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Drinks Writer Camper English On The SF Cocktail Scene

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Photo: Aubrie Pick

It's been a rough few months for local drinks writer Camper English. From judging an Olmeca Altos tequila competition in Mexico, to Portland Cocktail Week, to his recent jaunt to Cognac, France for this Grey Goose global cocktail competition, English is happy to be back on San Francisco soil, working out of his home base in the Mission District.

Although he travels the world to learn and write about drinks, English obviously has a special relationship with the cocktail scene in his hometown. He recently shared many thoughts on the matter over a beer (Scrimshaw) and a shot (Ocho tequila) at Local Edition: on New York and Chicago getting all the national cocktail attention, why no one in San Francisco has embraced molecular mixology, and the one kind of bar San Francisco really needs.

From a national standpoint, New York and Chicago get a lot of attention for cocktail wizardry. Why does San Francisco get passed over a lot, and why should people be talking about our cocktail programs more? San Francisco has always been the second best cocktail city in the U.S. Some people would argue we're better than New York, or at least used to be. When this was all coming to a head in 2006 through 2008, San Francisco was known for fresh ingredient cocktails, like everything muddled from fresh into your drink, and a deep understanding of citrus use. The East Coast was known for stirred, bitter, brown cocktails. Technique on the East Coast, and ingredients on the West Coast, just like the food scene. Currently, bartenders rarely bust out a muddler anymore.

I think of Scott Beattie. Absolutely. He's the most Californian of all the Californian bartenders. And he's still making drinks in that style, God bless him, because I really miss those drinks. And as everything here goes to brown, bitter and stirred, I would like to see more diversity. New York and San Francisco have now come to resemble each other a lot more.

Camper%20Vertical.pngWhy this conformity? I think part of it is because we're drinking what bartenders like to drink: low sugar, very bitter, smokey cocktails. I don't think we're necessarily following New York. We're all more connected than ever before through Facebook and what have you. But everyone has settled on the same style for now. And also, muddling is hard work, and produced inconsistent cocktails. If you're measuring fresh-squeezed yuzu juice, each yuzu fruit bears a slightly different juice, so you're going to have to balance that to order every single time. They still do that at places like Cantina, and it's very impressive, but I think a lot of bartenders got tired of it.

And customers are tired of waiting for it. Speed has become a hugely important player all over the country. Punches, bottled cocktails, cocktails on tap, all of these trends increase speed, and are fun new formats. A lot of this began with customer complaints.

Are there any ways San Francisco is differentiating itself these days? I have seen more of the soda fountain trend here in San Francisco than I've seen or read about in New York. But that's also here and there around the country, because everyone bought Darcy O'Neil's book Fix the Pumps. It took a while to catch on, but now people have figured out how to use the technology from the soda fountain era a lot better in cocktails.

So let's say a young man in the Midwest wanted to learn how to be a great bartender, why would he need to go to San Francisco to study? I think here, the average cocktail has gotten really good. New York and Chicago get a lot of hype, and part of the reason is they have flashy spots like Booker and Dax and The Aviary. Also, our bartenders are extremely well educated on how to use mezcal and tequila, thanks to our proximity to Guadalajara. Bartenders here place a high value on honesty from brands. Some distillers have come to visit and tried to snow San Francisco bartenders with misinformation, and it's gotten so ugly that they've had to make people stop and take a break and come back in a different room.

Why hasn't anyone on the bartender or customer side embraced molecular mixology in San Francisco? I think the bartenders know the customers will never embrace it here. People here still want a value in food and drink. There are not many molecular restaurants here either. The most molecular mixology we have going on is at The Alembic, and they have porter foam, and that's about it.
The Alembic. [Photo: Flickr/ ::novocainated::]
The problem with early molecular mixology I think is that at the end of the day people still want to drink their gin and tonic, not slurp it from a Jell-O shot. I think that's changing a lot now. The Aviary and Booker & Dax are serving drinks. They may have a 1500 degree poker shoved into that drink, but it's still a drink at the end of the day.

In some instances, don't those bells and whistles lead to a superior cocktail? Are we missing out? I would absolutely love it if someone did a molecular mixology program here, given what we know now about doing it right. Also, I think a big part of the problem, particularly with San Francisco, is that it's perceived as being haughty. We don't play that way. San Francisco thinks you should be able to wear shorts to Chez Panisse, and be egalitarian, especially with drinking. Remember when Bourbon & Branch opened in 2006 and they put the reservations policy in place? People freaked the fuck out.

And then everyone was dying to go. Right. And if they thought about it for two seconds, they'd realize, oh it's just like every restaurant I go to. But people are very reactionary to things they see as snobbish. We don't have people waiting outside at nightclubs much either, when you think about it.

Is there any cocktail program on the horizon that you're particularly excited about? No bars that are particularly thrilling that much, but I can say I'm intrigued by Brian MacGregor's new place, Wingtip, which is a members only bar. And it's only because of the success of those styles of bars in London, like Quo Vadis, Milk & Honey. Other than that, I am excited by certain techniques, such as the carbonated cocktails.

