Hitting Every Green Light
The story behind Elliott Clark; a modern-day philosopher making one mean drink at a time.
MAIN COURSE // BY CORNELIUS MCGRATH
Elliott Clark’s life resembles that of 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 a social media influencer. Who can blame them? Influencers get paid by brands to produce or promote content. Clark certainly does his fair share of that through partnerships with William Grant & Sons, Jack Daniels, Hennessy, and more. His semi-notorious Instagram handle (@apartment_bartender) has 70,000 followers. A modest size for a modern-day sports stadium, and indeed a stage worthy of a man dubbed the ‘founding father of the photogenic cocktail movement’ by American Way Magazine.

However, in a bikini-wearing and highlight-reel fuelled digital world, Clark stands out from the crowd. 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.

I dared to ask what it was that he did every day. “That’s a damn good question, man.”

My first conversation with Clark took place 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 had with Clark over two years. What started as a preliminary conversation to see if he was interested in doing 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 for hours on end about life, family, brand, and business.

That first call on September 9th was no different, falling 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, however, that his real 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 a mutual friend, Jason Feifer, Editor-In-Chief of Entrepreneur Magazine.

I dared to ask what it even was that he did every day. “That’s a damn good question, man,” said Clark, without missing a beat. I knew then I was going to like him.

Pictured: Clark in deep thought over a whiskey sour. Chicago, IL.

II. New York City

To understand Clark’s arc, we must go back to April 2015 and a chance trip to New York City. He spent the weekend with lifelong best friend, Nathan Murphy (Murphy for short). The pair were very close, having played 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 just so 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 has passed since our first phone call, and this is our first meeting in-person. “I grabbed vodka, Cocchi americano, simple syrup, mint, lemon wedges, blueberries, and strawberries. I muddled everything together, shook it up, 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 – you know 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 bit cooler to me,” said Clark. “The industry seemed cool. 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 called @EMakesDrinks. “I started Instagram out of necessity, there was no vision to it,” said Clark. “I simply wanted a way to document my recipes without having to create a website or drudge through 10-pages of Google. Instagram was the only place where I could do both with ease.”

Clark refused to broadcast his work early on. Only close friends, his work manager, and 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 before. 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 his scheduled life – and the monotony of software sales – to just 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.”

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 pretty 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 was in charge of drinks. After one too many negronis, I said I didn’t even know why I called myself a home bartender. 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 were coming from until a friend sent him a link to a BuzzFeed article titled: 19 Instagram Accounts Every Cocktail Lover Should Follow Right This Second.” Over the next 24 hours, Clark went from 1500 to over 10,000 followers on Instagram—something only 10.9% of all accounts on the platform ever reach. He now has the second-largest audience of the 19 accounts listed.

The piece of press that changed everything for Clark.

Clark got his first phone call from a brand six months later. It was Express. “I was coming off a great month at Infusionsoft at the end of 2016,” recounted Clark. “I’d just 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 said to me: ‘go do this. Just please hit your quota this month if you’re taking a week,’” said Clark, who got quizzed about his life as an entrepreneur during the campaign. “They were asking me how it feels to quit your job, and when did I know it was time. I thought to myself: if my manager or work sees this, they are going to be like ‘what the hell is he doing?’”

“The [Express] shoot helped me realise that I could get by for the next few months,” said Clark. “I  said to myself that I would give Apartment Bartender 60-90 days. And if it didn’t work, I’d 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.

III. Family

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 West Side of the city. Both came from humble beginnings. Rory majored in Radio, TV & Film (RTF) at Northwestern University before going onto Southern Illinois University (Southern U) to study for his graduate degree. Laura did not attend college, opting instead to go right into the workforce. Rory left Southern U a few months before his graduation 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, Rory, 28. Rory went on to start 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 when to 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 with the mindset of wanting to do the same things my Dad did,” said Clark. “He was my hero. I didn’t know how I’d get there, but I 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. “And I would help him out along the way, building out presentations, consulting manuals or just taking care of other administrative tasks.”

Pictured: Rory and Laura Clark.

