Should Bartenders Just Drink Cocktails

A couple weeks ago a friend, Jennifer Seidman, posted the following on facebook:

“I think its time all bartenders come out of the closet and admit we don’t drink cocktails. Truth.”

On the other hand, a while back there was a Class Magazine Interview with Sasha Petraske.

Sasha Petraske: I’m No Genius

(If you have an interest in modern bars and cocktails, I recommend reading the whole article linked above.)

Along with other things, the following quote seems to have generated a lot of controversy among the cocktail and bartender crowds.

“And he’ll always expect his staff’s passion for cocktails to be more than skin-deep. ‘Cocktail bartenders should drink cocktails. If you prefer a beer, you are a hypocrite and are morally wrong. You probably make bad cocktails too. It’s like being an acupuncturist and going to see a western doctor when you get sick.’”

Provocative statement, eh, from the person who opened (or helped to open) Milk & Honey, Little Branch, White Star, The Varnish, Dutch Kills, and Weather Up.

The two statements, though, seem to represent such opposite views, that they got me thinking.

First, I think Mr. Petraske’s use of the words “hypocrite” and “morally wrong” are sheer hyperbole, designed to fuel the Sasha Petraske hype machine.

In my opinion, words or phrases like “hypocrite” and “morally wrong”, should be reserved issues of some consequence in the world, not referring to whether a bartender has a beer or a cocktail after work.

Second, many bartenders don’t drink AT ALL. Either because they are recovering, or for health and/or cultural reasons. I should say, “Many GREAT bartenders I know and RESPECT, don’t drink AT ALL.” I am not sure what Mr Petraske would say about these people; but historically, it is interesting to note, that many of the bartenders who have actually managed to publish cocktail or bar books later in their lives, were the ones who did not drink.

Third, Bartenders, even ‘cocktail bartenders’, serve more than cocktails at bars. It behooves us to be familiar with Beers, Wines, Spirits, Soft-Drinks, coffee, tea, etc., not just Cocktails. We have to have opinions on everything we serve, not just the cocktails.

Thus, If a bar or restaurant has an interesting wine or beer that I’ve been dying to try, I might drink that instead of availing myself of their cocktails.

Not to mention, if I’m having food, I’m going to pick an appropriate beverage to complement my meal, not blanket order cocktails with everything.

On the other hand, if you’re going to seriously make cocktails for a living, and want the rest of us to take your cocktails seriously, you REALLY should be familiar with the flavor profile of most of the classic cocktails AND you should be familiar with what your compatriots in the field are currently making. You should be able to rock a Mojito, a Manhattan, a Negroni, A Martini, a South-Side, etc. and they should taste like those drinks are supposed to taste like.

Far too often, especially when tasting cocktails for competitions, I’ve wondered if some of the competitors have even tasted the spirit they are mixing with, let alone been familiar with the flavor profile of classic cocktails. More often than not, these cocktails will just taste like soft-drinks, gazpacho, or chilled fruit soup with a shot a booze. Not a cocktail at all.

Finally, after finishing a long shift of bartending, cocktail making, and then finally cleaning the bar, a lot of times the last thing you want is to make, or drink, another god damned cocktail.

Something far simpler is appealing. That IS the truth.

A Good Saloon

A Good Saloon Charles McCabe
From his collection, “The Good Man’s Weakness”, 1974

“A nice elderly lady who has never been inside one in her life asks me, ‘What is a good saloon like?’ She presumed from my writings that I had a certain expertise in the matter, and she is right.

“First, you should have certain warning signes. If there is any trace of neon outside the joint, shun it like a social disease. Especially, beware of those places which have a tipped cocktail glass about 15 feet up, done in glorious white neon.

“Not all of these places are terrible. The ones which have broken neon signs, like Gino and Carlo’s on Green Street, can be very good indeed. Despite the exceptions, though, the rule holds.

“Beware too, of artsy-cutesy names–like the Pink Panther, the Anxious Asp, the Dreamy Lagoon, etc., etc. This kind of name is for pop groups or Los Angeles. If the place has simply the name of the owner, and no neon, you’re on the way.

