The Mixology Maven Making Moves – Roxanne Read AKA ‘Rox the Fox’

Words: Robyn Samuels

Amidst the hustle and bustle of nightlife and libations, someone’s hailing a taxi home, someone’s celebrating the start of a new job abroad and saying goodbye to old friends; a strange guy is delivering a dreadful pickup line, someone’s ordering a gin and tonic to mend a broken heart, and on the other side of the counter, there’s a mixologist serving it. If you’re lucky enough, she goes by Roxanne Read or ‘Rox the Fox’, and she’s seen and lived it all.

Meet Roxanne Read

Born in the ‘City of Gold’, Johannesburg, Read’s 16-year career in bartending and mixology has taken her from the strips of Melville to the Caribbean islands – a dream destination for this rum lover. Her background in film school and acting, coupled with extensive mixology and industry experience, means she treats the bar as her stage. Aside from being flown across the globe to participate in cocktail competitions, one of the best parts of her job is that she ‘gets to play a million characters every day.’ Now working as a mixologist and ‘everything bar related’ consultant while training young creatives in Cape Town, Read has endured the late nights and the bitter and simple-syrup moments in between…

Before you bartended, you did film production & acting; why did you decide to make the shift to mixology?

Both careers happened naturally and developed alongside each other. During film school at AFDA in Jozi, I needed to make money and my campus was super close to the old Melville strip. I was looking for a job one day and met an amazing bartender juggling lemons behind the bar 6 Melville, he basically said I didn’t stand a chance being a bartender at a pumping bar like ‘6’, being one of the oldest and busiest cocktail bars in Jozi. At the time, there were only one or two females behind the bar, and he was sure I wouldn’t make it past the six-week training program. Sounded like a challenge to me, and now I’m sixteen years in!

During my time there, I was introduced to industry legends who saw I had a natural talent for flavour profiles. They trained me and started sending me all over the globe to compete in cocktail comps as a ‘mixo’. Naturally, after I had had that exposure, people from home looked to me to incorporate international trends and share the knowledge that I had learnt overseas. I believe the bar is a stage. You get to play a million characters every day with loads of different people, so I don’t really see the one existing without the other. I am a performer every day.

Your career has taken you to dream destinations around the world; what’s been your favourite travel experience so far?

Trinidad and Tobago, part of the Caribbean islands. I went there for an Angostura Bitters cocktail comp many years ago and joined their carnivals. It was an unforgettable trip.

What do you think of the conscious drinking movement, with more people choosing to forgo booze?

The birth of mocktails in this country is very exciting actually. Overseas, it’s standard procedure to have a mocktail list, but that hasn’t been a huge focus locally, until now. I’m really enjoying watching the culture of conscious drinking grow organically in SA. It has also opened a new platform for creatives in the industry. For some time, our mocktail menus were two kinds of juice in a standard Collins glass, but now, we’re being forced to create mocktails that are just as exciting, if not more appealing than cocktails. The industry has definitely become more aware in the past six years; the audience demands creativity, which is wonderful because it forces evolution.

Favourite thing about the Cape Town cocktail scene?

We are blessed to have some of the coolest ingredients around us. So many menus incorporate local products and highlight the amazing natural ingredients we have in Cape Town. Seeing things like fynbos infusions are common and part of the conversation, both from behind the bar and from guests, which is amazing. Shame, poor Jozi, you can’t infuse cement into vodka!

Being a bartender or mixologist is not for the faint of heart. How do you manage the late nights and busy schedule?

Thankfully, I’m more involved in the training and development side of things now, so I don’t do as many late nights as I used to – I definitely earned my stripes! But I do like to stay in service, so that I can relate to the bartender’s struggles when I’m training. I have an entire section in my course dedicated to maintaining personal health and wellness. It’s easy to get lost trying to maintain the stamina required to passionately serve people day after day. Physically and mentally, you need to find a healthy work/life balance, otherwise, the industry will chew you up and spit you out – I know, it’s happened to me!

Now, I try to make healthier decisions, which requires a bit of time management and preparation to maintain, like precooking big-batch healthy food to just grab and go rather than buying takeaways. I make sure to get out into nature for a few hours, at least twice a week. It can be as simple as walking the promenade or taking a chilled hike, but it’s more important that you remember to move your body for fun and not just for work. I also have a strict early morning routine which has kept me grounded – 30 mins of exercise (just in my PJs in my lounge, nothing fancy, nothing expensive). I do different things each day, like wall yoga, online dance classes, HITT workouts and meditation sessions to keep it fresh, otherwise I get bored. My routine has literally changed my world and approach to work.

What’s a day in the life of ‘Rox the Fox’ like?

This is hard to say actually! I’m allergic to mundanity and addicted to adventure. So to feed that side, I spend my days off doing the most random things. I’ll just hop in the car and drive in any direction for a few hours ’till I get to some cold water, jump in the ocean or look for a hiking trail. Typically, I’ll cruise until I find one of those crafty-looking, side-of-the-road restaurants near small towns throughout SA, and try something unique on their menu. Other than that, I’m always up for doing strange classes and workshops.

