and his best friend, Murphy, were later offered spots on the team. The pair committed heading into their senior year at Gilbert and enrolled at UCSD in the Fall of 2009.
“UCSD’s academic program, my best friend attending with me, and, of course, the beautiful year-round weather drew me to San Diego,” said Clark. “But more than anything, I saw an opportunity to carve out my path.”
Clark as a freshman varsity
athlete at UCSD.
Despite the initial enthusiasm, UCSD didn’t turn out to be the right fit for Clark.
He battled through multiple injuries his first year, pulling his hamstrings twice, and found it challenging to be back at square one as a freshman trying to build a reputation and secure a starting spot on the court.
Clark was used to being the star player. Now, he was playing behind one in Jordan Lawley. Lawley was a Conference All-American and is the school’s all-time leading points scorer. He went on to play professional basketball in Mexico, New Zealand and is an NBA skills coach for Skylar Diggins, Evan Turner and Liu Xiaoyu.
Clark and Lawley became friends. But Coach wanted Clark to switch positions and learn to play point guard. With Clark also struggling to find something interesting to study academically, it all became too much, too fast.
“On reflection, I was away from home for the first time, and I didn’t know how to cope with those all struggles at 18 years old,” said Clark. “I definitely could have changed my attitude, but I felt like I was just spinning my wheels. My desires for what I wanted to do with my life ahead started to change, and deep down, pursuing basketball wasn’t really what I wanted to do anymore.”
Conference All-American Jordan Lawley. 2009-10. UCSD Tritons.
Clark left UCSD after 18 months. He was emotionally damaged.
“Looking back, I realise I wasn’t as passionate about the game as others,” recounted Clark. “I was more passionate about the people, the locker room and the sense of community that came with it. That meant way more to me than basketball.”
Clark decided to transfer to Arizona State University (ASU) in 2011, marking the start of the second divorce in his life.
“Leaving a sport is just like a divorce. You’re so emotionally invested in something that you’ve always known, and then everything ends so quickly,” said Clark. “You go from college athlete to regular student working off-campus in a matter of minutes. My life was basketball, so I felt like I lost a big part of my identity.”
I was much more passionate about the people, the locker room and the sense of community that came with it. That meant way more to me than basketball.
Upon his return to Arizona, Clark started working full-time for his father.
He was 19.
It was the first time Clark got paid for the work he did for his Dad.
And so he began taking on more responsibility: running preliminary calls with executives, putting together presentations, building proposals, taking minutes, and becoming a trusted point of contact for clients.
As a pastor’s kid, Clark also assisted with his father’s bible study, balancing his schoolwork at ASU with acting as a personal assistant and chief of staff to his Dad.
It was a charming setup. Clark’s father’s clients – L3 Communications, Altera, and Intel – all got to know him well.
Clark hugging his father. August 2009.
Clark even got a scholarship to cover ASU’s tuition.
It came from an organisation called Chicanos Por La Causa (CPLC) – a non-profit that advocates for underserved individuals and communities – run by his childhood friend Eric Donzella’s uncle, who was CEO.
As Clark started doing community service in Phoenix with CPLC, his childhood entrepreneurial itch continued to grow. So, as a junior, he enrolled in The Lean Startup Method and created a business canvas for his idea.
It was called Focus 4 Teens (F4T). Clark’s thought was to take his father’s Focus Selling system and gear it towards young people. Through F4T, Clark developed a social skills program that taught teenagers how to meet people, introduce themselves, and properly start, maintain and end a conversation.
“It was all about teaching life and entrepreneurial skills, learning how to treat and interact with people, alongside building job skills and resume skills,” said Clark. “I developed several curriculums, hosted 1-1 and group sessions weekly.”
Clark got some early traction in Phoenix with F4T with families and high schools around the Valley. However, he didn’t know how best to scale the program, so he applied for a 10-week ASU course where students were responsible for students building out business plans. The class paired Clark with local mentors in the space and forced him to validate his traction with different customers in Phoenix.
“It was, without a doubt, one of the best things I ever did,” said Clark.
ASU’s Tempe Campus.
Clark’s time at ASU, however, was pretty atypical.