Pictured: Murphy, Elliott & Rory 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 how to create their own businesses. “He taught us how to create value and think about ourselves in a different light,” said Clark. 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 by the time that 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 role financially for his kids, providing every resource Elliott could have dreamed for. “Growing up with my Dad wasn’t easy in the slightest bit,” recounted Clark. “But he paved the way for us in a lot of 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 years old,” recounted Clark. “Having my best friend, Chris, pass away, then seeing your parents split up a year later is jarring. I sought solace in the game of basketball.”

Pictured: Clark’s best friend childhood, Chris, who died from a brain tumour in 2004.

IV. Basketball

Clark had two goals as a teenager: 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 came to an end 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 how good he was 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 coaches attention.” Elliott made an immediate impact in club ball – dropping nearly 50 points a game in his first few starts – and his successful basketball career continued in high school.  Clark attended Gilbert High, a public school of 4,000 kids, and was 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.” At Gilbert, Elliott morphed into a talented shooting guard 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 a lot of different 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 ultimately decided to pass because Northwestern could only offer him a walk-on spot. Their precious scholarship money reserved for a few point guards they were hotly pursuing at the time.

Clark’s basketball prowess nets him 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 some serious interest from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). Clark and his best friend, Nathan 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.

Pictured: Clark as a freshman varsity athlete at UCSD.

“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.”

UCSD didn’t turn out to be the right fit for Clark. He battled through injuries his first year and found it challenging to be back at square one as a freshman trying to build reps on the court. Clark was used to being the star-player, not playing behind one in Jordan Lawley. Lawley was a Conference All-American at UCSD and is the school’s all-time leading points scorer. He went on to play professional basketball in Mexico, New Zealand and is now an NBA skills coach for the likes of Skylar Diggins, Evan Turner and Liu Xiaoyu.

Despite the competition, the pair became friends. But one thing piled on another Clark’s freshman year at UCSD. He pulled his hamstrings twice, his Coach wanted him to switch positions and learn how to play point guard, plus he struggled to find something interesting to study academically.

“On reflection, I was truly away from home for the first time, and I just didn’t know how to cope with those struggles at the age of 18. I definitely could have changed my attitude, but I honestly felt like I was just spinning my wheels,” said Clark. “My desires for what I wanted to do with my life started to change, and deep down pursuing basketball wasn’t really what I wanted to do anymore.”

I was much more passionate about the people I was around, the locker room atmosphere and the sense of community that came with it. That meant way more to me than basketball.

Clark left the team after 18 months. He 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 collegiate athlete to a regular student working most of his hours off-campus in a matter of minutes. So much of my life was basketball, so I felt like I lost a big part of how I identified as a person.” Clark was emotionally damaged. “Looking back though, I realised I wasn’t as passionate about the game of basketball as others were,” recounted Clark. “I was much more passionate about the people I was around, the locker room atmosphere and the sense of community came with it. That meant way more to me than basketball.”

V. Phoenix

Upon returning to Phoenix, Clark started working as a full-time employee for his father. He was 19.

It was the first time Elliott got paid for the work he did for his Dad. And so he began to take on more responsibility; running preliminary calls with executives, putting together presentations, building proposals, taking meeting minutes, and becoming the point of contact for clients. As a pastor’s kid, Elliott 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 clients – the likes of L3 Communications, Altera, and Intel – all got to know him well.

Clark got a scholarship to cover his ASU tuition. It came from an organisation called Chicanos Por La Causa (CPLC) – a non-profit that advocates for underserved individuals and communities. His childhood friend, Eric Donzella, had an uncle who was the CEO. As Clark became part of CPLC, he started doing regular community service in the Phoenix area, and his childhood entrepreneurial itch continued to grow. In his junior year at ASU, he enrolled in The Lean Startup Method and started to create a business canvas for an idea he called Focus 4 Teens (F4T). His 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, 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 every week.”

Clark got some early traction in Phoenix with F4T with families and high schools around the valley.  However, he didn’t know how to best scale the program, so he applied for a 10-week course at ASU that had students build out scalable business plans. The class paired Clark up 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.

Clark’s time at ASU, however, was atypical. He didn’t live on campus. He took mostly online classes, didn’t go to any sporting events, nor did he really  hang out with other ASU students. Clark admits to not even knowing the school’s fight song, having spent barely any time on the Tempe Campus. “It certainly wasn’t your traditional state school college experience. My mentality at ASU was just get it done,” said Clark. “I was still grieving about basketball. I didn’t know where to go or what to do.” Clark’s circle of friends in Phoenix was small: his Dad, Eric and a couple of high school friends. He was pretty lost, wanting desperately to carve out his path, but not knowing how to do so. Like so many other talented 20-somethings, Clark felt like he needed to know what he was going to do with his life yesterday.

