Delarosa Marina district folks come to this small, modern pizzeria and bar at the corner of Chestnut and Pierce streets for light, Roman-style pies, seasonal antipasti and craft cocktails. We spoke with bartender Will Smith, whose passion for spirits went a bit crazy when he began distilling alcohol out of his old garage in Portland, Ore. “My garage for two years was a big science experiment,” Smith says. On his walks to work, Smith says, he gets funny looks because he carries his bar tools around in a gun case. “I take my craft seriously,” he says. Before performing surgery on a citrus fruit or bruising a basil leaf, Smith tried his hand at surgical massage — only to be sidetracked by a hand injury. He says putting massage therapists in a surgical setting greatly increases patient healing rates.
When did you begin bartending? I began in '98. Started in Boston, then Seattle, Olympia [Wash.], Ashland [Ore.], Portland, Santa Barbara and now San Francisco.
You also seem to work with spirits outside of work. Thirsty Tiger is my brand name. Thirsty the Tiger is my mascot [he takes a stuffed animal out of a briefcase]. He goes with me everywhere. He started off as a joke. I was distilling organic, flavored vodkas in Oregon. I'm currently working on creating and bottling liqueurs.
Where'd you get this tiger? Someone gave him to me. I stashed him in a bag until one day I found him when I was clearing out stuff from my house. I took him to Hawaii and took 10,000 photos of him. He's got a cult following. He's got a Twitter account, he's got a FourSquare account. He's got all these people following him. It started off as a lark and now it's just grown to the point where Thirsty's grown more famous than I am. He goes everywhere with me — even to interviews.
How did you find your way into distilling your own alcohol? My garage for two years was a big science experiment. At one point, I probably had 400 750-milliliter bottles in different processes. I did a ginger peppercorn liqueur and I put ginger in a big container, and every day I would pull a little bit out, mark it and date it so I could see the different saturation points. I did this for a month with each particular flavor. It was a little insane. My friends would come over and say, “You're nuts.” And I was like, “Yeah, this is fun.”
What's your favorite ingredient to work with behind the bar? Right now, two things: Bourbon, I'm a big bourbon fan. Two, Ransom's Old Tom Gin. There's a little color, little vanilla hints to it. A lot of Prohibition-style drinks are made with this style of gin. For me it's fun because it's so different.
We had to postpone our first interview because you and your wife were expecting a child. How's fatherhood treating you? It's been entertaining, to say the least. It's been a lot of fun. Out of it, Thirsty the Tiger and I are working on a children's book for my son. I'm a little neurotic with it.
What do you like to do outside of work? Hang out with my son. Take photos of Thirsty. I also like to play music. I play Tibetan bowls and bells. I use them for meditation and sound healing. It has a therapeutic value but also a medicinal value on the body when you feel the vibrations. I'll lead guided meditations with folks. Very interesting knocking people out of their bodies.
• 2 oz. Tapatio Reposado
• ¾ oz. lemon juice
• ½ oz. grapefruit syrup
• 2 oz. absinthe
Combine all ingredients and dry-shake. Add ice. Shake. Double strain into coupe glass. Garnish with grapefruit peel.
BAR DETAILS: 2175 Chestnut St. • (415) 673-7100 • www.delarosasf.com