Early SF cocktail renaissance adopter Elixir has grown up

I remember the first time I stepped into Elixir. I was fairly new to The City, fairly new to writing, and it was one of those nights in which I would crawl through four neighborhoods and a dozen or so bars.

Last call was nearing and it was time for my usual Sazerac nightcap. An old friend and I poked our head into the warm Elixir, escaped the rain and headed to the far corner of the bar.

The Sazerac came together as it should — properly stirred with an absinthe-rinsed glass. The bartender asked me if I wanted the lemon peel in our out of my drink (out), but left it on the rim in case I changed my mind. I did.

From that point on, the preconceived notion I had that you cannot get a good drink in a saloon-type setting went down the drain.

For H. Joseph Ehrmann, the man behind Elixir, doing the simple things really well is key to his success since taking over the glorious Victorian space in 2003.

Ehrmann is known simply as “H” among bar folk and regulars. In 1999, he came to Silicon Valley as part of the first dot-com boom, moved up to San Francisco, and nine months later was laid off and found himself back behind a bar to make rent. Eventually he came to the epiphany that he wanted to run his own operation.

“There was tons of stuff on the market. This was the post-dot-com, post-9/11,” Ehrmann said. “Half The City had left, and the other half was broke. There was a lot of places up for sale.”

After scouring The City, Ehrmann found the Victorian space at 16th and Guerrero streets — just a few blocks from his house. Ehrmann and I talked recently before the bar opened for the day, with his bar manager whipping up a batch of hot buttered rum for a crew of professional photographers setting up lights and tripods to shoot classic warm drinks for the holidays.

Elixir might not be very old, but some iteration of a saloon has occupied the space since 1858.

The original saloon burned down in the 1906 earthquake and fire, along with the rest of the neighborhood and a good chunk of San Francisco. While most other saloons that burned down were not rebuilt, the owner at the time, attorney Patrick J. McGuinness, had the funds to do so.

McGuinness commissioned Brainerd Jones to rebuild the saloon. Jones is most famous for his three Carnegie libraries in Sonoma County, and he also built the majority of the historic structures in Petaluma.

Elixir is arguably the second-oldest operating saloon in San Francisco — the oldest would be North Beach's Saloon, naturally — and has been dubbed a Legacy Bar by San Francisco Heritage.

“Before I bought it, I took a long look at the building from across the street and knew that this guy didn't know what he was sitting on — this was a real-deal Western saloon.” Ehrmann said. “And coming from New Jersey, I've always been fascinated with the Old West and Victorian architecture.”

Crazy how life works out that way. When Ehrmann first took over in 2003, he sought to mimic the concept of dive bars like Delirium and Kilowatt, selling cheap beer and shots, which found him little success. During a time when the cocktail renaissance was just beginning, Ehrmann started watching and talking with guys like Erik Adkins, when he was at The Slanted Door, and Jonny Raglin, when he was at Absinthe. Then it clicked.

“I just began sucking it all in. Every time I heard of a new technique or combo, I'd change up my menu,” Ehrmann said. “I wanted to be the exceptional neighborhood bar.”

He too would bring the cocktail-centric, fresh juice and produce-driven menu to his corner in the Mission.

“We kind of created a monster,” Ehrmann said. “We wanted people to listen. We told them about fresh juice, quality, being a professional. It worked, and it caught on like wildfire.”

Ehrmann admits that he has gone overboard at times, putting 10 ingredients in his drinks and taking an eternity to get it in someone's hands.

“We had to pull back the reins,” he said. “Now I'm all about focusing on the simple things.”

Just like the Sazerac I had on my first visit.

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