If you've had a drink in a craft cocktail bar in San Francisco, chances are you've tasted bartender Jennifer Colliau's work. When pioneering bartenders Thad Vogler (Bar Agricole, Trou Normand) and Erik Adkins (Slanted Door Group) needed real syrups and creams made from fresh ingredients, they turned to Colliau. Now, she does double duty as the bar manager of the Interval at Long Now and the owner of Small Hand Foods, which makes orgeat, gum syrup, pineapple gum syrup, raspberry gum syrup, grenadine, and tonic using fresh, natural ingredients.
Jennifer makes about 5,000 bottles per month of each product a month, selling them to hundreds of bars around the Bay Area and the globe. Small Hand's products enable bartenders to make historically accurate cocktails, without the use of artificial ingredients. As a result, few people have impacted cocktails so widely today as Colliau. She talked to us about how she got into cocktails and what inspires her to keep making Small Hand's syrups, even when the going gets tough.
How did you get into bartending?
My first bar was a local Irish pub in LA. That was in 1998. Then I moved back to the Bay Area, where I grew up. I didn't ever step away from bartending, but my goal was to go to a trade school to learn how to make furniture. I tended bar to support myself while I put myself through school, then I left bartending briefly to be a cabinetmaker. I eventually decided I wanted more education, so I went to CCA for their furniture program, and ended up tending bar to support myself through school again.
I started working at Slanted Door in 2005. Thad Vogler hired me, then left six months later to go to Guatemala. That's when Erik Adkins took the program over.
What turned bartending from a job to a passion?
An agricultural perspective with regard to spirits is something that I learned from Thad, and found really honorable. He certainly was one of my mentors. And then when he left, and Erik took over the program, I started to make orgeat. Erik and I started to have this nice relationship where we'd talk about cocktail details, because we had a limited selection at the Slanted Door. We didn't have any real almond-flavored anything.
When people would order a Mai Tai, our house recipe was just a mixture of rum and juice. It wasn't a Mai Tai. I didn't know at the time that it had to have almond in it. Erik knew I liked making things and cooking things, and he encouraged me to try with orgeat. So I started making any [orgeat] recipe I could get my hands on, and I'd bring it in and we'd talk about it. Some were terrible, and some were great. I ended up coming up with a recipe that worked really well, and so we started making Mai Tais and Japanese cocktails for industry people who came in.
Why are your syrups different from others?
There's this crazy industrialization of food that began after World War II. People stopped paying attention to what we were doing with our food. It became so much about preservation, and this kind of emulation. Things like Midori; it has no melon in it, and yet no one seems to care.
Orgeat is almond syrup, and it was being made without almonds, and no one cared. Torani has done a brilliant job of marketing the Italian soda, which is their invention; all it is is soda mixed with syrup. That syrup is just sugar water and flavoring. It's not actually made from food.
At the time I was trying recipes, I looked at all the orgeat on the market, and it was all terrible. I was like, "That's really weird." I just hadn't thought about that fact that none of the orgeat has almonds, but it's true. Any of those syrups you see at coffee shops, none of them of are made with the food they're named after. Once I started paying attention to that, I couldn't let it go.
Once I began making orgeat, I started to think about these other cocktails that we use really shitty substitutes for. When they wrote these cocktail recipes in 1862, they wouldn't have this thing with high fructose corn syrup and artificial flavors. That's not how it's supposed to taste.
So how did making syrups for Slanted Door eventually become a company, Small Hand Foods?
Brooke Arthur was at Range. Thomas Law was at Alembic, I think. And they both wanted some. Erik Ellestad, before he was a bartender, blogged about me, and he wanted some.
Then Thad came back from Guatemala. He was opening up Beretta, and he wanted the orgeat. He wanted to put the Army-Navy on the menu, and he wanted gum syrup. He asked if I had ever experimented with gum arabic. So I did some research and brought it to him. He said, "These are great. If I put these on the menu on my bar, can you make enough?" [Laughs.] I said, sure. So I started working out of a commercial kitchen.
If someone is at a bar, and they realize the bar is carrying your products, what should they order?
The Mai Tai. An actual classic Mai Tai, according to the Trader Vic's recipe from 1944, with orgeat made from actual almonds. That is a game-changer for anyone.
I've heard the process of making these syrups can be really labor-intensive and annoying. Why do you keep doing it?
I love it. I just love the bar industry, and I love the people in it. I feel so grateful to be a part of this community that is filled with so many wonderful, kind people. Our job is to make people have a good time. It's the best job. It's wonderful. So I keep doing it because it's a part of the industry. And it's part of cocktail history. It's a part of our legacy.