Recently, I did a build-your-own terrarium workshop, and a seaweed foraging workshop – where we picked different types of seaweed and cooked with them – the stranger, the better! You will also not be able to get hold of me during the trance scene season! I will be barefoot on the dance floor, throwing down as often as possible.

What emerging drink trends are you loving at the moment?

I am fully behind a new drink called NUMUTI. They have two versions, one called Unwind and one called Thrive. Besides the cool branding, the guys behind the product are proper gems. It’s a marula sparkling drink – basically, a marula-flavoured drink with Sceletium, which is a ground-cover plant from SA. It has a long history as a traditional medicine used by our local tribes; in different doses, it can enhance mood, cause relaxation and euphoria, and boost energy. The time for tapping into our natural magic is here and it’s so exciting!

Mixology requires innovation and a deep understanding of flavours; how do you create unique drink concepts?

The first thing I do is sit down with the company, venue or person wanting new concepts and figure out what their ethos is and what they want to say with the drink. From that conversation, you’ll get mad hints of what products to use. Then, it’s a case of letting your imagination run wild – no good pairing happens without playing. After which, I’ll hit the kitchen and start manipulating products to see what we can come up with. The most important thing is to remember that everything you put into that drink should lend to the desired drinking experience and tell a story.

What’s been your proudest cocktail creation or collaboration?

I did an amazing menu that stretched my creativity for Park Hyatt Hotel in India. The brief for the menu was ‘chilli’. I was told I needed to create a 25-drink-big experiential cocktail menu that was Instagram-worthy and each drink had to incorporate chilli!! The restaurant itself had an inventory of over 30 types of chilli from all over the world. The trick was to not allow every drink to have a dominant chilli flavour profile – for example, I created a clarified carrot, almond and green tea martini with a green chilli mist on top.

What’s your experience been as a female mixologist in SA? Do you ever get sick of the ‘boy’s club culture’?

You know, this is a topic that I don’t ever think will not be a hot conversation. Firstly, let me say that being a female in bars in SA is much better than in other parts of the world. We are actually very fortunate to have the kind of male culture we do in this country, in my opinion. And I think that has developed from growing up being told how dangerous it is here for women, and with initiatives like Real Men Don’t Rape being drilled into our societies. Of course, there are situations and men that will cross lines, but not nearly as often as it happens in some other parts of the world. I have also found that if there is some douche bag being a %&^* at your bar and you bring it to the attention of the people around you, generally, the men around (even if they don’t know him) will put him back in his place, which doesn’t always happen overseas.

When we talk about the ‘boy’s club culture’, I’ve definitely seen a shift in the past few years. There are definitely more respected females moving into higher positions of influence within the industry. I don’t think it’s nearly where it could be, but it’s definitely more vocal. Projects like SIS exist now that are entirely made up of female industry movers and shakers, and serve as a platform to share information and opportunities within the female arenas before it goes to the mainstream industry.

How do you balance tradition and innovation without offending purists?

I mean, is there a space for purists in the ‘mixo’ world? No, I’m kidding. I think as long as you treat your ingredients with integrity and make sure you are covering your bases like sustainability, health, wellness and responsible sourcing and consumption, you won’t ever really butcher a product to a point that it upsets someone.

Photo credit: Park Hyatt Hyderabad

If you were a cocktail, which would you be and why?

I created a cocktail called ‘Pirate Juice’ about 7 years ago at a bar in Braamfontein in Jozi. It was served either hot or cold because that’s how I run – high emotions in either direction! It was a spiced rum cocktail – rum is my jam; if being a bartender is like going to college then I majored in rum. I also added a bunch of sexy spices like ginger, cayenne pepper and nutmeg, and an unexpected twist of fresh garlic syrup. The balance of sweet, spicy and unexpected savoury matches my core personality pillars.

What advice would you give aspiring mixologists?

I would tell them that this is not an after-school or in-between job, this is a serious social responsibility. It takes a very special person to care about strangers and serve them every day from a place of love, and actually enjoy it. Take pride in that; you are more important than you think. People working in bars are basically first responders to social experiences. People go to bars for every reason you can think of, and you are the person they share their thoughts with. A man whose wife just had a baby, a first date that might end up being a 40-year marriage, a break up that leads to a new lease on life, a chick who gets fired and realises she actually wants to be doing something else with her life… these pivotal moments happen right in front of you. Be grateful for that opportunity.

When it comes to focusing on mixology itself, my advice is that no one will take you on the ride – you have to create that journey for yourself. That comes with loads of self-improvement and self-awareness, whilst ensuring you keep up with global trends. Put yourself out there and demand people to give you the time to showcase your talent, even if it doesn’t go anywhere. Just staying relevant and on the tips of people’s lips is the most important way to be accepted as a creative in this industry.

Keep up with Roxanne Read and her cocktail creations on Instagram. For everything food, drinks and lifestyle related, subscribe here

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