A short interview with Sam Harriss
by Victoria Bourne
Sam Harriss slings liquid melodies at weddings and other events from the window of a remodeled 1969 Shasta camper trailer. The 36-year-old calls Kill Devil Hills home, but seems often as not on the road.
Camp Cocktail, a mobile bartending business that Harriss founded in 2014, was fueled by a food-truck revelation and a need to constantly move, she says. Since then, her caravan bar for hire has taken her north to New York, south to Florida and all the way west to California. But that’s only part of the story. Here’s more.
What was your life pre-Camp Cocktail?
My background is in fine art, and I studied from Savannah, Georgia, to Wollongong, Australia, for painting. Then I fell into the crafts movement of woodworking, metals, and fibers and moved to the Northwest to pursue this in full. When I finally moved back to the Outer Banks, I struggled to use my art as a way to make ends meet. The whole food-truck craze of Portland was a revelation for me. … I found a camper to renovate and thought the worst that can happen is I will have a permanent bar in my front yard.
What is it about the camp culture that inspired you to start this business?
I have always had a very romantic relationship with the road, and the idea of being able to make a living and get to travel around our amazing country is more than a job perk.
What’s the biggest challenge of operating a mobile-bartending company?
Emails! Everything techy I am terrible at. I struggle to sit down in front of a television, let alone a computer.
What do you love most about your little Shasta?
The fantastic couple that built her, Paul and Kim (Fuelling) at Mabel Studios. I get to see their little artistic signatures all over her from the antique metal wings to creative uses of found driftwood.
Why the vintage vibe?
When I picture the idealistic camper, I always envision the 1950s-’60s with the tasseled candy-striped awnings, the Coleman lanterns and coolers, folks sitting around in those aluminum folding chairs using church keys to pop their beer cans. Just kinda fits to throw in a record player and serve Moscow mules out of enameled camp mugs.
What is your signature cocktail for 2019?
A mezcal old-fashioned is something we have made quite a few of this year. I use fresh cherries that I brandy and can every year and stir up with mole bitters and orange rind. It’s a great cold-weather campfire cocktail or a boozier alternative to a summery tequila drink.
A percentage of your profits go toward national parks. How much have you given?
Not enough to brag, unfortunately – a couple hundred each year. But here on the Outer Banks, we are always supporting our national seashores.
So where’d you get those “travelin’ bones”?
When I was 21, I stayed up late and bid on a 1959 Airstream and won. I remember telling my family and they had no idea what an Airstream was; they thought I was going mad. That was the turning point and it’s been hard to keep me in one spot ever since. I have traveled across the USA now seven times and each time I fall more in love with our beautiful country.
What are you doing when you’re not slinging drinks?
Probably rolling around with my dog; he’s always within arm’s reach. But I’m still an artist by trade, and my hands are always dirty in some way that allows me creative expression. I have a small home pottery studio that I get lost in, and a big garden that I keep up for my business, growing all the fresh herbs and edible flowers.
Did you really bartend for Bill Murray, and was it as cool as we imagine?
It was bizarro – from the first phone call to watching the award show, just surreal to see my tiny, homegrown business inside the Kennedy Center (for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., for Murray’s Mark Twain Prize celebration). Wish I could say we exchanged some words, but he had an entourage around him like a pack of wolves.