Pictured: Clark hugging his father, Rory. August 2009.

I just didn’t want to let down my pops at the time. He was my dad, my mentor and my best friend.

As Elliott got deeper into F4T, he began to clash with his father. F4T was Elliott’s heart, but pursuing Focus Selling was the 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 at the end of the day 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 was making 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 just 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 for me to imagine a life where we weren’t together.”

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 one time, and it took a toll on our personal 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. 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,” said Clark. He also felt the two became 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. Like I said, he was my boss, my mentor, my pastor, my landlord, and I lost sight of where he ended and I began.”

By the time he graduated from ASU in 2014, Clark chose 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 that I ultimately wanted to get back to the father-son relationship,” said Clark. “Looking back I needed to go do my own thing. Focus Selling and working with my dad was all I had known my whole life, and I felt it was time to experience something else.”

Clark’s letter, and his decision to leave would change everything. “To put it lightly, the decision to leave didn’t go over too well. It caused a significant rift in our relationship, and things were said that I don’t really want to repeat. He told me to leave, and the last thing I said to my dad as I left was ‘I love you.’”

That was the last conversation Clark and his father had for almost five years

Pictured: Clark at Yelp, his first job out of college.

VI. Apartment Bartender

With nowhere else to go, Clark moved into his girlfriend’s parent’s house at the time. “I was broken, and they took me in, which I was really thankful for.” recounted Clark. “They said I could stay as long as I 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, putting in applications 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 offer he got. It was from Yelp. “They gave me $40,000 a year, which I felt was 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 at Yelp 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: that he hit his monthly quota.

Pictured: Clark all smiles after leaving Infusionsoft.

“The [Express] shoot helped me realise that I could get by for the next few months” said Clark. “I said to myself that I would give Apartment Bartender 60-90 days. And it it didn’t work, I’d get another job.

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 since then. “When I hit 10,000 followers in 2016, that was the moment brands started reaching out.” said Clark. He started receiving tons of free product 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 get to know 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 over 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 on a human level with consumers on the other side of the bar. He flouts prevailing notions about what sort of background a bartender or creative should have, and believes his edge is his ability to speak to the industry and those at home equally. “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 out of production, copywriting and business 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.

They call that the luck of the Irish.

Pictured: 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 not so much about the accolades, but more the process of 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 what he is doing. “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 actually walked  through those doors.”

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 same 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 now run 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 drink 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 stake in EYB in October of 2019 so he could focus on Apartment Bartender full-time).

Clark sippin’ after an EYB session.

Clark showing that he doesn’t skip leg day.

VII. West Elm

Clark was certainly out earning with Apartment Bartender in 2018. He signed a partnership with West Elm, the high-end furniture line owned by Williams-Sonoma, for the holiday season. “It was a dream come true, really,” said Clark. “I had been a fan of the brand for such 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. Being able to produce 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?

Naturally, Clark’s first call was to West Elm. “I sent them an email, and explained my position,” said Clark. “I got no response. So I followed up again, no response. I followed up for the third time, and finally got through.” Clark noticed West Elm was doing YouTube apartment tours online around different spots across the country, and 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 were 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 Tours. 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.”

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 wanted to accomplish, and the pieces they most wanted to promote,” said Clark. You never know unless you ask, right? “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.”

Pictured: Clark standing in his decked out West Elm apartment. 

View from dinng room.

View from living room.

VIII. The American Way

Clark received a seemingly impossible phone call in early 2019. It was from his father, Rory.

The pair had tried to speak twice in the five years since Clark moved on. Both times conversations broke down, and so Clark was nervous to answer the call, especially since he was sat in an airport en route to a shoot. “I was at this point in my life where I thought I could either go my entire life harbouring this pain and upset. Or, I could forgive.” said Clark. A friend told him that his relationship with his father wasn’t going to 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 he, without missing a beat, said: ‘I did. I always knew that you were going to be on the road. It’s been a part of you since you were young.’”

