This article is the Beverages & Spirits online exclusive for the March 2009 issue of Chef Magazine.
The saloon on the corner of 16th Street and Guerrero in what is now the Mission Dolores area of San Francisco has a storied history that dates back to 1858. Over the years, the bar that has occupied this intersection has changed names and ownership many times; has been destroyed by an earthquake only to be rebuilt; and has witnessed the dramatic evolution of its clientele--from the demimonde of the city's Barbary Coast days, to the gunslingers of the Wild West, to the, let's say, discrete regulars of the "soft drink parlor" Prohibition era, to the Latino immigrants and the gay community of the late '80s and early '90s, respectively.
Today, the bar's incarnation is Elixir, a haven for cocktail enthusiasts that's uniquely Californian: The saloon's ambiance and drink menu are at once a nod to San Francisco's pre-Prohibition past and its artistic, culinary-forward present. Behind its bar on most days, you'll find H. Joseph Ehrmann (pictured below), Elixir's proprietor, mixologist and resident historian. Ehrmann recently talked to Chef Magazine about the knowledge, passion and tools necessary for concocting drinks that please palates and drive bar sales.(Photo by Darren Edwards, www.darrenedwardsphotographs.com)
Chef Magazine: Mixology seems to be experiencing a renaissance of sorts, and many bars and restaurants are looking to create signature drinks to capitalize on that trend. What makes a great cocktail?
Ehrmann: It's all about balance. A cocktail is a new being; it's the sum of its parts. If you wanted a glass of whiskey, you'd just order a glass of whiskey. But if you want a cocktail, you're taking that whiskey and turning it into something new. ... One of the reasons the Sazerac is such a great cocktail is it's so old and so venerable, and yet it's still around because it's the perfect execution of balancing simplicity--from 10,000 feet, it does look like a very simple drink--and precision--if you do it wrong by even a half or quarter ounce in any one of the ingredients, then you've lost it, and it's not a perfect Sazerac. If it's unbalanced, then that final creation, that final flavor sensation you expect to have on every sip of a Sazerac is gone. If you use too much sugar, which is generally the way most Sazeracs are ruined, then all you taste is that sweetness. But if you pare back that sweetness just a little bit, all of a sudden that drink opens up, and it's something completely different--you can taste the rye, you can taste the pastis, you taste the absinthe. And you can choose to focus on whichever one of those flavors you want.
Chef Magazine: At Elixir, your menu aims to "revive the pre-Prohibition cocktail culture of the Barbary Coast while incorporating a focus on utilizing California's abundant agricultural resources and San Francisco's infamous creativity and artistic vision." How do you synthesize those inspirational elements and translate that philosophy into the cocktails you create?
Ehrmann: I start with a respect for the classics, because the classics that are pre-Prohibition are kind of the fundamental formulas. Classic drinks--and rules we've learned from chefs--give us what we know about balance and the chemistry of what works and what doesn't work on a very simple level.
The original cocktails--the oldest, most simple ones--are all mostly spirits and not produce-driven. They give us the foundations for juleps, flips, etc., and from there, we can take them and spin them in different directions based on core flavor combinations.
Chef Magazine: What is your creative process for coming up with a new cocktail concept?
Ehrmann: I rotate my menu every month and put out six to eight drinks that are seasonal and thematically appropriate for that month, based on produce that's around that month. While we're in March, I'm going to put some Irish whiskey drinks in there. I'm also probably still going to be playing off the tail end of Mardi Gras, or maybe some certain produce is coming in a little early. I look at all that the week or two or before I want to change the menu. And if I'm not inspired by a seasonal ingredient or theme, I'll try a new take on a classic that I haven't done before. Like I did with a Collins recently.
We're in Meyer lemon season, so I recently took a basic Collins--lemon, sugar, soda and a spirit--and used Square One Cucumber Vodka with organic Meyer lemon and a little bit of rosemary, and suddenly I've got a new drink. You would call this a vodka Collins, but calling it a cucumber vodka, Meyer lemon, rosemary Collins sounds too long. So, because all of those flavors and that produce come out the San Joaquin Valley that we have right here, I called it the San Joaquin Collins.
Chef Magazine: Do you ever work backward from a desired taste or finish?
