Storyteller. Therapist. Mixologist. Casey Lyons is a bartender extraordinaire who routinely goes outside the lines creating cocktail recipes. He is Walter White with liquor and mixers, willing to go all Breaking Bad with certain concoctions.
When the crowd is three-deep at his Huntington Beach hotel bar he’s both ringmaster and tightrope walker. And yet, catch him when the patronage is sparse and he’ll engage you with stories that will mist your eyes.
“A bartender’s life is filled up with all these 10-second and 30-second conversations,” Lyons says. “It’s so refreshing when you can lean against the bar and have more than a one-minute Instagram spiel about who you are. That doesn’t happen enough.”
It’s happening today. He cordially expands a one-on-one session with me to a half-hour, during an afternoon lull between lunch and dinner.
Not long ago, Lyons’ personal life was on the rocks. Emotionally shattered, he shouldered his baggage and set out from Arizona for a fresh start in Southern California. Now the lead bartender at Pacific Hideaway in Kimpton Shorebreak Huntington Beach Resort, he has transitioned to winning Orange County cocktail contests and having his Johnny Utah recipe selected for inclusion in Jack Daniels’ 2018 Jack’s Black Book of cocktails.
In Surf City USA, Lyons represents the beach-side community with free spirit and low-key demeanor—though he has a high-concept sense of presentation. Witness two of the 56 specialty drinks in his repertoire. The Magic Mike is inspired by that film about a merry band of male strippers. The drink features orange-flavored Red Bull, vodka, coconut cream, pineapple juice and comes with a plastic mini disco ball and a tiny bow tie. It’s served along with a PG-rated dance inspired by the movie moves of Channing Tatum.
Then there’s the Dazed and Confused. It’s Lyons’ take on a rum-based Dark & Stormy. This version has a unique garnish clipped on the rim of the glass—a faux doobie made of sage and oregano wrapped in rolling paper.
Lyons is rolling toward local legend status. His most intoxicating offering, however, may be his origin story. With matter-of-fact melancholy, Lyons sits on a stool in Pacific Hideaway’s airy, second-floor outdoor patio—the iconic Huntington Beach wooden pier as backdrop—and recalls how his former girlfriend took her own life.
When your world explodes
The issue of suicide has come to the fore of late, spotlighted by the sad deaths of TV travel personality Anthony Bourdain and high-profile designer Kate Spade. Over the past two decades, the suicide rate in the United States has increased 28 percent, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Lyons and his girlfriend were living together and working at a Phoenix bar-and-restaurant called Culinary Dropout. In love with Valerie, he mail orders an elaborate engagement ring—a special design Lyons describes as “Games of Thrones-y with a black opal pearl in the center.” He is set to pop the question during a New Orleans vacation. But the ring isn’t delivered on time. The proposal is postponed. Days later, he wakes up at their place in Scottsdale and finds her.
“It’s March 2, 2015, at 10:16 a.m.,” he recalls. “Do I feel comfortable talking about it? Well, I’m a bartender. I tell stories. And the repetition makes it a bit easier.”
Your first impression of Lyons wouldn’t lead you to expect this conversational direction. He has an intimidating physique. Tattoos abound on his chest and ample arms. A round-brimmed cowboy hat bridles shoulder-length brown hair. The longish beard that frames his jowl is manscaped though not exactly metrosexual.
He lasted two months at the bar where he and Valerie worked together. “Then I couldn’t do it anymore. Too much of happiness is not having to look over your shoulder all the time.”
When the police arrive the morning his would-be fiancé dies, Lyons says they advise him not to overthink the situation. “They say, ‘Never question whether or not they were going to do this. If they did this, they were always going to do this.’ Once you swallow that it gets a little bit easier.”
A new start in Huntington Beach
Lyons makes the move to Huntington Beach with two friends who are also hospitality veterans. One, Blake Brissette-Mathias, becomes the food-and-beverage director at the Kimpton Shorebreak and brings on Lyons, who’s worked in hospitality since he was 16.
“I started in the back, making pizzas,” he says. “Then I get pushed to the front of the house. I wasn’t a personable or gregarious person back then. I was the kind of guy who annoyed teachers. The front of the house provides a challenge. It forces me to be as extroverted as possible. It’s absolutely exhausting. And…I love it. Every day is another day on stage.”
And with the stage comes drama. Last summer, four guests are drinking at Lyons’ bar and as happens, ask him about his backstory. He retells it. Then he notices one of the men seems to come unglued.
“One of his buddies tells me the guy’s wife has just died two weeks ago.” Lyons says, shaking his head. “I feel horrible. These guys are here for their friend, taking him out to remind him why he’s alive.”
In the moment, Lyons can see the pain in the man’s eyes and knows exactly what he is feeling. Before Lyons had left Phoenix, a manager gave him a Giving Key necklace with the word LOVE imprinted on it. Giving Keys are goodwill “pay-it-forward” tokens.
“I take the necklace off and I give him a big hug. I say to him: This is what somebody gave me, and I’m supposed to give it to somebody when they need it more than I do.”
Yes, being a bartender is still akin to being a therapist. Lyons opines that regularly dealing with the entrances and exits of an alcohol-fueled customer base is more taxing than the workload of most psychologists.
He embraces the responsibility, as well the task of tending to his own demons. “I love what I do,” he says. “And I love bartending…and I loved doing it with her. I still see her in every bottle of Jim Beam.” She was a bourbon girl.
It got weird, Lyons says, when Kimpton first hired him and sent him to Bourbon Country for a bartending summit. “We’re in Heaven Hill, Kentucky. Jim Beam has a walkway there made of bricks that people dedicate and inscribe with names of the deceased.” He visits the Scottsdale/Phoenix section of the walkway. There on one of the bricks is her name.
“I’m with 60 strangers at a new job. I’m on this beautiful green hill staring out at the vastness…and there she is, again. Was this on purpose? Was this a good or bad thing? I don’t know. I do know that if you ask too many questions you don’t get to enjoy the details as much.”
Point taken. And yet, like a great craft cocktail or poignant barroom tale, attention to detail usually elevates the experience. I notice that Lyons’ self-reflection prompts the same in his audience. My takeaway is that moments happen and pass. Live in the moment, even though memories linger.
As it gets closer to the dinner rush I realize it’s unfair to bogart the bartender all afternoon. The show must go on. The next patient may be about to arrive. J&J