I first heard of cocktail photographer and blogger Nikki Davidson (also known as @cocktailcrafty on Instagram) when one of our writers, Arli Lima, suggested that we run two of Davidson’s drink recipes in our Holiday Guide last month—a Stella Noel and a Christmas Mule. I was impressed and intrigued. I decided to hit up the Baltimore native and City graduate again for our Liquor Issue to learn a little more about what she does and why she does it. (Lisa Snowden-McCray)
Baltimore Beat: How did you get into food photography?
Nikki Davidson: I started in 2014, just snapping photos of what I was drinking at bars, just like everyone else. I’m a foodie but I always forget to take pictures of the food I eat so I was like “OK, I’ll just post my drinks.” Then people started following me to find out what I was drinking, where I was drinking, and then I started realizing that I really enjoyed photography. I started learning how to do that, and it just took off on its own.
BB: What kind of drinks do you prefer?
ND: I try to try everything because if you say, “oh, I only drink this,” then you’re shutting yourself off to so many different opportunities, and sometimes you might try something that you think you don’t like and it might blow your mind. So I try to try little bit of everything—but I’m definitely a whiskey girl. I like spirit-forward cocktails, so I usually don’t order a cocktail that has a lot of fruit juice in it because I actually like to taste the spirit.
BB: I’ve noticed a lot of times if I order, say, a Manhattan, or something like that, people will doubt me. They’ll be like “oh you know that’s not a sweet drink.” Is that something you’ve run into?
ND: I’ve definitely met that when I first started hitting cocktail bars. The stereotype is first I’m woman, so they try to give me something sugary and sweet, and second I’m black so obviously I want cognac.
I would order whiskey on the rocks and I would get like “are you sure you want that?” so I would always try to say something and show, hey, I know what I’m talking about. And that’s also why I learned because I got frustrated of always being pushed toward the same type of stuff, but because I didn’t know what I wanted, [I tried] to find out what else was out there.
So I basically I go to a bar and I now understand how to read a menu. I like to challenge bartenders and order something that I know will probably throw them for a loop and then once they start to realize “OK I can’t just do what I would stereotypically serve someone like her.”
I think it’s also beneficial to the bartender because they get excited because the stereotype is there for a reason. It’s not there because they don’t want to serve those types of cocktails. I think they are just used to people ordering certain kinds of cocktails and then when they find someone who challenges their thinking they get excited like, “oh if you like that let me show you this” and we just go for a ride.
BB: So for someone who doesn’t know, or is maybe in a rut, how would they even start down the path of educating themselves about liquor and cocktails?
ND: Well first I found bartenders who were willing to chat with me, so I would go during off hours or right after closing because then they are able to talk. I would ask them if there was a spirit that I was interested in, so like if I said “I’m not a big gin drinker and here’s why I don’t like gin, what would you recommend?” And I’d often just ask for taste, they’d be willing to let you taste something, and then ask them OK, what would you have with this spirit and I found that especially with a lot of cocktail forward bars they want you to learn, and they want to educate you and they get excited about stuff like that. So once I started chatting with them, then I started going online and following other cocktail bars and started reading cocktail books on my own time.
BB: What are some of the places that you would suggest for someone if they wanted to reach out to some more creative, friendly bartenders?
ND: I like R. House (301 W. 29th St., r.housebaltimore.com). The bartenders there are super-friendly and they are very creative with their drinks. Even just the names spark conversations. Like I think they did a whole “Home Alone”-themed cocktail menu for the holidays, so even the names you’re going to be like, what inspired this drink?
Since I’m into whiskey I like Bookmakers [Cocktail Club] (31 E. Cross St., bookmakersbaltimore.com). They have a huge whiskey menu so . . . they’ll be able to educate you and guide you on all things whiskey. I live in Mt. Vernon so one of my favorite neighborhood bars is B & O American Brasserie (2 N. Charles St., bandorestaurant.com). The lead bartender there, Brendan Dorr, he’s really knowledgeable about all things cocktails. He would probably, if you just picked a spirit or picked a drink, he could probably give you an entire thesis paper on the topic, so I’ve definitely learned a lot from him.
BB: Let’s talk about you and the drinks that you make and post online. When you’re making up a recipe, what is your process?
ND: Mostly I post on my Instagram and if I want to go into more detail about the drink or the process, I will post on my website. I usually try to start with a classic cocktail with classic flavors that I know work well together, so if I wanted to make something that’s a Manhattan-style, I start off, OK what kind of whiskey do I want? What am I going to do to substitute the vermouth? I try to play off of things that I know already work and then I just see how far I can take it. Like, instead of regular vermouth maybe I’ll do pomegranate and sherry. I just keep going from there. I also try to focus on what’s in season. One of my favorite books is called “The Flavor Bible” and if you look up a flavor or food or whatever it will tell you all the things that compliment it well, so that’s really helpful when you’re trying to experiment.
BB: Is this a job for you or do you have a daytime job and just do this for fun?
ND: It’s become my job. I do photography for different alcohol brands. They contact me and have me create cocktails to photograph their product. I also do paid posts for my Instagram, which I always say up front that it’s sponsored or paid. That’s allowed me to stay home with my daughter (8 months).
BB: Do you think Baltimore is a cocktail town?
ND: Baltimore and Maryland actually had big roots in rye whiskey. Maryland was the home of it and a hub, and then the prohibition came and that dried up. I think that we’re actually starting to get back to those roots with all the new distilleries that opened up and there’s a new cocktail bar opening up every month now, I can’t keep up with them. We’re known for our food but people are really starting to pay attention and notice us as a cocktail Mecca.