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San Francisco Bar Community Expresses Shock After Arrest of Local Bitters Maker

The founder of BarMatt, a popular local spirits brand, was arrested last month on allegations of child porn possession

BarMatt products depict a cartoon version of John Pennington, who was arrested in May on allegations of child pornography possession

In a press release sent Wednesday, the San Francisco Police Department announced four separate arrests for alleged child pornography. When that press release was picked up by local news outlets, members of San Francisco’s bar community recognized one of the men arrested: John Pennington, the 47-year-old founder of BarMatt, a bitters, gin, and amaro brand that was in use at several local bars and markets, its website reads.

According to SFPD spokesperson Officer Robert Rueca, Pennington was arrested on May 22 by its Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) unit. According to Rueca, the investigation began when ICAC learned of “an individual who was sending child pornography through email,” a person who police say they believe was Pennington.

After obtaining a warrant, Rueca says that police searched a residence in Russian Hill, where they discovered “several electronic devices...that contained hundreds of child pornography files.” Those devices belonged to Pennington, police say.

That same day, Pennington was arrested — and after his arrest, Rueca says, police located a cell phone on Pennington’s person “that contained hundreds of child pornography files.” Pennington was booked into San Francisco County Jail on suspicion of “two counts of possession of child pornography and for possession of over six-hundred files of child pornography,” Rueca says.

According to a spokesperson with the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department, which oversees the city’s jails, Pennington was released the following day on his own recognizance — that is, without bail, and with a written promise to return to court, should charges be pressed by San Francisco’s District Attorney. A call to the DA’s office to see what charges, if any, have been filed was not returned as of publication time, and efforts to contact Pennington have not been successful.

Pennington is a well-known fixture in San Francisco’s bar and alcohol community — he’s bartended at a number of local spots, and has relationships with several local markets as part of his work with his alcohol brands. Most recently, he tended bar at Union Square cocktail spot Benjamin Cooper,

Pissed. Can we do the right thing?

Posted by Brian Nelson on Wednesday, June 3, 2020

On Wednesday, Brian Nelson, a former colleague of Penington’s at the Douglas Room, a cocktail bar inside the Tilden Hotel. posted a video of himself pouring out a bottle of BarMatt bitters. “Fuck that guy,” Nelson says, in a video captioned “Pissed. Can we do the right thing?”

The video tags the BarMatt Facebook page, which since Wednesday night has been filled with angry posts and comments from other industry workers like Maritza Rocha-Alvarez, a bartender at Financial District Tiki bar Pagan Idol. “If you have Bar Matt products pull them down your shelves and pour it down the fucking drain,” she writes. “This is fucking disgusting.” Kristå Kemple, a sales manager at a local distillery writes that she and others have long felt uncomfortable around Pennington, but “no one wanted to SPEAK UP for how s/he would be perceived by the community who seemed to support this monster... there will always be someone who ‘Respects’ the person in question and they are ‘Industry leaders’ or ‘very influential.’”

On their own page, Benjamin Cooper co-owners Mo Hodges and Brian Felley wrote Thursday that Pennington’s arrest “has shaken us to our core and our hearts and sympathies go out to all those nameless victims who won’t get to see justice ... Our trust was deeply betrayed and we are trying to put together where we go from here.”

Speaking with Eater SF, Nelson says that he was “appalled and disgusted,” when he heard what crimes Pennington was accused of, and that “as a community, we all share the same sentiments” about the case. Nelson says that though he brought Pennington’s products into bars and restaurants where he’s worked “when I could,” that relationship is over now.

Citing the #MeToo movement, Nelson says that the bar and restaurant industry has, in recent years, made great strides when it comes to sexual misconduct and harassment. “We’ve tried to hard to move in the right direction,” Nelson says, “and now we have ‘another one.’”

The eye-opening nature of the Me Too movement is, in fact, what spurred Nelson’s video in which he dumps out Pennington’s product. “In the past I might have waited to let this play out, or go to trial,” Nelson said. But now, Nelson says, “it’s important to support what’s right as quickly as possible. You don’t get ‘600 images’ by accident. That’s enough for me.”

Benjamin Cooper

398 Geary Street, , CA 94102 (415) 654-5061 Visit Website

The Douglas Room

345 Taylor Street, , CA 94102 (415) 673-2332 Visit Website