Meet your mixologist: Ashley Despain

About the series: In a saloon town such as San Francisco, the bartender plays a crucial role. Confessor, friend, sounding board — the man or woman behind the plank sees to it that our needs are met with elegance, grace and often wit. They see humanity at its best and most convivial, but also offer a nod and a welcome to the lonely. But what do they see when they look at us? What are the tricks of their trade? And what lessons have they learned along the way? In this Examiner weekly feature, we talk to some of our local bartenders to find out.

Madrone Lounge

500 Divisadero St., San Francisco, (415) 241-0202

Not to say that every night at the Madrone Lounge isn’t brimming with life and activity, but we can be cheapskates. So when Monday rolls around and Neighborhood Night is going off at this homey, arty lounge on the corner of Divisadero and Fell, and we know a driver’s license proving you live in the 94117 is all you need to get $2 well drinks, we are there. Lucky for us, so is 31-year-old Ashley Despain, one of Madrone’s charming barkeeps, who kept our glasses overflowing for a good three hours. Between the board games, the DJ and the local art donning the already prettily painted walls, we know we’ll be back, even when it’s not Monday. Maybe on one of those evenings when a local band (especially a neighborhood band) is giving the nearby Independent club a run for its money. Despain talked with us and a few locals who come in for the cool cocktails and the congenial conversation, his iPod selections and undoubtedly for his clever tattoos.

How did you get into bartending? I started out as a food runner in a restaurant seven or eight years ago and worked my way up from there. Things would come up and I would bar back here and there. People ask me all the time, “Did you go to bartending school? Do you have a license?” How hard is it to make a Jack and Coke?

Where was your first gig? I’ve tended bar all over this city, but my first gig was at Fulton Street [now closed]. That’s where I learned everything I needed to know. It was fun, it was rowdy, it was interesting. I worked at The Top on Haight Street. Crowbar in North Beach.

How was that? It was OK. Fulton Street and Crowbar were owned by the same owner. Bamboo Hut.

Where’s that? You know where Enrico’s was and Sake Lab? It was right there. I’ve also tended bar at The Stinking Rose and Beach Chalet. Now I’m strictly here and at the 540 Club on Clement Street.

So what’s this about you being an artist? I have my master’s degree from the Academy of Art [University] in illustration.

What kind of illustration do you want to do? Children’s books. I actually did one a couple of years ago called “The Man in the Moon.” This guy right here [rolls up sleeve to reveal tattoo] is the main character and this is the little girl and they go on adventures together.

Hey, when I walked in here, you were talking about students. Are you a teacher? I teach at this place called the Purple Crayon. We’re doing a summer camp there right now. It’s great. [The kids] are so into it. It’s very inspirational for me as an artist myself. It’s not unlike bartending.

Really? You have to make sure everyone is taken care of, that no one is ever fighting or peeing in the corner. … As someone who’s been doing this awhile, I’ve dealt with drunk people who are a lot bigger babies. Would you like a cocktail?

Yes. This is The Lola. It’s our most popular drink. It’s made with our cucumber-infused vodka (1.5 ounces), a press of half a lime, ginger beer and a splash of soda, served in a chimney glass.

What’s your favorite drink? A gimlet, with vodka.

You have interesting tattoos. These are drawings that I did when I was a kid. My mom saved all my drawings when I was a kid. This is my goldfish. See, he swims. And this is my self-portrait when I was 3. I figure it’s a good way to honor her memory.

Featured Recipe


» Equal parts cucumber-infused vodka and ginger beer

» Splash of sake

» Splash of pineapple

» Served straight up in a martini glass

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