Why are you excited about those? The result isn't always exciting, but it's something new, and I think there's been a lull here as far as creativity goes. Thank God we have carbonation to at least add a new spin. Give me a reason to go somewhere new. That, and soda fountain-inspired drinks.

Is there any particularly great soda-based programs here? I do think the Ice Cream Bar is doing a spectacular job. There are so many good drinks there since they got their liquor license. They're using the technology well, and those drinks were all created by Russell Davis, and he's doing really fun stuff for San Francisco. We're lucky to have him. The New Easy in Oakland and The Corner Store are also taking that inspiration and running with it.

So is it damaging to the industry that the best bartenders get poached as ambassadors for liquor brands? A lot of great creative people got hired away as brand ambassadors, and a lot of people now are putting drinks on their menus that they think will sell well. It's pretty disappointing actually. I bet that there are plenty more younger creative bartenders to be found. We may just be in a little quiet period, because the younger people need to learn the cocktail cannon and proper balance in cocktails, and not just to go be crazy for the sake of being crazy. But we need to see more risk taking in San Francisco. And it seems like it will come from new and younger blood, rather than the established cocktail-scenti. [Laughs]

Where else do you think SF bars could use some work? What are we missing? Or, even better, where do you think there's unmet demand? Based on travels, particularly to London, I think we could use a super fancy hotel bar. It doesn't matter if the drinks are 16 or 18 dollars, but somebody doing fancy drinks with ridiculously out-there garnishes, in an elegant setting that most San Franciscans will never go to, but business travelers will, and I sure will.

A lot of wealth comes through here. It's a very wealthy city, and a lot of people would pay for these things. Clock Bar is the closest thing we have, but what if Four Seasons bar became great? They just have that dinky little bar, but it's no smaller than the American Bar at the Savoy Hotel in London, one of the best bars in the world.

We need Martin Cate at a hotel. Martin Cate's hotel bar program would be spectacular. Eight ingredient cocktails. There's a big movement in San Francisco toward a new simplicity, three and four ingredient cocktails (in the case of Prizefighter) that are done very well with very good ingredients and great ice and glassware. That's nice, but I can make a really well executed three ingredient cocktail at home. I want more eight ingredient cocktails. I want more Smuggler's Cove. I want three kinds of rum in one drink, and a ridiculous garnish, and nuance. Less perfect simplicity, more ridiculous fabulousness.

Winterland is a good counter-example. Winterland was a spectacular failure. And that was one of the most interesting food and drink places we've had.

I still talk to people in the industry that remember that place very fondly. Me too. The Fifth Floor bartender is doing great things to stand out. It's too bad the Fifth Floor is on the fifth floor—so hard to get to and remember. I also love Jasper's. I bring people to Jasper's. It's exciting. A lot of times the people drinking there are carpet salespeople from Nebraska, but it's hilarious to be there. It feels like your secret treasure.

So, sodas and amaros are catching on in cocktails these days, any other mass leanings we should be aware of in the cocktail world? Or, dare I say, new trends? I hope carbonated cocktails continue to grow—because bartenders are getting gear into their hands again, as opposed to pouring four brown things over an ice cube and stirring for two minutes. Also, low alcohol cocktails are getting bigger, and I love it because you can drink more of them. The best person locally at that has always been Brooke Arthur, but she got scooped to be an ambassador by House Spirits Distillery.

Is there a bar or bartender that you think is particularly underrated out there right now? There's a lot going on in the East Bay. I've always been a fan of Todd Smith, from Bourbon & Branch to Dalva. I think he doesn't want to be appreciated too much though. He only bartends one night a week and is a full-time ambassador for Pacific Edge.

Overrated? Bars that have great cocktails, with mean service are no good to anyone. Also: the bars that have no menu and it's all bartender's choice, or places that have such boring menus that everyone orders bartender's choice. It's like, ok do I trust you to make something with absinthe and maraschino and mezcal, when those are ingredients that need to be used in a very particular way? I want to know what the bar can do, and read what the bartenders like to do on a menu. It's also what I love about San Francisco though: people walk into the bar and just start ordering from the bartender. The bartender's choice is rampant. If you could walk into a restaurant and say, "I want something with meat and bread," that would be pretty awesome.

If you could travel anywhere in the world to drink cocktails right now, where would it be? I think London has the most exciting bar scene, because even though it's very well-established, it's still exciting and dynamic. It wasn't always, but now it's raging. If one can afford it, one should totally go drink there as much as possible, because they're doing things there no one's doing in New York or anywhere else.

I love Copenhagen for cocktails too and they have really fun people. I actually had a great time in Singapore, spending a week going to cocktail bars. The one place I'm dying to go is Melbourne, Australia, which is probably the world's leader in molecular mixology.

· All Camper English Coverage [~ ESF ~]

Jasper's Corner Tap and Kitchen

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