He didn’t live on campus. He mainly took online classes, didn’t attend sporting events, nor did he hang out with other ASU students. Clark admits to not knowing the school’s fight song, having spent barely any time on campus in Tempe.
“It certainly wasn’t your traditional state school college experience,” said Clark. ” My mentality at ASU was just get it done. I was still grieving about basketball and didn’t know where to go or what to do.”
Clark’s circle of friends in Phoenix was small. So small you could count them on one hand. It included his Dad, Eric and a couple of old high school buddies. He was lost, desperate to carve out his path, but not knowing how to do so.
Like so many other talented 20-somethings, Clark felt he needed to know what he would do with his life yesterday.
I loved Focus Selling, but it wasn’t mine; it was my Dad’s, and I wanted something to call my own.
As Elliott got deeper into F4T, he began clashing with his father.
F4T was Elliott’s heart, but pursuing Focus Selling was always the post-college plan.
He was torn and spread thin.
“I remember my dad telling me I wasn’t going to make any substantial money doing F4T,” recounted Clark. “But it wasn’t about the money for me. I loved Focus Selling, but it wasn’t mine; it was my dad’s, and I wanted something to call my own.”
Clark desperately wanted to see what he could achieve with F4T. Although he made great money as a college kid, he still didn’t know how to build a business. Clark wanted to learn how to be an entrepreneur, but he ultimately listened to his father and dropped F4T. “I didn’t want to let down my pops at the time. He was my dad, my mentor and my best friend. We did everything together,” said Clark. “It was hard to imagine a life where we weren’t together.”
The underlying tension between the pair grew over time. Clark’s post-graduation plan had always been to continue working full-time with his father.
“We had growth plans. But I felt like we were trying to take on so many different things at once, and it took a toll on our relationship.” recounted Clark.
Rory wanted to achieve a lot: develop and grow a church, invest in properties, and scale Focus Selling. Clark felt the expectations were higher than they needed to be.
“I felt a lot of pressure,” said Clark. “One part was internal to have everything figured out ahead of graduation. The other was the external pressure of trying to navigate life. It felt like a tug-of-war was going on internally between following a path laid out for me and wanting to feel like and become my own person.”
Clark also felt that he and his father had become so intertwined in each other’s lives that their personal relationship decayed. “I was getting to a point where I missed my dad just being my Dad,” said Clark.” As I said, he was my boss, mentor, pastor, and landlord, and I lost sight of where it all ended and I began.”
Working with my dad was all I’d known. It was time to experience something else.
By the time he graduated from ASU in 2014, Clark had chosen to venture away from Focus Selling. He wrote his father a long note explaining his position.
“The letter laid out my heart. I thanked him for the opportunity. I said I’d provide support during my transition, but ultimately, I wanted our father-son relationship back,” said Clark. “I needed to do my own thing. Focus Selling and working with my dad was all I’d known my whole life. It was time to experience something else.”
Clark’s letter and his decision to leave would change everything between the pair.
“To put it lightly, the decision to leave didn’t go over too well,” said Clark. “It caused a significant rift in our relationship, and things were said that I don’t want to repeat. He told me to leave, and the last thing I said was, ‘I love you.’”
That was Clark and his father’s last conversation for almost five years.
Clark at Yelp, his first job out of college.
VI. Apartment Bartender
Clark moved into his girlfriend’s parent’s house with nowhere else to go.
“I was broken, and they took me in, which I was thankful for,” recounted Clark. “They said I could stay as long as needed, but I didn’t want to be a burden, so I told them I’d only need the summer.”
Instead of partying through the summer after college like the rest of his peers, Clark spent all his time applying for jobs, applying to companies like Nike, Infusionsoft, and Yelp. He’d graduated summa cum laude from ASU — with a degree in business marketing — but life certainly didn’t feel like an honour roll.
Clark took the first job offer he got. It was from Yelp.
“They gave me $40,000 a year, which I felt decent coming straight out of college,” said Clark, who moved into a new apartment in Scottsdale upon accepting the job. “Yelp seemed like a fun company to work for; it was a short commute, a good brand for the resume and an opportunity to give me a different experience.”