Clark’s father held top status on American as a lifelong traveller. He’d called because he’d opened up a copy of the American Way 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 explained how he showed the magazine around the first-class cabin, proudly declaring his son was described as 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 be looking at me through an in flight magazine. Especially since we bonded the most in the skies and in airports when I was a kid. Whenever I saw airplanes, I called them Daddy’s car.”

Pictured: Clarks’s cocktails featured in the American Way Magazine.

Pictured: Clark is dubbed “founder of the photogenic cocktail movement”

IX. It’s A Great To Be Day Alive

Clark’s undoubtedly a jack of all trades; the photographer, the talent and the 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 was going to come from it.” Donzella had got 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. His new boss in Denver allowed him to work remotely. “By November, I was going over to Elliott’s place every single day,” said Donzella. “We’d be bouncing ideas for AB, brainstorming and shooting some of our early videos in the park.”

Clark approached Donzella at the start of 2019 with a bold proposition: quit his job and do video for him at Apartment Bartender. “I had just paid off all my debt, paid off 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.” It was the perfect timing, situation and opportunity for Donzella. He quit his job in February 2019, and produced Off The Grid with Trä•Kál in Patagonia that same month.

“Our first work trip took us back to Phoenix for the Arizona Cocktail Weekend,” said Donzella, noting that he’s taken close to 20 trips around the world with Clark since February 2019. “Which was special because it’s home. But the trip to St Lucia stands out for me.” In early March, less than a month after quitting his job, Donzella travelled with Clark to the Caribbean for 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’s at all 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,” said Donzella. “It was always a matter of time in my eyes. He’s a hustler who excels at building relationships and making shit happen.”

Pictured: Clark and Donzella. St Lucia.

Making shit happen should be Clark’s middle name. After all, it’s abundantly clear that he’s playing at a higher level than most in that domain. It became clear to me that 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 cocktail drinks 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 a great cocktail. It’s all about great drink, 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 a power of community and camaraderie amongst anyone. A unique message, especially during a time where 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.

Pictured: Clark modelling his IAGDTBA hat outside Billy Sunday. Chicago, IL.

By the latter end of our interviews, I playfully start to call him Mr Endorphin man. Clark taps in 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 for people. I ask folks all the time: Is what you’re doing or saying edifying people? Or breaking people down?” For Clark, drinks teach the world that the little things matter. “It’s the little moments that build to the big moments,” said Clark. “Bartending is not about the drink. It’s about hospitality. It doesn’t matter how good a drink tastes. It’s about making people feel. That’s why I come back to places like Billy Sunday; I like how I feel when I am here.”

Pictured: Clark and Cornelius’ first meeting in Chicago, IL. July 2019.

X. Get Paid To Be Yourself

Clark’s message is simple: social media has no bearing on who you truly are, not to mention the art that you’re putting 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 to me as a kid,” said Clark. “He told me always to value the differences in myself and others. And above all, never be afraid to be different.”

Clark is 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 has been his best year yet. Apartment Bartender’s revenue has only increased this year, striking partnerships with the likes of 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.

You can find Clark’s drink programs and cocktails in Hilton’s across the United States. However, what’s ironic is that the very reality that 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, while the home has become the epicentre of our social lives, experience, and lifestyle in 2020. If Clark has ever had a home court advantage, it’s now.

Pictured: Clark pointing me towards his favourite cocktail bars in Logan Square. Chicago, IL.

What I love about Clark is that there is so much to his character, story and purpose than the brands he’s partnered with, companies he’s launched, and followers he’s acquired. Whereas for most a digital presence is a manufactured reality that they’ve created 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 on this crazy journey of self-discovery. 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 somethings 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.”

Clark’s charisma, talent, client list, and reach are second to none. However, the reason I believe he’ll ascend to even greater heights is because of who he is as a human being. In a world, space and industry that’s obsessed by image, there is no veneer to Elliott Clark. That’s why he’s so damn special. “I do believe you can measure somebody by how they treat other people,” said Clark. “Yes, I’m a goofball. I’m funny, an extroverted intellectual who is also 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. My goal is simple: to leave somebody’s life better than I found it; even if it’s just for a moment.”

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 a ton of people out there in the world who can make great drinks. And hundreds who can make drinks 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. I’m just trying to leave everyone I come in contact with better than how I found them.”

Pictured: Clark and Cornelius share their first drink at Longman & Eagle. Chicago, IL.

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