Roxanne Read is a South African Mixologist blazing a trail across the international cocktail culture. Despite the industry being male-dominated, Roxanne is carving her mark. The Fox represents South Africa on a global platform, has won or placed in tons of Mixo competitions, and has customers swooning over her authentic cocktails.
With her expertise behind the bar, her passion for the craft, and her decade of experience, Roxanne is paving the way for women in the industry. Today, she shares the gritty truth about being her passion and career, and what it really takes to be achieve success both within the industry and in life—for women and men.
How did you get started as a mixologist?
I started my mixology journey during my first year of college in 2005. I went to Afda to study live and screen performance, and as many of us do, I needed to find an after-class job to support my drinking habit. I pulled into 7th Street, Melville. I trailed the street looking for a job with no success. Defeated, I stopped at the first bar I saw with a student-friendly drink special to reevaluate my life goals. I sat at the bar and was served by a juggling bartender—now a close friend of mine. He was juggling 3 lemons and having the greatest time.
I got chatting to him, and his words stuck with me—”Well, I would say try out here, but girls don’t really get through the training”. Needless to say, the challenge was set and I refused to walk out the bar without a chance to prove him wrong. I nailed my training and was soon a member of the team.
Six’s in Melville is still one of the greatest cocktail bars in Jozi and it is where I learned my discipline and passion for the industry. I was privileged enough to work under some amazing mentors and found I had a talent for flavor, presentation, and creativity. Most of all, I found my groove with people, and that it takes a special kind of human to be able to serve people for 11-hour shifts with a smile on your face and love in your heart.
What inspires your cocktail recipes and how do you approach the process?
Inspiration for my creations comes from anything and everything all the time. I always say, “you can’t deny you were born to do something when you are constantly dreaming about it, asleep and awake” which is what I am unconsciously doing. From seeing a flower on a walk, or a story you read online to a meeting with a mate, a memory of the past, or a daydream about a future.
I find these moments are what mould us as humans, and I can break them down into an experience that timelessly unites us all which is through flavour and tasting. The brain and the way we experience food and drinks is fascinating. I have spent many years studying the link between experience and flavour, and it will blow your mind how we can exchange emotions and experiences through the relation of taste.
I see and experience things that make me emotionally react, and I want to share that, so all my drinks come with a story designed to bring the guest into a total experience with the hope that they, too, will feel what I felt.
With that in mind, the process must incorporate all the elements that make a story true for me. So a lot of research into whatever the inspiration is. Then to create a service that becomes the theatre of drink, adding other layers to jolt the mind into experiencing whatever is intended. Then I think about the relevant flavours, colours, glassware, and how they represent the entire theme of the experience.
What challenges do you face as a woman in a male-dominated industry?
There are a few challenges that females behind bars face. Let’s keep in mind that these issues have spanned my career and are changing slowly, mostly depending on where in the world you bartend. For example, girls need a special serving license to be able to serve alcohol in India, so strange. It’s like they are scared that, if the alcohol seeps into our skin during service, we will lose our heads or something. In some other countries, being a girl in charge of a male team was nearly impossible, as taking ‘orders’ from women is not acceptable in the social structure, so why would we listen to you at work?
All of that I can deal with. However, there are two major areas of segregation in bars which I have experienced mainly right here on South African ground that gets to me. The first comes from your fellow bartenders. You will hear something like “Shift Rox on Friday—we only have guys, and we need her tit to make extra tips”. It is the most degrading thing in the world when you are ‘allowed’ to do your job for an aesthetic nature, while also treated like a piece of meat.
Underestimating the value of what skills girls can bring to the service is mential because let me tell you, boys, girls make far better bartenders—we are quicker, we multitask easily, we are more approachable, and we care about our guests on a different level. Plus—yes—you guessed it, we are nice to look at.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that looks don’t help, but I can guarantee you I still run circles around 80 percent of the male bartenders around me. Oh and by the way, yes we can lift heavy boxes and pack fridges and clean ice wells, we too are blessed with able body limbs.
The next biggest issue comes from in front of the bar. From men and women who visit your bars and have an unexplained perception that they can say whatever they want to you because you, of course, couldn’t do anything else with your life so you must be a stupid bartender. That mentality coupled with constantly being hit on because maybe if you are stupid you are also easy—makes service very unpleasant. However, this also leads to very tough skin, as well as an ability to identify a douche bag from a genuine human a mile away.
Please don’t be fooled, bigger tips don’t mean you can treat me like your personal slave, or that I might be privileged enough to spend 5 mins with you asking me “why I’m not smiling?” for the 100th time tonight. I promise you, if you have pissed me off enough, your 20 bucks extra is not going to make me smile and bat my eyes for you. Actually, it is you who is lucky to have me as your server, because I love my job, and I hold the key to a great experience. Service can make or break a night out, so treat the people serving you with respect. It’s a F&#king hard job, and we do it with love and respect for you the guest, so we deserve the same respect.
How different is the international scene compared to the South African scene?
The global scene very much depends on where you are. I have bartended in 9 different countries now, and each one comes with their own characteristics—which are determined by the culture of the people and the level of importance the hospitality industry is granted in that particular economy.
Countries with long-standing relationships with the food and beverage sectors are generally nice and a lot easier to work in, and the job is considered a real profession. This also determines how far advanced into the depths of mixology you can go as a bartender before the guest is unable to relate, or your message gets lost. The longer the tradition of hospitality has been around in a certain place, the more experimental the audience will allow you to be.
South Africa is one of the coolest places to work in if you take the above into consideration. In the last 10 years or so, we have seen amazing and exponential growth in the mixology scene—putting us on the global consideration map, which is crazy. It happens so hard and fast and we are really shining at the moment. We can thank our rainbow nation’s upbringing for this. We are a people who are exposed to so many multicultural trends, flavours and influences that only your imagination is the limit of your creation.
