An Introduction to H. Joseph Ehrmann:
Ehrmann spent years working in bars across the country before he renovated a run down San Fransisco saloon in 2003 which reopened as Elixir. At the time I spoke to him he was working with Square One Spirits and organizing The Barbary Coast Conservancy of the American Cocktail. We also spoke about his approach to bartending and mixology.
What is the story of Elixir?:
H: I bought [Elixir] in 2003. There has been nothing but a saloon at that corner since 1858 and I'm one in a long line of saloonkeepers. The existing bar was built in 1907, the place that was there burned down in 1906 along with the rest of the city. It is the 2nd longest continually operating saloon location [in San Fransisco].
While looking to open a bar Ehrmann found a neighborhood Irish bar available.
H: I looked at the molding, the back bar, the fixtures. I stepped outside & walked across the street and I realized that these people have no idea what they're sitting on. I bought a dive bar and I revived it.
What are the drinks like today at Elixir?:
H: I personally am a whiskey and tequila drinker, so my biggest spirit collections are my whiskies and tequilas and that becomes the cornerstone of my drinks. We have a classics menu, different spirituous 19th century style drinks.
On the more creative mixology, I am more focused on the more California, culinary market-driven cocktails that are very produce driven. I use the Barbary Coast imagery in the naming of the drinks, tying my cocktails into the fact that we are a saloon [with that influence]. A cocktail that is named after a rough and tumble gold miner may feature a rhubarb syrup and an organic tequila.
Does the Barbary Coast and San Fransisco's cocktail history influence you?:
H: [There was a] boom of mixology. Jerry Thomas coming through here in the late 1850-60's, "Cocktail Bill" Boothby, and Duncan Nichol are part of a long line of cocktail and drinking history in SF. Being a saloon that was around in that era, we're part of that history.
H: [The Old-Sydney Town Punch] was a nod to the Barbary Coast, using spirits that were dominant in that time like genever and all-spice dram. I was trying to use classic ingredients of that time and a classic punch formula to create a punch that they may have been drinking at the time.
You work with Square One Spirits, what do you think of Square One Botanical?:
H: We designed it to be something new on the back bar for mixologists to play with: an exciting flavor profile and composition that created a whole new building block for creating cocktails. The fact that it's 90 proof, pretty complex in its profile, it removes the barrier of enjoying gin. For most people it's the juniper that they don't like - rather than creating a "New Western Gin" that downplays the juniper, we just completely eliminated it. The botanicals in [Square One Botanical] can be laid out in front of you on your bar and mix into your drinks, they're all fruity and floral and easy to be built upon.
What advice would you give aspiring bartenders?:
H: My first piece of advice would be to focus on understanding customer service. Seek out every piece of good advice you can get from anybody about how to make your customers happy while making your boss happy. That doesn't mean buying them drinks, it means making eye contact, greeting them, saying goodbye and thank you.
The second point is to study all of the spirits, beers, and wines. Understand that you're in a sales role and understand the products you're selling and be able to talk about them. The only way to do that is to really taste them all, research them, and be able to compare and contrast them.
What advice would you give aspiring mixologists?:
H: You need to understand all of the spirits on your back bar and view them as a painter views colors on a palate. You have to know the characteristics of each one of those colors so that when you conceptually combine them in your mind you know what they're going to do. Then when you put the paint on the palate, you tweak the finer points of it.
To do that in the glass you need to understand everything on your back bar and the culinary basics of chemistry and food, acid and base, texture, mouthfeel, and aroma. There's culinary and scientific studies to be done to become someone who can create flavor and experience.
What is the difference between a bartender and a mixologist?:
H: I make that distinction between bartender and mixologist. Mixology being the art of combining flavors to create something new in a cocktail: this is creative, not execution. But in being a bartender, it's all about service and that service gets better with knowledge of the products you're selling.
What does The Barbary Coast Conservancy of the American Cocktail doing next?:
H: The idea is to bridge the gap between the bar and the customer and for all those interested in the conservation and advancement of SF's cocktail culture. It will be staffed by and taught by all the best bar talent in the Bay area and the events will be open to the public.