Clark started in August 2014 as an Account Manager in Scottsdale. He stayed at Yelp for 14 months, taking one vacation to New York City in April 2015 for the famous cocktail class with Murphy. In October 2015, Clark started as a Sales Consultant at Infusionsoft (now Keap), a computer software company based in Chandler, AZ.
He was invited back to New York City by Express almost a year later, in September 2016, taking the week off work on one condition: he hit his monthly quota.
Clark all smiles after leaving Infusionsoft. New chapter en route.
Clark didn’t hit his quota, nor did he ever get another job.
Apartment Bartender has been his full-time gig since October 2016, and his product has evolved dramatically.
“When I hit 10,000 followers in 2016, brands started reaching out,” said Clark, who started receiving tons of free products from brands.
Although free booze was cool, Clark saw an opportunity to do something more profound. To him, the space of spirits was a global phenomenon, and he desperately wanted to share the culture behind the brands and drinks he was working with.
“It all started with posting recipes. But now, it is all about curating experiences,” said Clark. “It’s one thing for a brand to send me a bottle of their latest stuff. It’s another to say: come to Reykjavík, Iceland, to see how we do things first-hand.”
Clark’s superpower is his ability to make delicious drinks, take stunning pictures and connect with consumers across the bar on a human level. He flouts prevailing notions about what background a bartender or creative should have, and his edge is his ability to speak to the industry and those at home simultaneously.
“I’m a hybrid,” said Clark. “I can speak to both sides with ease because I am both. It pays to speak multiple languages inside and outside production, copywriting and strategy. There’s a lot of value in the breadth of relationships I’ve been able to build.”
Clark creates compelling stories that speak as much to the cocktail extraordinaire as they do to the avid amateur. A recipe for success, no doubt, landing Clark his first major international trip to Ireland in 2017 courtesy of Jameson, the Irish whiskey behemoth. Clark got the gig through a connection he made during his first-ever New York City shoot with Express. His contact couldn’t make the dates, so they recommended to Jameson’s agency that Clark take their place.
Where I’m from, they call that the luck of the Irish.
Clark pulling whiskey out of the
barrel on his Jameson tour.
VII. Earn Your Booze
A running theme when Clark discusses himself is humility. It’s about the accolades as much as how he got to this point and how he’s still very much in that process.
“I’m not where I want to be, and I’m not where I envision this being, but I’m happy and very content with where this is at,” said Clark, 18 months into our interviews. “I’m working with the best brands in the world at what they do.”
Clark, like many artists, still sees the holes in his work. “I see the trees but may not always see the forest. And it’s often hard for me to talk about the reality of where things have gone,” he said. Part of Clark’s magic is that he doesn’t pretend to be anything less or more than he is. He’s completely self-taught and, in many ways, should be the one pretending to know more than he does.
“I’m self-taught with an asterisk. For me to say I did this and I did that, it’s a lie,” said Clark. “So many people have opened doors for me. Murphy, Marcus, and so many more. The key is that I said yes to everything and walked through those doors.”
Clark sippin’ after an EYB session.
It’s true: Clark had to walk through the door. But now he’s building his own.
Clark launched Earn Your Booze (EYB) in 2017 with a friend and Navy veteran, Justin Cross. Every time he worked out, Clark posted an Instagram story with the hashtag #EarnYourBooze.
“People started asking for shirts, so we made shirts. Then we started doing some super cool fitness events, and it’s now taking on a life of its own,” said Clark. “We partnered with liquor brands and fitness brands like Lululemon.”
In 2018, Earn Your Booze hosted just shy of 40 events across the United States — from Phoenix and Miami to New York, Los Angeles and Denver. Clark and Cross ran EYB as a new lifestyle company that promotes physical and mental wellness for bartenders and other service-industry professionals.
But the key for Clark is that all of EYB’s growth has been organic. “I never set out with the mindset of saying: ‘this is what this is going to be,’” said Clark. “It just started with me having a good time, and everything else rolled in from there.”
Clark’s mantra is simple: good drink, good life.
