Q-and-A: Michael Silva of MXR Cocktail Kits and BAS Cocktail Popups
The local bartender explains how he's using his popup cocktail business and cocktail kits to bring people together and build community.
Michael Silva is integrating the local craft cocktail scene one drink at a time. The local bartender mixes up drinks at various venues, most recently Courtland Club in Providence. He also launched his own popup cocktail business, BĀS, to introduce a new audience to beverages made with quality spirits, freshly squeezed juices and handcrafted, infused syrups, first at his own private bar, and then at various businesses around town. Soon after that, he launched MXR Cocktail Kits to bring that high-end DIY-drink-making experience into people’s homes while also fostering a sense of community. The kits include drink recipes, freshly squeezed juices, handcrafted syrups, bitters, garnishes and a jigger (everything but the alcohol). Silva, who is also a full-time high school special education teacher, is vocal about inclusiveness in the food and beverage scene and is working hard to bring diverse people together through his business. His goal is to continue to use his platform in the industry to make everyone, no matter what they look like, feel comfortable checking out places they haven’t been exposed to before in Providence.
Here is a lightly edited conversation with Silva.
How did you get the idea for the cocktail kits?
It was actually my girlfriend, Miellette McFarlane’s idea. We were in a long-distance relationship at the time, so she would joke around about how could she learn to make drinks, and we realized that there were some barriers to it. She came up with the idea and we worked on it together, but it is really her brain child. At the time, we had built a little bit of a base following through the BĀS popups. The popups are really fun. They are my favorite thing to do, but a lot of work goes into those things. For a popup, our team is maybe four to five people. I am working at other bars, I am teaching full time, I do have a lot on my plate, so MXR was a way to continue to connect with people through drinks and not have to do a popup or virtual event. This was all pre-COVID, too, which was great, because we already had a way to get cocktails to people so they could make them at home.
It’s so easy to do. I mixed them up at home and they came out just like I was at a high-end bar. I was so impressed. Everything was a perfect measure.
We thought about how we could get this novelty product, this classy thing, into other people’s hands. Sometimes it doesn’t get to the audience it should. How could we take something people usually don’t do, and bring it into your home at a really reasonable price? How can we empower you to try something new? That was really what we were trying to do; build community through this activity of creating something in your home.
You definitely succeeded with that. It’s funny, because I am actually writing a story about the Industrious Spirits Company, and I see your MXR kits all over their Instagram feed, too.
That’s been going really good. I made that connection with Manya and ISCO a little while ago. We did a partnership with them [where they sell Silva’s MXR kits alongside ISCO’s gin and vodka at the tasting room]. That’s something we could do: Just holler at distilleries all over the place. We also just started doing this marketplace at the Dean Hotel. It has been really good because it’s face to face. We are direct to the customer and I have to give props to Miellette again because she is really good with people, and she does a great job of selling the kits. I think they are going to continue to do the marketplace into the fall.
I saw that you have worked with Social Enterprise Greenhouse (SEG) and Hope and Main food and drink business incubator. Are you still with Hope and Main now? Is that your commercial space where you produce everything?
Yes, I do work with Hope and Main, and I also still work at the Courtland Club, so I do a lot of work there too. I work at other restaurants downtown. Basically, it takes a village for everything we have been doing. I do have a good relationship with Hope and Main, but if I can get access to a kitchen in Providence, I do that.
How did SEG and Hope and Main help you to get the business going?
When I started to venture into all of this, I didn’t have a clue on what to do. Everything was a shot in the dark, and I didn’t even know that all these things were out there that people were able to take advantage of. There are millions of food businesses and restaurants, but I wasn’t immersed into the business side of things, and I never thought I wanted to do anything like this. It just kind of happened. They did a good job of giving me the information. For me, I just go, go, go, and make things happen. But they do a good job of trimming the fat and giving you the steps you need to make it happen.
Can you tell me more about BĀS popup cocktails?
That started in my parents’ basement. My dad had built a bar down there, and then when me and my brother lived there, I was working at the Dorrance at the time. They said, one way to learn is to make a bunch of syrups and practice on your friends. I was working at the Dorrance and it was great and I learned a lot, but I didn’t feel like I fit in over there. But I was also really new to the Providence cocktail scene. After awhile, I could tell that I was the only person in the room that looked like me both behind the bar and in front of the bar and that was sitting with me for awhile. We woke up one day and had this grand idea that there is a huge void for places for me to go to where I feel comfortable, not being the only Black person in the room. It is about blazing your own trail and creating spaces, but at the end of the day, I know so many people who are my age, young folks in the Rhode Island area, who would like to go to some shit like that, but they don’t feel comfortable. So I invited all my friends to my parents’ basement and we started doing secret popups that we didn’t promote, and I personally invited people.