“Remember that a saloon is to pour drinks, in return for pay. Anytime a drinking place forgets that, it forfeits the right to be a saloon. The late John Lardner put it well:

“‘A drinking place in the purest possible sense of the phrase is one in which the boozing aspects dominates the eating aspect. This eliminates lunchrooms and all joints with floor shows or dance floors. In a true bar or saloon the focus of life is the bar itself, and the people on either side of it.’

“Like all good rules, this too has its exceptions. One of the best bars in San Francisco is at the New Pisa on Grant Avenue. This bar is just an adjunct to a crowded and thriving paisano-type restaurant. The small bar near the entrace is devoted wholly to the drinking business.

“Dante Benedetti, the owner, pours more whiskey for the money than any place I know in San Francisco, or, for that matter, anywhere. I once asked him why he poured so much booze. His answer was characteristic.

“‘Thirty years ago my old man told me to put out a good drink. So I do it.’

“Glenn Dorenbush, who has clocked more bar hours than anyone I know, has an added theory. In a good saloon, he says, everything will come to you if you sit on one bar stool long enough. He gets his friends that way, and his girls. He transacts his public relations business–for saloons, naturally–from the same stool right next to the brass service bar at Perry’s on Union Street.

“The owner of Perry’s, Mr. Perry Butler, is so awed by Dorenbush that he has placed a brass plaque on the bar, over the Dorenbush stool with the simple but impressive legend: Glenn Dorenbush.

“A good saloon is a great place to escape from cocktail parties, a curious form of social intercourse which gives a bad name to booze. Cocktail parties are a cross between a fashion show and a Persian Bazaar. Most cocktail parties are given by people who wish to make money out of them in one way or another. In a good saloon, you don’t talk about money.

“A good saloon should not have a clock. You go into one to get away from the tyranny of time, among other reasons. The most saloon-ish of all ‘Frisco saloons, the House of Shields on New Montgomery, does not have a clock. “Clock-watchers aren’t really people.” says barman Pete Ragen.

“The California attitude towards bars is well shown by the fact that, until the advent of this decade, you could not legally even call a drinking place a saloon. The liquor laws of this state seem to have been written by nuns, and administered by the FBI. Their underlying assumption is that there is a violent drunk inside every insurance salesman, and that all saloon keepers are felons at heart.

“A good saloon is, among many other things, a great place to exchange lies, to plan your future, get away from loved ones, make confession without fear of penance, learn what’s wrong with the ’49ers, work out the details of your estate, and eff off in general. It is also, as Mr. Dorenbush points out, a superb recovery room.”

A Little Hanky Panky

Well, clearly the first order of business on this trip should be to hie myself to the Savoy Hotel and enjoy a Hanky Panky!

Savoy Hotel Facade, night

Nice chat with personable Savoy Barman, Christian, originally from Northern Italy.

Christian Garnishes

He garnishes the Hanky Panky with a wide swath of Orange!

Enjoying Hankyp

Wonderful, to experience and dedication he takes to the craft, a wonderful Japanese style shake, hand cracked perfectly clear ice for stirred cocktails.

Tequila Drink

For the second drink, he chose to make us a drink he had made for an event matching Tequila with Japanese Food. Beautifully refreshing and light, it contained Matcha Green Tea, Citrus, and Tequila.

Pints at The Harp

Of course, the second priority must be pints of Real Ale! The Harp has a great selection of well kept cask ale, recommended if you are in the neighborhood.

Dukes Martin[i,ez]

“You gotta have the Dukes Martini! It’s a thing. They have a cart.”

Martini Cart

When famed journalist and international traveler Camper English tells you, you have to try a thing, you probably should, at least once!

Well, if it is drink related, anyway.

So, yes, the Dukes Hotel Bar has a Martini Cart. This system, I believe originated when Salvatore Calabrese was the head barman at the Dukes Bar.

When you order a Martini, (or Martinez,) the bartender, in this case the wonderful Alessandro Palazzi, rolls the cart out to your table with what he will need to make your cocktail, including frozen glassware, Vermouth, and very, very chilled Gin.