And drinking doesn’t necessarily mean alcohol. He knows it’s possible to enjoy the finer things in life while looking and feeling good. You just have to earn it first.
(Disclaimer: Clark sold his EYB stake in October 2019 to focus on AB full-time).
Clark certainly doesn’t skip leg day.
VII. West Elm
Clark was certainly out earning with Apartment Bartender in 2018. For the holiday season, he signed a partnership with West Elm, the high-end furniture line owned by Williams-Sonoma.
“It was a dream come true,” said Clark. “I’d been a fan of the brand for a long time.”
Yet he didn’t stop there. In 2019, Clark moved into a new two-story loft in Denver and wanted to give his new space a facelift. His old apartment — right by the Colorado Rockies stadium — was in a great location but only had one window.
Producing quality content from his apartment was essential to Clark’s success, and excellent light was at the heart of that ability.
Clark’s roommate made an off-the-cuff suggestion: why not reach out to a brand to see if they might be interested in contributing a few pieces to their new space?
Clark standing in his decked-out West Elm apartment.
Naturally, Clark’s first call was to West Elm.
“I sent them an email explaining my position,” said Clark. “I got no response. So I followed up again, no response. I followed up a third time, and finally got through.”
Clark noticed West Elm doing apartment tours on YouTube line around different spots across the country, so he felt like it was a perfect match. He was keen to introduce a bigger lifestyle component to Apartment Bartender, showing the world that great drink goes with great living. To Clark, they’d always been synonymous.
“My pitch [to West Elm] was simple,” said Clark. “I was in the process of transitioning to a beautiful new space. They were doing apartment ttours. I was Apartment Bartender. We’d worked together to create something special before, and I told them I’d love to continue a partnership in a deeper lifestyle capacity.”
The view from Clark’s
new dining room.
Clark hit the jackpot.
West Elm loved the idea, and it turned out that Denver was an emerging market for the brand. They offered to outfit Clark’s entire new apartment free of charge.
“They [West Elm] brought in their entire design team and built a blueprint around my style, the content goals I had, and the pieces they most wanted to promote,” said Clark. “I like to say: you have not because you ask not. This West Elm partnership truly opened my eyes to what is possible with my platform. Just because you tell yourself something isn’t possible doesn’t mean it isn’t possible.”
The view from Clark’s
new living room.
VIII. The American Way
Talking of the possible, Clark got a seemingly impossible phone call after the shoot.
It was from his father.
The pair had tried to speak twice in the five years since Clark moved on. Both times, conversations broke down, so Clark was nervous to answer the call, especially since he sat in an airport en route to a shoot.
“I was at this point where I thought I could go my entire life harbouring this pain and upset,” said Clark. “Or, I could forgive.”
A friend told him that his relationship with his father wouldn’t mend unless he checked himself and had a mindset of radical forgiveness. Funnily enough, Clark’s father was also sitting in an airport when he made the call.
“I remember telling him I never thought my life would turn out to be on the road this much,” recounted Clark. “And without missing a beat, he said: I did. I always knew that you’d be on the road. It’s been a part of you since you were young.’
Clark is dubbed “founder of the photogenic cocktail movement”
Rory had held top status at American Airlines as a lifelong world traveller.
He’d called because he’d just opened up a copy of the inflight magazine to find a double-page spread on his son.
“He called me and said: you’re in this magazine; I can’t fucking believe it,” said Clark, with a deep sense of pride in his voice.
His father had shown the magazine around the first-class cabin, proudly declaring that was indeed his son who was the founder of the photogenic cocktail movement.
“That was a special moment for me. It was the first time in a long time I felt like he was proud of me,” said Clark. “On top of that, it was pretty crazy for him to look at me through an in-flight magazine. Especially since we bonded the most in the skies and airports when I was a kid. Whenever I saw airplanes, I called them Daddy’s car.”
The infamous American Way feature.
IX. It’s A Great To Be Day Alive
Clark’s undoubtedly a jack of all trades: the photographer, talent and director. But he’s the first to admit that he couldn’t do a fraction of what he does without help.
Clark’s childhood best friend, Eric Donzella, has become Clark’s right-hand man for all things Apartment Bartender (AB).
