When Bret Sylvester was a bartender at Aub Zam Zam in the Haight-Ashbury, a job he started in 2009, he did not follow in the footsteps of his predecessor.
Zam Zam was once the home of the very peculiar Persian owner and bartender Bruno Mooshei, who refused to pour “communist” vodka martinis and was notorious for kicking people out of the place for whatever reason. At the slightest read of the wrong attitude and the wrong drink order, Mooshei would tell patrons, “I called the bar next door, they’re waiting for you.”
“Some people even felt honored to be kicked out by Bruno,” Sylvester said.
But while at Zam Zam, the San Francisco native watched over a much different scene. During Sunday day shifts behind the horse-shoe shaped bar, patrons who came in after a stop at the farmers market would ask Sylvester to make them drinks with their haul.
“Guests would bring me anything in season, and I began infusing spirits that they’d have to come back weeks later for,” Sylvester said.
That included plum, lemongrass, cherries and exotic herbs. Mooshei might have been turning over in his grave, but Sylvester’s guests seemed to love it.
It was at this time that his idea for Verbena was born.
“That was my church and that’s where the idea to bottle these drinks came from,” Sylvester said of his venture bottling carbonated cocktails that use produce grown in the Bay Area The grape brandy-based fruit infusions are made in a non-complex, aperitif style for anyone from the home host who doesn’t want to do the work or the spritzer lover going to the park.
Sylvester recently inked a deal with Whole Foods, where his fruit infusions can be found at $13.99 for a 375 ml bottle. The infusions also appear in festivals and restaurants around The City. Each bottle pours four servings.
In those bottles are the cherries Sylvester pits by hand. Citrus he cuts. Cardamom he toasts. And in those bottles are the corks he fits before personally slapping on the labels. And they are all batched small for more control of the flavors.
Sylvester is committed to sourcing infusions locally and can be found at the Ferry Building farmers market Saturday mornings, picking through the season’s offerings.
“That’s what makes this product so special,” Sylvester said. “It wouldn’t be what it is if it were done anywhere else.”
Since Verbena was launched, Sylvester left work behind the bar to bottle his cocktails full time. And unlike some great ideas that take off, Sylvester has no intention of selling out to a corporate beverage company, because he claims that his product can’t be streamlined.
“Corporations don’t think of it as a drink — they think of it as a formula,” Sylvester said. “I’m doing something because it’s difficult. And I love it.”