Bartender Joshua Brandenburg has a bloodshot gaze, and no, it's not because he worked a double this weekend; the Royalton Hotel cocktail connoisseur popped a vessel in his right eye Saturday from a punch to the face. The accidental injury came while he was sparring at the Renzo Gracie Academy in Brooklyn, where he trains as a Muay Thai fighter. “I was supposed to catch the punch with my glove,” he says. “Not my eye.
"Fortunately, the lighting in the bar is very dark, so normally when I have black eyes or popped blood vessels or lacerations, you can’t see it.”
It wouldn’t be the first time Brandenburg showed up to his shift with an injury. He’s been behind the bar there for more than nine years, and a Muay Thai fighter for five of them. His current career is more forgiving of injuries than his previous occupation as an actor. A broken nose only helps in the audition room for boxing roles.
The rest of his weekend was spent camera in hand, shooting around New York. His focus is travel and street photos, but he also photographs Muay Thai fights and -- in the little remaining spare time he has -- even the occasional wedding.
If there's one thing his many pursuits have in common, it's a need for a speedy, steady hand, and an even quicker eye for human nature. If he can predict what the subjects he engages are about to do, he can dodge a punch, capture one on camera, or serve some up to a satisfied customer.
The bar is ‘a case study in human nature’
When he moved to LA to be an actor, Brandenburg had no idea bartending would become his calling. He was working as a pool boy, with a few nights as security at the Skybar in LA’s Mondrian Hotel. A friend offered him a few nights a week at a nearby restaurant as a server, with the chance to pick up a few shifts as a bartender. When he told his manager at the Mondrian about that he said, “Oh, you know how to bartend?”
“Yeah, absolutely I do,” was what Brandenburg remembers telling him. In actuality, he had no idea what goes on behind the stick.
The manager offered him a few nights a week bartending. Brandenburg asked for a week to “think it over.” He spent it at the library, reading every book about cocktails he could find.
“I didn’t know a thing about it,” he says. “I realized quickly, there’s a big difference between reading a recipe in a book and actually creating a drink.”
So why bartend? Being behind the bar has given him the chance to observe "a case study in human nature" according to the multi-talented young man. “Take the most bizarre, strange, terrible, funny, horrific, tragic, wonderful things,” he says. “And I have seen every single one of them behind the bar.”
(He also watched Prince play an impromptu New Year’s Eve show at his bar, which is a nice incentive too, back when you could swing it.)
Elevate your own hidden talent with these Cognac cocktail tips
For some, it’s cocktail skills that are the hidden talent no one at their day job would suspect. If that’s you, expand your base spirits with these quick tips from Rémy Martin, the French house that’s been perfecting Cognac since 1724:
1. Cognac is a great alternative to rye’s harshness and bourbon’s abundant woodiness. It can match whiskey’s versatility, and add even more complexity to some drinks. Don’t hesitate to substitute.
2. Mixing “like with like” is generally good cocktail practice, so reach for other grape based modifiers like sherry, vermouth, and champagne.
3. Don’t assume that Cognac will be sweet. Add a touch of honey or simple syrup -- you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Muay Thai is the ‘ballet’ of martial arts
Brandenburg grew up in Ohio, although his family moved around the country frequently -- his dad was a pastor, so they were relocated to other parishes pretty often. His family never had the money for him to pursue his early interest in martial arts. It wasn’t until he “fell out of love” with acting and no longer needed to resemble his headshots that he decided to start training.
He chose Muay Thai for how physical it is. While some other martial arts focus on forms, Muay Thai is mostly about striking, and how effectively those strikes land. It’s got elements of boxing and clinching (close-quarters boxing) but involves more than just hands -- shins, elbows, and knees also land
Because of that full-body movement, Muay Thai is sometimes considered the “ballet” of martial arts -- and that’s what Brandenburg tries to capture when he shoots fights.
“When you watch two extremely high-level people fight Muay Thai, it is incredibly beautiful,” he says.
“You get in a fight, and you either win or you lose. And then you figure out what you need to work on and you learn more”
His first couple of fights, he admits, weren’t exactly “beautiful.” Thirty seconds into his second fight, a left sent him to the mat for a standing eight count. It’s those kinds of moments, Brandenburg says, when you are supposed to “self-evaluate” -- your injury, your willingness to continue, your ability to mask that you just blacked out after taking a punch to the face.
In a way, it's like assembling a cocktail in a busy bar or composing a photo of a fleeting moment: assembling what you need from what's available and soldiering on without what isn't. “You get in a fight, and you either win or you lose. And then you figure out what you need to work on and you learn more,” Brandenburg says. “And then you get back in there and you fight, and you either win or you lose.”
It’s all about sharing his talents
Brandenburg is happiest sharing his expertise. When he’s serving drinks, it’s not uncommon for him to explain to patrons the mash bill of a particular bourbon, or the history of an IPA. His informative streak is why he teaches at the Renzo Academy. It’s also why he shares what he loves about Muay Thai through the lens of his camera.
Photography is how he feels most able to share his many lives with others. Originally a hobby he picked up on vacation in Thailand, it's now a chance to teach others about how he views the world around him, and his perspective on life.
“For me all these activities, they are really about sharing something you are passionate about with somebody else and watching them get excited about it, too,” he says. "New York is one of the few places you can go to and take all your interests and then still do them all at the same time and get by.
"Of course it limits your social activities and it limits your sleep, but you gotta make sacrifices somewhere.”