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.
1725 Haight St., San Francisco; (415) 666-0822; www.alembicbar.com
Had chemistry class been anything like the laboratory behind the bar at Haight Street’s prestigious Alembic, we’re pretty certain we’d be resting on our millions for creating the world’s first delicious-tasting cough syrup. Though it’s only been open 18 months, Alembic’s rise to top-notch cocktail bar began on day one. And taking a seat at its cozy bar, one immediately understands why. Alembic’s cocktails are a lesson in why people started drinking in the first place. Our professor was bartender and co-owner Daniel Hyatt, an experimental kind of guy who blends ingredients together in ways few would think to do. Now, if only Hyatt would work the juice bar at our gym, our workouts would be that much better.
Hey, how’s it going? Wanna try something really good?
Yes. It’s a Brandy Mint Julep with Frankincense-infused brandy.
Frankincense? I only know that from … The Bible? Frankincense, myrrh and a gold leaf. It’s actually the sap of a tree. It’s a resin.
Where are you from originally? San Jose. But I lived in Portland for 20 years and have been back in San Francisco for just over four years.
How did you wind up in Portland? I went up with my family. I didn’t have much say in the matter as a 10-year-old.
What does the term Alembic mean? It’s a type of still. It has its roots in Persian culture. They’re the ones who developed the skill of distilling.
Is your drink-making philosophy here steeped in chemistry? We take the production of our drinks very seriously. Our cocktail program is built around the core of classics. A lot of times, we take a classic and put our signature in it. We push the boundaries of what we can make a cocktail. Our core philosophy is doing that without making it a novelty or comical.
Give me an example of some boundaries you’ve pushed. I’ve been accused of using chili and peppercorns a bit too much. I like to play around with the savory. Right now, I have a celery-juice-based cocktail on the menu. Or miso, blackpepper, infusions with long peppercorns.
That said, what do you typically order to drink? To be honest, I don’t get that much time to go out. I just like a little bourbon on the rocks. I’m kind of a sucker for sparkling wine.
What are some ways guests can keep on your good side? One, when you order, stay in the same place that you order. Two, you probably know I’m going to ask you for money after I’ve made your drink. Have your money ready. Three, if you are going to ask a question, be as specific as you can. At least tell me what kind of spirit,fizzy or on the rocks.
How many flavors, extracts, bitters, etc., are you guys able to fool around with here? We have a lot of different bitters here. Some are made in-house, some not. As far as extracts, I just picked up some cinnamon seed and hop extract oil from Scarlet Sage [Herb Co.].
Hop extract oil? It’s nice and bitter with some tropical fruit around it.
I’d imagine, as much room as there is for success, there’s got to be a certain margin of error as well. What disasters have you had? I remember making bitters using a roasted apricot kernel. It came out tasting like swimming pool water.
Featured drink recipe
Oh, Sweet Nothing
» 1½ oz. Flor de Cane 18-year-old rum
» ¾ oz. yellow chartreuse
» 6 dashes housemade root beer bitters
Stir ingredients together. Strain into glass and serve in a tall liqueur glass. Garnish with orange zest.