We are also super blessed to have exceptional quality and variety of local ingredients wherever you are based in the country. But the coolest part about working in SA vs overseas is how willing to explore and experiment we are, from both sides of the bar. There is nothing you can’t convince someone to try. We are adventurous people who get a thrill for new things. Yes we do have our favourites and we will always come back to that brandy and coke with a piece of milk tart after the braai, but we very easily slip into a much more cosmopolitan mindset without judgment, and implore the bartender to wow us with something new that we can share with our homies!
How has working in the industry shaped you as a person?
This is a huge question! I will try to keep it short, as I can talk for days about how important I believe the hospitality industry is at creating a society and adding in the evolution of human beings, but that’s for another bottle of gin!
I would not be who I am at all if I had picked a different career path. Every single skill I have learned that makes me a better individual, I have learned in some way or another from my time spent in bars. Both hard lessons and fun lessons have forced me to adapt to the most outrageous situations, where I am constantly questioned by my responses, actions, and next steps which ultimately moulded the type of human I have become. I have learned the yin and yang of being me from the balance of becoming a bartender, and the adventures the industry has taken me on.
I have been forced to make serious decisions very quickly, which ultimately helped me evolve as fast as the environment. And I’m almost sure that the average paper pusher might never have to experience that without a comforting cup of tea. I could list the multiple elements of myself that I have had to flesh out because of this path, but the list would go on and on. Just know that I have never, for a single second in my career, been ashamed of what I do, and I value the woman that I have become only because of the journey I chose.
How do you define a female frontier?
To be honest, I think we have experienced an imbalance. I believe that achieving a balance at this stage would be the next step for us. I think we worked very hard to be seen as equals to our male partners and more and more so the rewards of those struggles are fruitful. Of course, sadly there are still places that women are being objectified in the most horrific ways. However, the fact that we can see that first-hand means we have moved a huge way away from a time when it was all hush-hush.
The voice of women roars louder today than it ever has, and more power to us. However, in some areas, I feel like we have taken away from our men, and it is hurting us as well. The pressure to be a superhero woman, who ticks every box without asking for help seems to be an expected norm currently. This is not sustainable and is beginning to look like us killing ourselves.
Did you know that the level of alcoholic ‘housewives’ is higher today than ever before? The trend of the drinking housewife has gone from two glasses of wine at 6pm during dinner with the family, to an alarming full bottle of generally white spirit being drunk from around 12 in the afternoon. That’s nuts. We are stress drinking more so than ever before.
Women are all over everything, we are stretching ourselves too thin trying to be the perfect soccer mom with a healthy nutritious dinner on the table by 7 pm, while also keeping a strict gyming and diet schedule because being healthy and looking as close as possible to flawless is just a standard requirement—making sure to keep up with your spirituality, and don’t forget being the life of the party, the best friend, the sexy minx in the bedroom and highly educated respectable businesswomen in the board room, all while telling our men they are not stepping up enough. Well of course they can’t step up to that, it’s terrifying.
Please don’t think I’m saying we can’t do it, but it’s also not shameful to ask for help in order to keep all those balls in the sky at once. We need to empower each other, and men to be better so we can be better as a society, in harmony with each other.
What are three important things any female frontier should know?
- It really does take a village. Standing together with men and women in whatever capacity is the only way we will continue to step forward as females. This world is too big and sometimes scary to do anything alone. Be nice, don’t be a dick! Act together and ask for help.
- Listen and speak to each other without judgment and prejudice. Every voice is important regardless of your beliefs or cultural make-up and upbringing. Communication is the key to spreading light in dark areas where we need to stand together to protect and change things for women around the world. Keep shouting, but not at each other but rather with each other!
- So important—don’t take everything so seriously! We are forgetting to enjoy this life we fight so hard for. Remember to take a step back, look at what you have managed to do, and revel in your success. Maybe have a martini to celebrate!!
What is your definition of success?
Success obviously looks different for everyone. For me, it looks pretty small as some might call it. But at some point in my late 20s, I was able to sit quietly with myself and say “wait, what really matters to me, what does happiness really look like, what situation do I have to wake up in every day that will make me smile and want to be alive”? And I have been working my ass off every day since, to achieve that. For me, that’s already a success.
When I am actually sitting on the beach in my tiny little 20-seater, self-sustaining rum bar with the love of my life and a glass of my own house-blended rum, I’ll be able to tell you what success looks like from that angle. But until then, working towards the goal, making decisions that get me closer while allowing me to grow and explore what it means to be a top-knock human, and spread my passion for my craft is what success looks like right now.
With the big boom in social media careers, what are two of your tips for using these platforms effectively and efficiently?
Be honest with your output. People don’t need any more fake news! So make sure your content is true to your offering and what you want people to know about the person you are, and I think you should try to keep it relevant to your core message so that you are not just generating and posting a bunch of mediocre stuff because you have to post something. Rather keep it for the important things you want to say than just saying for the sake of saying. We are being flooded with some much content at the moment—sifting through the bullshit is becoming a full-time job.
What is your personal advice for aspiring female mixologists?
Self-teaching is very important. You need to constantly be educating yourself on all the elements of the culture. Keep up with trends. Experiment with ingredients. Study the past and the people who shaped the industry. Looking at how bars and drinking culture have influenced society through the journey really helps to understand what people want and how to go about giving that to them today. Also, another huge thing I would say is be brave—it’s a relatively scary space at times and you need to just bring your fire and not worry about how it is being received if you act from a place of good intention your efforts will be received well. Work hard and be brave.