Meet your mixologist – Jake McClain

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.

This week we decided to take this operation underground to the Cigar Bar & Grill, the toasty establishment near Jackson Square, with its entrance at the foot of a staircase.

There’s lot of things we love about this place. First, there’s a sweet patio (space that comes at a premium in this town); second, the domed, brick ceilings always make us feel like we are hiding out in the barrel room of some hidden winery.

And of course, there’s Jake McClain, Cigar Bar’s bar manager.

Born and raised in Akron, Ohio, McClain traded in farm life for bar life. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently enjoyed a cigar on the bar’s patio. Was he high maintenance? Not at all, McClain said. He even brought his own cigar and sipped some simple bottle of water.

Cigar Bar & Grill: Jake McClain, manager

850 Montgomery St., (415) 398-0850,  

How long have you lived in San Francisco? I’ve lived here about six years.

Where did you come from? Reno, Nev. I worked at a private restaurant and a couple of casinos.

What was it like? Reno was really fun, especially in my 20s. Where else can you go to the corner store, gamble and get a hot dog, all at 5 a.m.?

What’s the best way to get free cocktails at a casino? At the Pai Gow table. You get seven cards and you have to make two poker hands out of those cards. For you to win, you have to beat both [the dealer’s] hands of poker, and for him to win, he has to beat both yours. You can literally play for an hour and a half on $20.

I’ve heard it’s impossible to get drunk in casinos because they pump in extra oxygen and water down the drinks. I don’t think that’s true, because the first time I played Pai Gow I almost got kicked out of the casino. I spilled my drink on the felt, which is a major faux pas.

Now, is this place really a cigar bar? I can smoke a cigar here if I want? Yes, this is an actual cigar bar, yet seeing as we are in California, we only allow smoking on our patio. But we do have a full humidor and all the accoutrements to go with it — an extensive selection of scotch and bourbon and rum as well.

What’s the best tip you’ve ever received? When I worked at Julius’ Castle, this guy from Texas came in (not that anyone there was a wine snob) but he ordered three bottles of Beringer white zinfandel and tipped $100 to the chef, $100 to the maitre d’ and $100 to me.

How much was the bottle? It was the cheapest one on the list. $24. The gratuity was higher than the dinner.

Since you made us a Manhattan, we’re wondering what you might put into a cocktail called a San Francisco. It’s such an eclectic city, maybe something with Grand Marnier, bourbon and some other accent to keep it differentand unusual.

Featured recipe: Cigar Bar & Grill Manhattan

» Two parts Eagle Rare Single Blend Kentucky Straight bourbon (personal barrel to the restaurant)

» 1 part sweet vermouth

» Splash of bitters

Add ice; shake gently as you don’t want ice to break down and cloud up alcohol (should only shake a couple times, back and forth).

Garnish with a brandied cherry.

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