Alesandro Mixes

His first step is to dash into your glass a little custom vermouth, “made with English wine”. If you desire your Martini or Martinez “Wet” he will leave the dashes of vermouth in the glass. Otherwise, it is just a rinse. Next he raises a frosted bottle of Gin and pours a health measure into the glass. Finally, he finishes the Martini by cutting a wide swath of peel from a lemon and squeezing it over the glass.

Dukes Martinez

Just don’t have more than one, if you have plans for the rest of your evening!

Neighborhood Geology

Ridiculously expensive drinks, barrel aged cocktails, cocktail tasting menus, and ‘molecular mixology’ are all well and good, but to me the most exciting recent development in American cocktail culture is the neighborhood bar with decent, and usually relatively reasonably priced, cocktails.

Rock Bar Sign

We are lucky to have at least two such establishments within slightly aerobic, (our neighborhood is called Bernal HEIGHTS,) walking distance of our house. The first to open was Royal Cuckoo near Mission and Valencia. A fun establishment, they have many of the trendy accoutrements of craft cocktail bars: Curated LP selection, taxidermy, and an organ built into the bar.

The Donkey

The second to open in our neighborhood opened a little less than a year ago across the street from the established Southern American Comfort Food restaurant, Front Porch at 29th Street & Tiffany. Opened by the same partners that opened Front Porch, Rock Bar moved into the space that housed the dubious International Club and is rather interestingly Geologically, Minerally, and Mining themed.

Silent Movie Night

They also have a jukebox curated by the nearby Aquarius Records staff, a pool table, and several exciting theme nights including Football on Sunday, Ping Pong on Monday, Teacher Tuesday, and Films Played Silently on Wednesday. The night I stopped by they were playing Buster Keaton shorts.

Rock Salt

I did mention it was Minerally themed?

Mixed Fry

Anyway, two of the best things about Rock Bar, are first, that you can put your name in at Front Porch, and then retire to Rock Bar, while you wait for your table. Front Porch, being a small and rather popular restaurant, is often busy, so a place to retire and chat is always nice. However, secondly, waiting an extended period with only drinks and no nutrients can be dangerous, so you are allowed to call over to Front Porch for take out, and they will deliver it to Rock Bar, such as this Big Bucket of Mixed Fry Up, including Chicken Wings, Okra, Pickles, and Potatoes.

Gold Street Cocktail

I recently stopped in to try some of their new fall cocktails and chat with the staff. Bar manager Brion Rosch started me off with a story.

“When I opened the bar, I told our co-owner Kevin Cline that I wanted to have Cocchi Americano. He kind of freaked out. He had previously worked at Bix, where someone had briefly had an infatuation with Cocchi Americano. Every month Kevin had to do an inventory and count the many bottles of Cocchi Americano, some still old enough to have tax stamps, and could never figure out a way to sell it. So I’m going to start you out with a drink a created as a tribute to Kevin and his time at Bix, on Gold Street, in San Francisco. It’s called the Gold Street Cocktail and is Plymouth Gin, Cocchi Americano, and Angostura Bitters.”

Dry and delicious, this is a Martini on steroids.

Fall Pisco Punch

The second drink we tried was his Fall Pisco Punch. The traditional Pisco Punch’s most basic elements are Pisco, Citrus, and Pineapple. He’s keeping the Pisco and Lime, but has made a sort of custom sweetener by combining Small Hand Foods Pineapple Gum, Allspice Dram, and other secret ingredients. Definitely has that fall, Christmas spice feel.

“Kevin was giving me a hard time about how many fall drinks we’re using Allspice Dram in.”

I told Brion, I actually think it is a requirement for all fall drinks.

Old Sage Cocktail

Lastly, we tried Brion’s most recent concoction, The Old Sage. This drink started as a variation on an Old Fashioned, using St George Spirits Dry Rye Gin as a base. A couple iterations later, and somehow egg white ended up in the drink. That day, they had gotten in some awesome new organic Sage over at Front Porch. When co-owner Josey White tried the drink, she suggested Brion include some sage with the Dry Rye in the drink. I was pretty impressed by how well the flavor of pungent sage combined with the St George Dry Rye. Sweet and savory at the same time, this would be a fun after dinner drink.

