Like many people, my first time drinking alcohol didn’t go well. Not long out of high school, I gathered some friends one night in my parents’ recently-built home located in an uppity suburb of Sacramento. We snuck away to an unfinished room downstairs and consumed copious amounts of tequila and Red Bull. The latter was a gift from my uncle that holiday season. “You’ll figure out what to do with it,” he told me with a chuckle.
Suffice to say, that ended badly. After the tequila, we decided a brilliant chaser was some Bailey’s Irish Cream Liqueur we found in mom and dad’s liquor cabinet. My friend drunkenly made us scrambled eggs in the early morning, forgetting to remove all the shells.
Peter Ziegler — who manages Barrel Proof Bar & Restaurant on Mission Street — said early experiences like mine put off many people from drinking certain liquors later in life. (True to form, I rarely touch tequila nowadays.) His customers tend to shy away from gin, so he leans into his background as a culinary cocktail maker to persuade them into it. He often makes concoctions that mask the flavor or emphasize citrus and sugar.
“Not everyone wants an old fashioned drink where you taste a lot of the booze. Sometimes you want to disguise the palate behind it,” he said. No argument here.
I met Ziegler on a particularly rainy day in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood, and I was happy to find a bar filled with board games, a pool table, a photo booth, and other things to do when The City’s weather does not cooperate. He showed me how to make a “Flora,” an appropriately sweet blend of Nolet’s gin, Lillet Rosé, lemon juice and lavender bitters. He even added a cream element with orgeat almond syrup, which agreed with me much more than Bailey’s.
Ziegler designed all of Barrel Proof’s current cocktail offerings. He gave me a primer on his nearly two decades in hospitality, and how working with chefs changed his perspective on drink making.
Bar information: Barrel Proof Bar & Restaurant, 2331 Mission St. – (415) 932-6132 – www.barrelproofsf.com
How long have you been a bartender? I’ve been in hospitality since I was 18, classically more trained in a corporate setting for restaurants. I worked every position in front of the house. I went from being a runner, to a host, and then to cocktailing. I got my first bartending gig as a bar back when I was maybe 22 or 23 years old.
What made you get into culinary cocktails? I experimented with drinks in that time, adopting techniques from pastry chefs or any type of cook. A lot of the time, a chef I worked with was working on a new dish. He’d say, “Hey Peter, I’ve got some extra kumquat syrup. Do you want to experiment with that? … I’ll teach you how to make that.” From there, I went with what they call “potato-head theory.” I’d kind of mix and match ingredients from classic cocktails and see what works.
What sort of customer do you see at Barrel Proof? A lot of times we get more of a shot-and-beer customer here. I always try to train my staff and let them know that if nothing speaks to the customer on this menu, offer them something. Even look something up. I always start with what base spirit they want and go from there.
I’d like to say that we’re an every person bar. If you look at our beverage program, you’ve got barrel-aged cocktails, you’ve got citrus-forward cocktails, we also have spirit-forward cocktails. We also have what I call barbecue beers like Corona and Miller High Life. We’ve got a slushie machine with rosé.
What on that list is the most ordered? This is a big whiskey and mescal bar. We have quite a bit of gin, too, don’t get as much gin as I would like.
Do you try and get customers to drink gin? Not everyone. I just like working with it. I’ve noticed people have had a bad experience with gin for some reason. We’ve all had some association with some booze when we were younger to not think that was the booze for us. I like to tell some customers, “Hey, let’s try this. Why don’t we change it up? Maybe you don’t want a spirit-forward cocktail. Maybe you want a nice citrus cocktail. Let’s try that.”
Saul Sugarman is a San Francisco-based writer, event producer, and apparel designer. Last Call with Saul appears every other Sunday in the Examiner. He is a guest columnist and his opinions are not necessarily that of the Examiner.