“When Elliott first started AB, I, too, was working in corporate sales in Phoenix,” said Donzella, who moved to Denver three months after Clark in August 2018. “I always thought AB could be something. I always thought it was cool, but I never knew what would come from it.”
Donzella had gotten into video right around the time Clark got into photography.
He bought a camera because he was bored with his corporate job and desperately wanted a creative outlet. “I thought to myself: if Elliott was doing photography, then I could do video,” recounted Donzella. “I remember saying to him maybe we could work together someday.”
Donzella started working from Clark’s apartment a few times a week around October 2018 as his new boss in Denver allowed him to work remotely.
“By November, I was going to Elliott’s place daily,” said Donzella. “We’d be bouncing ideas for AB, brainstorming and shooting our early videos in the park.”
Clark approached Donzella at the start of 2019 with a bold proposition: quit his job and do a video for him full-time at Apartment Bartender.
“I had just paid off all my debt, my car, and we were spending all our time together,” said Donzella. “Elliott knew AB could be built into something special but that he couldn’t do it alone. He told me I was his best friend, and he wanted to build this with me.”
Clark, Donzella and a
bottle of Glenfiddich.
It was perfect timing and opportunity for Donzella. He quit his job in February 2019 and produced Off The Grid with Trä•Kál in Patagonia.
He’s taken close to 20 trips around the world with Clark since.
I ask: is there a standout?
“Our first work trip took us back to Phoenix for the Arizona Cocktail Weekend,” said Donzella. “That was deeply special to me because it’s home. But the trip we did to St Lucia. That is the one that really stands out for me.”
Stunning St Lucia.
Less than a month after quitting his job, Donzella travelled with Clark to the Caribbean for the Chairman’s Reserve Mai Tai Competition.
“Not only was it my first time abroad,” said Donzella. “But it was also my first time working on a larger brand. I knew that I needed to bring my A-Game and produce.”
I asked Donzella towards the end of our interview if he was surprised that two childhood best friends who played basketball together and worked sales jobs are now gallivanting around the world, creating content for the world’s biggest brands.
Did he see it coming?
“Ever since I’ve known him, Elliott’s always had this entrepreneurial edge,” recounts Donzella. “It was always a matter of time in my eyes. He’s a hustler who excels at building relationships and making shit happen.”
Donzella doing what
he does best: shooting.
Making shit happen should be Clark’s middle name.
As I got to know him, it became abundantly clear he’s playing at a higher level than most in that domain. Clark wasn’t merely an influencer who made cool drinks; he was a modern-day philosopher who had become his very own product.
“If all I do is put out cocktails and recipes, that’s superficial,” said Clark. “Drinks are a vehicle for fostering camaraderie and community. The best relationships in my life have come from great cocktails. It’s all about great drink and great living.”
Clark started Apartment Bartender to inspire people to live better. The company is built on the idea that a great drink can inspire community and camaraderie amongst anyone.
A unique message, especially when fewer people are drinking alcohol — 58% of Diageo’s consumers drank non-alcoholic beverages in 2019, and 28% decided to abstain from booze altogether.
Yet Clark isn’t sleeping on the power of the drink to unite people everywhere.
It has been a central part of our society since our prehistory; the earliest societies fermented barley and wheat to connect more deeply with one another. Drinking brings us together and breaks down barriers. A noble task that seems increasingly harder to achieve but is more critical than ever to do.
However, it’s not about alcohol for Clark. Instead, the electric feeling of connectivity. At a time when loneliness is the biggest killer of males in the UK, and suicide rates are increasing rapidly, Clark’s “It’s a Great Day To Be Alive (IAGDTBA)” message is essential.
“Alcohol is not the foundation of community,” said Clark. “Great drink is.”
He’s not only right but also wicked smart.
Clark modelling his IAGDTBA hat outside Billy Sunday. Chicago, IL.
Towards the end of our interviews, I playfully call Clark “Mr. Endorphin Man.”
Clark taps into the holy trinity of exercise, alcohol, and community like no other.
Despite the cheeky smiles and goofy Instagram story content, Clark takes this role more seriously than most.
