We Came For The Drinks But Stayed For The Introspective Romanticism Of Cocktails And Human Experience With Royal 38 Co-Owner Scott Jenkins.
Scott Jenkins is a total nerd.
Jenkins is also the co-owner of the critically acclaimed HIDE Bar and the sleek and sexy new Royal 38 restaurant at The Union. The 34-year-old Chicagoan sought out culture and the essence of human experience and found himself in Texas at the age of 27. But for a man with three art degrees from three different schools, you don’t just paint your way to the place you ought to be — you run and work toward them, barreling yourself onto the ups and downs that shape your perception and understanding of reality.
The self-proclaimed “art and science geek” creates cocktails that are a reflection of ideas and the world around him, assuring that whoever drinks them isn’t just guzzling some liquid concoction in a glass but rather sipping the essence of humanity.
We caught up with Jenkins on a variety of topics that, if we published the raw and uncut dialogue, may just make your head explode. But, because we care about you and don’t want to cause you any harm — or in this case, too much galaxy brain material — we’re just going to parcel out the best parts for you to digest.
Hi! So let’s get business out of the way first. Let’s talk about the major pop-ups you guys have brought to Dallas: Miracle on Lowest Greenville and Sippin’ Santa at Royal 38. How did that come about?
The first year we opened HIDE, we were on the shortlist for a Spirited Award for best new bar at Tales of the Cocktail. Miracle noticed this bar from Dallas and chose us. We’ve been doing Miracle for two years but we always denied Sippin’ Santa because we didn’t have a place to do it until now. We’ve rented the place next door to Royal 38 and are hosting it there. It’s a lot of work.
But I’m sure it’s very worth it.
It’s been busy and it puts my staff through the wringer, but the Miracle pop-ups are what have allowed us to keep our staff longer than most people after COVID-19 hit. We were fortunate to have a chunk of change to sit on after the second bar shut down in June. We collectively figured it wasn’t worth it to continue to keep the staff working and try to keep the place open so [upper management] essentially fired ourselves so we could keep help our staff and survive. During this time I cooked for my staff, bought them groceries, and just wanted to be there for our team.
Operating a bar this year has been…
Stressful. Because I love my staff, I feel responsible for their well-being. But I can’t do anything besides provide resources. We’ve tried to communicate and translate as much of the government’s disastrous pivoting to try and sell loans. We’ve helped our staff navigate unemployment, making sure that they have it filled out. We make sure they have food, and making sure that when they come to work, they don’t waste gas for nothing.
This has definitely been a very stressful year but I don’t want to get too bleak too soon. At HIDE, y’all boast a very unique take on a gin and tonic. In fact, you’re a bit of a fan of gin. Why should people care about gin?
Well, there’s something that’s very direct and superfluous about real good gin. The history of gin is interesting. You know, at one point it was kind of medicinal. I just think, for me, I love the expression of herbs and spices. You can go to a lot of places with it. I just hate bad gin and tonics.
How can a gin and tonic be bad? It’s literally just two things.
Yeah, because you can go into a bar, get a gin and tonic, and they serve it to you in a rocks glass full of ice, pour fuckload of gin and dump tonic on it. That’s the common gin and tonic drink tastes like a watery mess. When that happens, you lose the flavor profile of gin. It’s just bad.
You have an MFA summa cum laude in Drawing and Painting from UNT. My question is, how do the fine arts and cocktails coalesce together?
I don’t think I realized that in grad school. I realized all the things I had been interested in as a child — creating art, comics and science fiction, sort of escapism things — were about being able to step outside of your own reality and back out. I wanted a better understanding my own experience, and the structure and quality of experience and the things that contributed to that. So when it comes to cocktails, there is that same sort of artistry.
There’s a beauty that comes from consuming something that is artfully drawn up. Have you ever been so hyper-focused on something and sort of felt this tunnel vision? Like, wow, I can see this, taste this and feel this? Really, that’s what I want cocktails to do. Not every time, not for everyone but hopefully, at least just once.
You know, I want to take cocktails out of this realm of disingenuous pretentiousness and I want to find that accessible sweet spot for everybody — the experience is accessible to everybody, regardless of where you come from and what your knowledge base is. If you invest that in the production and creation of your cocktails, it’ll be reflected in the consumer experience.
