Meet Your Mixologist: Vinny Montana, Bar 888

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.

Bar 888

Intercontinental Hotel, 888 Howard St., San Francisco; (415) 616-6500; www.grappabar888.com

Mixologist Vinny Montana got his start at P.F. Chang’s in Walnut Creek, before it went all corporate, and then he worked his way across the Bay to the beloved Cosmopolitan Cafe, where he got a heck of a lot of experience crafting, well, cosmopolitans. These days, he applies his hard-earned know-how at the very sleek Bar 888, the country’s first grappa concept bar, which just opened in the new Intercontinental Hotel. Here, the charming bartender eagerly dispels the oft negative preconceived notions the digestif has acquired through the centuries. Pouring between 70 and 80 kinds of grappa, Montana and the gang have become experts on the stuff, and in addition to creating grappa flights, they’ve concocted an impressive number of grappa-based cocktails that are sure to settle your stomach and your mind. We were skeptical for sure, but by the end of happy hour, we were hooked.

So are there many grappa bars out there? We are basically the first grappa concept in the country. Grappa has found a way to market itself and maintain an equal balance of palettes. There are infused grappas for the beginners and traditional grappas for the more experienced. It’s something new, something fun. Everyone remembers their first grappa.

How many kinds do you pour here? On some counts, we have the most kinds of grappas in the states. We are the only grappa bar to be certified and acknowledged by the country of Italy.

And how do you find that you are serving it? Straight-up, mixed? We have options where we haven’t masked the taste of grappa, but blend it in a proper manner, so it’s not as intimidating. Knowing the overall perceptions of grappa, it’s been very exciting and encouraging. Let me get you a grappa flight. This is the old-school grappa, Sarpa Di Poli.

Wow. It’s not as bad as I thought. See, now they’re taken from fresher pomace a lot faster.

Do I just shoot it back? No, they’re sippers. Now this one here, the Jacopo Poli Miele, is honey grappa.

That’s definitely easier going down. This is the Acqua di Cedro.

Oh, that’s good. It’s like limoncello. Yes. It’s like a very high-end limoncello that blends well. That’s the thing with grappa; there’s so much variety.

What’s your best-selling grappa-inspired drink? The Italian Mojito.

Do you typically order grappa when you’re out? I really love my Macallan Scotch. I really mix it up. If I’m at a dive bar, I’ll have a shot of Jameson’s and a Stella, if I’m dining somewhere, I’ll start with Macallan and move on to wine. I don’t discriminate.

Does it bother you when people order cosmopolitans? Well, I used to work at the Cosmopolitan, so I’m kind of numb to it. I think people need to evolve and try what’s new, exciting and cutting-edge. Most bartenders won’t mind if you don’t like the drink and want to try another.

If you could serve a drink to anyone, who would it be? John Lennon. I just think he had it right. He just seemed to be pretty mellow and had a lot of good perspective to share.

Would you serve Yoko, too? Absolutely. I think she gets a little bit of a bad rap, but there’s two sides to every story.

Featured drink: Eau de Vin

» 3 blueberries

» 2 raspberries

» 1 strawberry

» 3 ozs. Nardini Aqua di Cedro

» Fresh lime

» Tagliatella

Rim a tall glass with the Tagliatella. In the glass, muddle the fruit with the grappa. Add crushed ice.Squeeze fresh lime to taste and stir gently.

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