If you find yourself in the outer Mission/Bernal Heights area, do stop by Rock Bar. Good drinks, good beer, friendly folks, and more Minerals & Crystals than you are likely to find in any other bar in the world.

Omakase

From the wikipedia entry about “Omakase“:

“Omakase is a Japanese phrase that means “I’ll leave it to you” and it comes from the word for “entrust”.

“The expression is used at sushi restaurants to leave the selection to the chef. It differs from ordering à la carte. The chef will generally present a series of plates, beginning with the lightest fare and proceeding to heaviest, richest dishes. The phrase is not exclusive to service of raw fish with rice, and can incorporate grilling and simmering as well. Customers ordering omakase style expect the chef to be innovative and surprising in the selection of dishes, and the meal can be likened to an artistic performance by the chef. Ordering omakase can be a gamble; however, the customer typically receives the highest quality fish the restaurant currently has in stock at a price cheaper than if it was ordered à la carte. From the restaurant’s perspective, a large number of customers ordering omakase can help in planning for food costs.”

The other day, while I was working with him at Alembic, Danny Louie asked me what bartenders I admired in San Francisco.

I went through the litany of respected bartenders I admire in San Francisco and why.

But later, I was thinking about it, and another candidate for my favorite tender of a bar doesn’t make drinks at all.

Tim Archuleta and his wife run Ichi Sushi in my San Francisco neighborhood.

Tim runs his Sushi Bar more like a neighborhood Sushi Tavern, greeting guests as the come in. Asking them about their families or dogs. Keeping track of the progress of the various diners’ meals at his sushi bar. Pacing people’s meals so they don’t get too full or wait too long. All the while, cutting and serving some of the freshest sushi I’ve ever tasted.

I really admire the spirit he brings to the restaurant and to his guests.

Every time we go in, I usually just say chef’s choice and tell him how much we’d like to eat and what we are in the mood for.

It’s really fun, the way he paces the meal, starting with lighter fare, throwing in a few cooked dishes, and finishing again with lighter, almost dessert sushi.

Watching him work has made me think about how to properly pace and what order to serve people drinks. What drink is best first, what to follow with, what to finish with. If a guest asks you what to pair a dish with, what do you tell them?

Some of the best experiences I’ve had being served by a bartender have been at the Slanted Door, when my wife and I are lucky enough to be served by Mr. Erik Adkins*.

Like Omakase, we give him a framework of what we are interested in, how hungry, do we have food allergies, do we like oysters, etc, and he fills it out with what food is currently best at the restaurant and pairs it with wine, beer and spirits. His knowledge of both the food and drink is amazing but it is his apparent joy at serving us, as guests, with the best he has to offer, which is truly inspirational.

I don’t really have a moral to this story, other than to to point out the self evident: As bartenders, it is important to be aware of the larger context of the guests’ experiences.

I REALLY enjoy making great cocktails and impressing guests with them, but sometimes you have to put away the desire to impress a guest with your cocktail making skill and respect the trust they have put in you, whatever that means, on that on that night, for that particular guest, at that exact moment.

*I will note that I do work for Mr. Adkins at Heaven’s Dog. This is in no way meant to suck up to him, he already gave me a job afterall, just an honest expression of my admiration for his talents as a host and bartender.

Ambivalence

After a dry Mekons concert at the Swedish American Hall, could have used a drink.

Close to Churchill, maybe I can stop in and say “Hi” to Karly or Trevor.

The long line of young people waiting to get in, nixed that idea.

Wait, what the!? What is that the young people are wearing on their heads?

What I can only describe as “Balloon Animal Crowns”!

It doesn’t even look like a Hen Party. I guess I need to get out a little more at night…

Is it normal to be relieved I don’t have to deal with these sort of people where I work and at the same time, a little jealous?