“I come from a family that suffers from mental illness and depression,” said Clark, noting how hard it is to snap out of it. “All of this goes beyond social media. I have a platform and a voice to be able to spread some positivity to people. I always ask folks: Is what you’re doing or saying edifying people? Or breaking people down?”
For Clark, drinks teach the world that the little things matter.
“The little moments create big ones,” said Clark. “Bartending is not about drinks. It’s about hospitality. Doesn’t matter how good a drink tastes. It’s about making people feel. That’s why I return to Billy Sunday; I like how I feel when I’m here.”
Clark and Cornelius’ first meeting at Longman & Eagle. July 2019.
X. Get Paid To Be Yourself
Clark’s message is simple: social media has no bearing on who you truly are.
Especially not the art you put out. Instagram is a currency that he’s trading on, yes, but all of Clark’s value is in his audacity to be nobody else other than himself.
“My most gifted book to friends or people in the industry is The Ugly Duckling, which my dad gave me as a kid,” said Clark. “He taught me always to value the differences between myself and others and never to be afraid to be different.”
Clark’s certainly a little different to the rest, and it seems as if nothing can stop him.
Not even a global pandemic.
A week before this profile went live, Clark told me that 2020 had been his best year yet. AB’s revenues have skyrocketed thanks to partnerships with AirBnB, Peloton, Pinterest and Stella Artois. All the while raising nearly $20,000 for the hospitality industry during COVID-19 with his #WeCreateAnyway campaign and becoming Food52’s resident bartender and drink expert. Clark’s drink programs and cocktails are also in Hilton’s across the United States.
What’s ironic is what gave Clark imposter syndrome early on — having never worked behind a bar or in a restaurant — is arguably now his greatest advantage.
In case it wasn’t already clear, the puck is firmly in Clark’s hands.
He’s Apartment Bartender in a time where at-home drinking is one of the few things we can enjoy in a pandemic-based world. Our homes have become the epicentre of our social lives, experiences, and lifestyles in 2020.
If Clark has ever had a home-court advantage, it’s right now.
Clark pointed me towards his favourite cocktail bars in Logan Square. Chicago, IL.
I love how much more there is to Clark’s character and purpose than the brands he’s partnered with, companies he’s launched, and followers he’s acquired.
Whereas most influencers’ digital presence is a manufactured reality created for them to trade on, Clark’s is just a transmission of who he really is.
“Instagram and social media is not the end all be all of who you are,” said Clark. “It’s supplemental to what you want to accomplish. Instagram has helped me learn more about myself. But if it all ends tomorrow, I still have all the skills, experience and worldly culture. I’ll just take that and pivot into something else.”
For me, Clark’s meteoric rise comes down to the fact that he was and still is, an outsider. He has always seen things differently and brought new perspectives to an industry and space undergoing rapid change. He’s said yes to things he didn’t necessarily know how to do, but he’s always been prepared.
Now, he’s gone way beyond the glass, developing a track record of building relationships by over-delivering in domains that will take him far.
“It’s amazing how much you accomplish when you stop giving a fuck,” said Clark. “It’s not the critic who counts but the man battling hard in the arena.”
Clark is in deep thought over
a whiskey sour. Chicago, IL.
Clark’s charisma, talent, client list, and reach are second to none.
However, I believe he’ll ascend to even greater heights because of who he is as a human being. In a world, space and industry obsessed with image, Elliott Clark has no veneer. That’s why he’s so damn special.
“I believe you can measure somebody by how they treat others,” said Clark. “Yes, I’m a goofball. I’m funny, an extroverted intellectual who’s very reflective. But sometimes it’s who other people say you are, those closest to you. And if you’re talking to my closest friends or my family, they’ll say I am someone who truly cares.”
Clark is playing a game that only he can win; he is his brand, and his personality is what separates him from the rest.
“It’s hard to have a competitor when only I can be me,” said Clark. “There are tons of people worldwide making great drinks, hundreds more who can do so way better than mine. But my edge is my quality, my personality and the fact that I’m not trying to sell anything to anyone.”
“My goal is simple,” said Clark. “To leave somebody’s life better than I found it, even if it’s just for a moment.”
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