And you introduced that same style of fancy cocktails to your audience?
We were bringing it to all these people who had never tried these things before. I wanted to introduce people to what I considered simple ingredients, so that they could feel a little more comfortable coming to our events. And then if they go to a different bar, they will know what things like bitters are and they will know what chartreuse is because they learned it at one of our events.
It’s about exposing new people to new things, too. And that helps make those venues more comfortable for everybody once they are introduced to it.
I was still doing this in my parents’ basement, but then my friend Siobhán Chavarría, who owns Berri, was running her Supper Club out of some really cool space. We did our first popup bar there and then hit the ground running. We have been teaming up with spaces ever since, but it has been really hard. Siobhan reached out to me in late May or early June, and at that time, everything was still kind of new with Covid. We put together a #NewDay popup fundraiser and ended up raising $6,000 in three hours for the George Floyd Memorial Fund and Breonna Taylor’s Memorial Fund. People rallied, we were grateful that we did it and we were able to be in that position. We made everything easy. Buy a drink and then you support, just like that. But there was irony in that day, too. We were like if you really want to continue to help and do the work, then you need to continue to support these small businesses. We posted to have folks subscribe to our email list, and despite being able to raise $6,000, nobody subscribed to the email list.
People were definitely looking for a way to help, but you’re right, it needs to be more than just a one-day thing. It’s great that you raised that money and you are using your platform to also expose other small businesses.
It works both ways. We work with spaces we feel like people haven’t been before, or at least we know our audience hasn’t been before. For example, if I know I am going to go to this place and be the only brother in there, then obviously, I know there are a hundred other guys who look like me that would love to come to a place like this, too. I make the connection because I am in the industry. We did this with Riff Raff, and that was great. I met Tom, the co-owner, and I introduced people who had never gone to Riff Raff, and in turn, Riff Raff got all these new people interested in what they are doing.
Because they are familiar and comfortable with you and your product, that helps to bring everybody together. I love that.
That’s what this whole thing is about. We are just trying to create space for everyone to feel comfortable. We want to familiarize and educate who I believe is an underrepresented demographic in the cocktail industry. Covid has thrown a lot of wrenches to everyone. I can’t sit here and complain, but we were really trying to get creative with this thing. We were trying to make use of a lot of different spaces.
I also work at Courtland Club, and I was there before everything went down. I am still there in a different capacity, which is great, because it allows me to focus on my own thing. But we teamed up with them last week, and that was really good. I remember days when I really wanted to work at the Courtland Club. I was wishing and dreaming I could be there, because for me, it was the number one place. Jay, the owner, has been a fantastic owner and friend. He had asked me if we wanted to do something there just because he wanted to support me and my business. He gave us 100 percent creative control. I am hoping to do more there.
You said a lot of really cool stuff about the scene and how we can bring everyone together more, expose people to new things, and make a better community out of Providence.
That’s what we have been trying to do. I remember in the beginning feeling like the fire was really burning. But then, I was also like is it okay to do what I am doing? Am I going to piss anyone off? And we definitely pissed people off. But we made way more people happier.
On October 26-28, BĀS popup cocktailswill hold a special event called Black and Brown Liqqas.
Learn about “Black and Brown Liqqas” from Michael Silva of BAS cocktail popups and MXR Cocktail Kits. Get a brief history of darker spirits on October 26 from 5-10 p.m. and October 27 and 28 from 5-10 p.m. at the former location of birch restaurant at 200 Washington St. in Providence. On Mon. Oct. 26, there will be cocktails and handmade pizzas for purchase, and on Tues. and Wed., Oct. 27-28, chef Brandon Puckett of north will serve small bites. Here is a description of the event: “What if we told you that Jack Daniels had a deeper cultural connection than just dorm room nostalgia? Or that the love that Black people share towards Cognac was more about acceptance than it is neighborhood tradition? Or that Jamaican Rum in your fancy vacation drink was built off the backs of manual labor? Black and Brown Liqqas is about retelling stories that were once forgotten. It’s about how an industry that is primarily dominated by middle aged white males actually owes its most praise to groups of people who share direct lineage to an integral part of this industries early beginning.” All items are available for curbside pickup and to-go. Make a reservation by direct message on Instagram at @baspvd. ⠀