You’re not just creating a cocktail, you’re constructing an experience. At the end of the day, people go out and drink for the experience that comes with it, right?
But also more than that. I mean, there I think there’s a lot of people that say, “I want my guest to have an awesome experience!” and put all this extra fluff and extra stuff. Then people go there and say, “I went to the hottest restaurant and had this amazing $200 steak and it was amazing.” Then you ask them what it tasted like and they say amazing.
But it’s like, I’ve had that experience before where I realized that I don’t know what I’m consuming. I don’t remember what that thing tastes like. I can’t describe that experience. I can just describe it with weird, superficial words.
Now, I say this is a general statement, but that sort of applies to a lot of people’s way of articulating the qualities of what that experience made you feel. Being able to describe that experience in a way that is sensitive to the person you’re sharing it with, in the most authentic way possible, is incredibly difficult. It requires something inherent in the food or drink to capture your attention in order to articulate what it is that you’re tasting or feeling.
You once said, “seeing and learning to see it’s not the same as looking.” What does that mean?
I use that as a kind of a metaphor. For me, looking at something suggests this sort of instant, digestibility of surface judgment. Impermanence. Ignorance. It’s glossing over something very quickly, you know, in this sort of maximum consumption.
Learning to see is different from that. You know this is there’s a little semiotics lesson, right? Like, we call this a glass, right? But that’s just a mouth noise that refers to this thing. That what we’re seeing is one entire thing. What is this actually? [gestures at rocks glass] What is glass? What is the material that makes the glass, the grooves, the ridges? The world is constructed by language. If you remove the language, and try and think about what this thing is, without calling it anything, then you’re learning to see.
Seeing is having one foot beyond the periphery of your vision in this sort of mysterious place and the other foot in focus and you’re trying to balance those two. It’s digesting while trying to understand something for what it is beyond language and in a way that you could never fully understand. It gets very dense.
But that’s what it seems to me is being lost in an experience or in a phenomenon of perception. You’re not trying to label it with just words, you’re just in the raw moment.
Art teachers preach that shit all the time. You always hear, “the secret to being good at drawing is being able to draw from life!” But it makes sense. Let’s say you were to draw that rocks glass. Ideally, you wouldn’t draw a glass. You’d draw this ovular shape and follow the weird black blob shapes around it. It’s no longer a tangible 3-D thing, it’s this weird flat object.
Now you’re getting closer to what it means to see. Right? Because looking is calling this a glass. Seeing is realizing that glass just means in this thing is actually specific shapes of light and dark, organized in a very specific way. When you break it down into those basic constituents and you realize that just shapes in an organized pattern. It’s no longer glass, it’s something slightly transcendent. It destroys what we call reality.
You start realizing that your perception of a “glass” is just a bunch of smaller, different things that have nothing to do with your understanding of glass.
Glass is not real. Words are not real. Nothing is real. My brain hurts.
But that’s it. Our reality is a structure and you can manipulate the structures. You can choose to see what you want to see if you concentrate hard enough. Right? That’s kind of crazy to think about but that’s the shit that keeps me up at night. It really excites me because everything is language and how we interpret the world but soon we get trapped in that one, linear way of thinking. There are things beneath the surface of that language that have no words. They are simply raw emotion.
Uh, so with that all said, what is something you hope to see, not only in the cocktail community but in Dallas, for the future?
I hope to see more of the genuine willingness to take care of one another, in all senses. Pay respect to the people that taught you by sharing your knowledge with the people you will teach. I hope that we can learn from one another in that way. I hope that we can work together and agree on how we want to train our people and educate our consumers so that it benefits everyone.
I hope we recognize that it’s okay to make mistakes. I can say this because I’ve been a part of that in my youth. I’ve been stupid. I’ve been really shitty. I’ve been disrespectful. I’ve been unappreciative. I’ve been ungrateful. I wouldn’t admit to my mistakes. You know, I’ve suffered from imposter syndrome. I don’t appreciate my successes. I’ve been afraid to fail. It’s okay, you learn from that.
We’re not all going to make awesome cocktails all the time. We’re not all going to be the best hosts all the time. But we should work toward doing things that elevate the culture of our industry and keep developing it. Let’s do interesting shit and have fun doing it.
Photo by Clark Cabus.