Ehrmann: Oh, sure. There's a real nice, little boutique creamery and ice cream shop in the neighborhood called Bi-Rite Creamery. They have a honey lavender-flavored ice cream, and I was walking down the street eating this ice cream, and I thought, "God, this is so good, I have to recreate this as a cocktail. How can I get this flavor, this mouthfeel, this richness and creaminess without using the ice cream?" So, I focused on organic ingredients: I got some lavender honey, and I tasted it, and it didn't really have enough strong lavender flavor. Eventually, I found another type of lavender honey that had more lavender taste to it, so it was perfect. I mixed that with some vodka and half and half, which I later bumped up to heavy cream. But the mouthfeel still wasn't quite there, so I thought, an egg white will add some body to it; I popped some in there, and it was perfect—rich and creamy and just as decadent as the ice cream but in a cocktail. [Recipe follows.]
Chef Magazine: In addition to mixing a mean cocktail yourself, you also teach your craft to aspiring mixologists. When it comes to making innovative cocktails, what basic advice do you give to emerging bar-chefs?
Ehrmann: If they have the benefit of being in a place that's a restaurant as well [as a bar] and they have a chef they can work with, then it makes sense to have a work partnership with your chef to learn as much as you can about [food and drink] pairings. I started as a cook when I was 16 years old, and I cooked for five years before I ever really got into the front of the house. So, my knowledge is all founded in the kitchen. ...
Every one of those bottles on your back bar is like the paint that a painter has on his palette, and until you really understand each one of them and how they perform, you won't be able to get incredibly creative. If you only know five flavors, there's only so many ways you can mix five flavors, but when you know a couple hundred bottles on your back bar, you can say, "I've got these three things together, but something's missing; it needs some spice. Where can I get some spice from? I could use fresh spices, hot sauce, a pepper infusion, a tincture." You have to understand all of those different things in order to really find that one ingredient that's gonna make that recipe stand out and stand on it's own. Just because it's original and you think it's creative, doesn't mean it's good—or that's it's gonna sell. The last part is to really understand your customer base, know what they're going to grab hold of. You could make the most esoteric, weird, off-the-wall drink in the world; that doesn't mean anyone is going to buy it.
Chef Magazine: What are the bar/kitchen tools that every mixologist needs to operate a bar and make a good drink?
Ehrmann: A good, solid Boston shaker with a tempered pint glass—everything can be built from there. And from there, you'd need the two types of strainers: a julep and a hawthorne—a hawthorne will work in a pinch for everything, but a julep is nice and elegant for spirits, your core drinks—a good bar spoon; a muddler; a hand citrus squeezer; a small, fine double strainer for hand straining with a tea strainer; a sharp paring knife with a cutting board.
Chef Magazine: What advice would you give to bar owners looking to promote signature cocktails at their establishments?
Ehrmann: With the whole culinary cocktail side of [the business], you have to approach your bar operations with a different perspective. You have to train your staff to think differently if they've never worked in a culinary cocktail bar. ... You have to come in like a prep cook: make sure you've got all your fresh produce out, make sure your citrus is at room temperature so that you can get the most juice from it, you've got your cutting board ready and your hand juicer ready so that you can cut or hand juice lemons and limes into each cocktail. ... You get to understand the preparation and storage needs of fresh produce and herbs, so that you have everything properly set up and space allocated for storage behind the bar so you can work efficiently and get these drinks out quickly. The thing that keeps most people from doing these kind of drinks is a lack of understanding of how to set their bar up so that they can get their drinks out quickly.
Chef Magazine: Whether it's with respect to ingredients, technique or application, what new trends do you see emerging in mixology?
Ehrmann: I think we're seeing a slow down in new trends, actually. If you look back over the past year or two, whether it was wine cocktails or tea cocktails or molecular mixology, things were just popping up from everywhere, and it seemed like everyday, there was a new way to mix cocktails. And now, I think we've slowed that pace down and refocused on education. We're seeing a big boom in bartenders finally taking a real interest in their craft as a craft, as a profession. ... As far as ingredients, though, I'm starting to see a lot more focus on botanical, floral flavorings.
Lavender Honey Cream
H. Joseph Ehrmann, Elixir, San Francisco, www.elixirsf.com
Yield: 1 drink
1 c. water
1 c. lavender honey
1 1/2 oz. Square One Organic Vodka
1 oz. organic heavy cream
1 oz. organic egg white
Ice, as needed
Method (1) Boil one cup of water, and slowly stir in lavender honey until dissolved. Lower heat and reduce for 3 minutes. Let cool and add to a squeeze bottle. (2) Combine 1 oz lavender honey syrup (reserving remaining syrup for future drinks), Vodka, heavy cream and egg white over ice in a shaker; shake gently for 30 seconds. (3) Strain into a chilled martini glass and garnish with a piece of lavender to add to the nose of each sip.