When you think of the bartender's bartender, it's hard not to think of Craig Lane. A 19-year veteran, Lane started bartending in Ohio during the sticky days of Cosmopolitans in the '90s, and was among the first to catch the craft cocktail wave in San Francisco in the mid-'00s, swapping out cheap mixers and booze for fresh ingredients and finer spirits. He's been on the staff of Bar Agricole since it opened, mixing the outstanding drinks that have earned Agricole multiple James Beard Award nominations for Best Bar Program. For Cocktail Week 2013, Lane shared his thoughts and observations about where the industry was when he started, how whiskey is the new vodka, and the trends he sees coming down the pike.
Take us back to when you first began bartending. What was that like?
Here I was, just a young hayseed from Ohio. I was 24 or 25 years old. And at that time, it would have been '97 or '98. It was right when you first started to see people asking for cosmopolitans. Even in Ohio, cosmopolitans were starting to be this thing.
But it wasn't until I moved to San Francisco and started working at Farallon in 1999 [that I engaged with craft cocktails]. I remember really falling in love with the Sazerac there. That was a drink that I really enjoyed drinking and making. Then I became the manager of Farallon. Erik Adkins (of Slanted Door) and Thad Vogler (of Bar Agricole) were invaluable to me when I was a manager, helping me steer Farallon into a new direction, which is where they were going with Beretta.
What was that new direction?
Just leaving behind all those industrial spirits, like Dewar's and Bombay Sapphire, and going for spirits that still had a sense of character and weren't just mass-produced things.
Some liquor companies spend millions of dollars a year to help make people feel a sense of self. People's self-identity is attached to this spirit, and there's this self-identity that people have with alcohol. And when they come to your bar, you see them squinting. They're like looking past me and squinting at the bar, and they have this look where they're trying to see a label that they recognize. And they're a little uneasy.
You have to land them gently into this new place. It means they're still going to get something good, they're still going to get something interesting, but you can't tell them that the thing that they're looking for is shit. You can't insult them.
What is it about alcohol and cocktails that causes people to invest so much identity?
When you're a young 20-something, you go to bars because you're there to party, so you order drinks in a crowded bar and bartenders are busy. And if you don't know what your drink is, bartenders will walk away from you. People have this sense of urgency, like, 'I have to know what I want before I get to the bar, and I have to order it before I catch the bartender's eye.' People have been trained to drink this way. And with club bars being that way, people expect to see things on the back bar that they can identify quickly and can just call for and be like, 'Oh, I want that thing.'
For drinkers who are trying to get into spirits and craft cocktails, it can be anxiety-producing, as you said. Where do people start now?
I feel like whiskey is the new vodka. It's easy because it's an American product and in a way, bourbon is sweet. It's kind of like the California cabernet of spirits, because it's like, BOOM! Blast of oak, full flavor, spicy, apple notes, nutty, maple, molasses, brown sugar. It's all these things and it's right there, right up front. It's pretty easy to understand. Which is cool.
And do you suggest that people drink it neat?
Well, they should get a drink with citrus if they're not used to spirits. Usually we encourage them to try something with a little citrus component. Lately, I've just been sort of saying, if you like the rye Manhattan, you should maybe try the Harvard. The Harvard is a Manhattan cocktail made with Armagnac, instead of rye. So hopefully you win them over and you do so incrementally. It's almost like saying, "Oh, you like Dave Matthews Band? Have you ever heard Wilco?"
That's funny because like we were talking about with the way people identify with alcohol—maybe someone is a Smirnoff soda, you know?
Yeah. I do wish that more people would embrace classic cocktails instead of originals. If you make a really simple Calvados cocktail—Calvados, citrus, honey, and bitters, and you put it in front of a guest, they're like, oh! There's a simplification that can lead to a conversation about Calvados that doesn't happen when you're making originals. It doesn't inspire a base conversation about the spirits. That's a theory.
Are there spirits at the forefront that are just starting to come into drinkers' consciousness?
The biggest things are Armagnac and Calvados. They're still grower-producer dominated regions, so they make a lot of sense for us at Bar Agricole. What I would like to see more of is schnapps and eaux de vie. It exists in craft distilleries and exists in Germany. There's not enough of it here, where you can get your hands on it. After dinner, I'd like to see more people drinking schnapps and eaux de vie, and not being afraid of that part of the evening. Those are the little shifts that I would like to see: people having a nice meal, starting with a cocktail, having some wine during dinner, and finishing with a little eau de vie after dinner.
Are there any do's and don'ts for patrons in your bar?
I don't know if there's a specific set of rules, per se. I'd just encourage people to be open and try new things, and not get stuck in their ways.
Are there trends you see in the industry?
At the patron level, we are in the era of technology, so Instagram technology and Facebook posts.
Bar Agricole has a great Instagram feed, by the way.
Thanks! Where I was going with this is that people are just knocking themselves out of the experience by tasting and eating by Instagramming everything. People spend so much time making their Instagram photos, and they're just sitting there Instagramming, and I'm thinking, 'Aaaah, don't Instagram it, just take a drink! Take a picture later or don't take one at all!' They're taking themselves out of that moment of pleasure while they're doing this other thing. So that's kind of weird.
What about an industry perspective?
I like how the young bartenders are more enthusiastic about technique. We never talked about technique when I was 25 or 30. Like how long do you shake a drink, what's the appropriate dilution? But at the same time, I wish the young ones of today would spend more time learning service craft first and bartender craft second. I'd rather see you care about the people in front of you, and then about technique.
When you first started, did you ever imagine that the industry would be where it is today?
No, I had no idea. It's really wild, how quickly it happened. It was a small flame that a few people were nurturing, and then it spread like brush fire and got ahead of itself. It's almost like the small band that you loved kind of blew up, and all of a sudden everyone likes them and they're playing the Civic Center Auditorium or something.