Joe Lewis set to represent Chicago at Stoli Key West Cocktail Classic finals in June

Tue. April 17, 2018 12:34 PM by Ross Forman

joe lewis to represent chicago at stoli event

photo credit // joe lewis
Joe Lewis looked like he was ready for the beach when he stepped on stage at Sidetrack in the Chicago finals of the 5th annual Stoli Key West Cocktail Classic on Wednesday night, April 11, with his white pants and teal, short-sleeve, button-down shirt sprinkled with shark images all over.

Lewis, 32, the head bartender at Berlin Nightclub, had attended the Stoli event three times in the past, but this time not only was he competing, he was among the seven finalists.

"I knew I had to do something creative, fun, and true to Key West," said Lewis, who was born in Germany, raised in Atlanta, and has called Chicago home for almost 10 years.

The energetic Lewis built his cocktail using Stoli Crushed Grapefruit, reflected on childhood trips to Florida, and used the movie Jaws as an inspiration. And he also brought a shark hand puppet.

Hey, the Stoli Key West Cocktail Classic is fun, served chilled, often on the rocks and with a flair, for sure.

The Stoli Key West Cocktail Classic is the world's largest annual LGBT bartender celebration, honoring the legacy of gay bars as original community centers and safe spaces and the nightlife professionals who continue to Raise the Bar, which is this year's theme.

"The finals were stiff," Lewis said of the competition. "There was a point when I looked around and felt thoroughly intimidated. We all knew one another and backstage was a relaxed, friendly environment which helped ease a lot of the tension as there were seasoned pros from (several area bars) competing."

After all the drinks were poured, presented and sampled, Lewis was named the Chicago winner. "I am so humbled by this win," he said. "Life can be very trying, (so) to have a win like this is a welcome validation. This win meant that I do know what I'm doing with a bottle, and also a reminder to never give up."

Lewis has worked in the bar/nightlife industry for about nine years. He started at since-closed Spin Nightclub, where he would dance on the front stoop to get people inside and eventually worked his way behind the bar covered in glitter and dressed in short shorts, then into management which led him to Scarlet Bar and Taverna 750, plus a short stay at The Pump Room. He now calls Berlin Nightclub home and he also assists with operations and produces parties, such as GeekHaus and a series of community-building events.

"I got into the industry to make friends. I love meeting new people and when I started I barely knew anyone in Chicago," he said. "I would have to say my favorite bartending story was when I got to split a flatbread pizza with house legend Frankie Knuckles. He (said), 'You've got to have a piece' and I (replied), 'Sure thing, Mr. Knuckles.'

"We literally broke bread together."

Lewis said Berlin has generated countless memorable moments.

"It's filled with such a diverse group of people from all walks of life because of Berlin's 'Everyone is welcome' policy," he said. "What stands out the most, though, is getting to see the birth of so many new Chicago performers from shows like Crash Landing, hosted by the hilarious Trannika Rex, Nico, and Lucy Stoole, because when performers get that first juice they're at their most pure, in my opinion."

Lewis said being a great bartender requires great service with an authentic connection.

"I make an effort to connect with everyone (who) steps in front of my bar and I feel it makes all the difference in improving someone's experience," he said.

Over the years, in addition to speed and accuracy, Lewis said his bartending has changed and improved as he's developed from a shy, nervous mixed-race young man into a confident and intuitive cocktail creator.

He singled out Benjamin Newby, who he worked with at Scarlet, as a major influence. Newby "showed me the foundations of mixology and brought back the fun for me," Lewis said.

Now the fun really kicks in for Lewis, who heads to Key West in early-June, representing Chicago. He will participate against about 20 other LGBT bartenders from select North American cities in conjunction with Key West Pride.

Lewis is now in the running for a lofty title, plus:

- A portion of $20,000 for his favorite local charity;

- Serving as the Honorary Grand Marshall of the 2018 Key West Pride Parade;

- A trip for two to either Vancouver Pride or San Diego Pride 2018; and

- A 10-day Grand Canyon Rafting Trip with HE Travel, awarded to the first runner-up.

Lewis' competition in Key West will be bartenders from Dallas, New Orleans, San Diego, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Ft. Lauderdale, Vancouver, Ohio, Washington D.C., Toronto, Boston, New York City, and San Francisco.

He will arrive in Key West on June 5.

"My goals for Key West are to make new friends, represent Chicago to the best of ability, bring home a win, and further raise the bar," said Lewis, who admitted that he might "twist things up" when he gets to Key West and spike the 'Shark Bite' drink that won him the Chicago crown. The drink, he said, "has the potential to grow and I'm curious to see just how I do that."

Last Call With ...Joe Lewis

On Representing Chicago and Berlin Nightclub: "As long as I stay true to myself, I'm confident I will properly represent Chicago and Berlin Nightclub. But wow, this is awesome."

Personal Drink-of-choice at a Bar: Stoli Blueberry and Lemonade

Favorite Drink to Make for Customers: "I have a twist on a Dirty Shirley where I utilize different flavors to switch things up."

Favorite Chicago Restaurant: "Billy Sunday is one of my favorite restaurants in the city, but I love to dip into Lark in Lakeview for a quick bite."

Favorite TV Show: "Bob's Burgers is a gift from God."

Favorite Musician: Tove Lo

Celebrity You'd Most Like To Meet: "I've already met Beyoncé, so I'm good ...wait, President Obama."

(Complete the sentence): Many will be surprised to know that I ..."love to collect boxes. It's just a weird hobby of mine."

Boxers or Briefs: "I need a lot of support so I tend to grab briefs ...but sometimes you just wanna fly free, you know?!"