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.
298 Divisadero St., S.F.; (415) 255-6101; www.thepagebar.com
This week’s column is historic. That’s because it features the newspaper’s first-ever coverage of an absinthe-based cocktail — well, the first since the advent of this column. The substance was banned in the United States in 1912, though U.S. Customs and the FDA didn’t really put the squeeze on the historic spirit until much later. John Paul Coffey, our congenial host for the evening, obliged us with the now-legal libation that the likes of Vincent van Gogh and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec so famously enjoyed. No hallucinations, but we did have an extremely pleasant time in a neighborhood watering hole that’s got a pretty sweet sunken pool room and a curious nook for hiding away. Most of the clientele goes for the bar’s impressive range of whiskeys, but don’t let that stop you from tasting Coffey’s talents. For such a nice guy, he makes a mean cocktail.
How long have you been in San Francisco? Ten and a half years.
What’s changed that Americans can now imbibe absinthe? The FDA decided wormwood wasn’t what they thought it was.
What did they think it was? They thought it was poisonous. It’s supposed to have hallucinogenic effects. I tried it in Spain and I didn’t feel a thing.
I’m not going to see any little green fairies tonight? There’s not enough in there for that.
You’ve given me absinthe by way of a Sazerac. How else would you serve it? Mostly in the traditional way. Generally, you trickle water over a sugar cube so it dissolves into the absinthe. There’s an absinthe spoon. It’s fan-shaped and you pour cold water through it so the sugar dissolves. It’s pretty good. Lethal, though — it’s 124 proof. I think that alone is enough to produce hallucinations.
If you could have any hallucination you wanted, what would it be? I’d like to be on a boat floating in the Mediterranean.
Did you do anything for Valentine’s Day? No. I’m not a big fan. To me it’s one of those Hallmark holidays. I’d rather go out the day before or the dayafter.
What are some of your favorite restaurants in the city? Nopa, Range. Gary Danko is my other favorite … when I can afford it.
If you could serve a drink to anyone, who would it be? Kurt Vonnegut. I’d like to serve Kurt Vonnegut more than one drink and hear what he has to say.
What would you serve him? Whiskey and a beer. Possibly three to four whiskeys.
What do you want him to tell you? What it’s all about.
Do you feel like certain drinks say something about someone’s personality? To some extent … there are a lot of nasty stereotypes.
We like those. Long Islands. They’re just idiots.
Is there any drink you wouldn’t serve? Mojitos.
No mint? Just because they are Mojitos and we don’t like them.
If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be? I would make everybody happy.
Even the people you don’t like? Yeah, because then I’d probably like them.
Featured drink: Absinthe Sazerac
Muddle one sugar cube with bitters. Add 3 ounces of 18-year-old Sazerac rye whiskey. Coat a martini glass with a splash of absinthe. Toss out the remaining absinthe. Serve straight up.