H. Joseph Ehrmann: On San Francisco's Cocktail Culture Past and Present

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Chef Salad takes a detour this week to interview some of the leading beverage industry experts in the country -- all of whom have been participating in the second annual AZ Cocktail Week. Seminars were held at the Hotel Valley Ho. If you missed yesterday's interviews with Tony Abou-Ganim and Adam Seger, read them here.

See also: -- Charlotte Voisey: On Molecular Mixology and Being a Bartender -- Dates of Arizona Beer Week and Arizona Cocktail Week Overlap Again -- and Neither Group is Budging

Here's what H. Joseph Ehrmann had to say about San Francisco as a drinking town (past and present) and the changes he's seen as America's cocktail culture has evolved.

H. Joseph Ehrmann

H. Joseph Ehrmann -- or "H" to his friends -- is probably best known for Elixir, the avant-garde San Francisco bar he opened in 2003, reviving pre-Prohibition cocktails in one of the city's oldest saloons. H. and his award-winning cocktails have appeared in dozens of media outlets, including ABC, NPR, GQ, Esquire, Imbibe and Martha Stewart Living. He is brand ambassador and mixologist for Square One Organic Spirits and co-founder of San Francisco Cocktail Week.

Can you give us a short history lesson on San Francisco's Barbary Coast cocktail culture back in the day?: The Gold Rush era was right at the heart of the evolution of cocktails. They had been slowly evolving over 50 years but were really hitting their stride around mid-century, and there is nothing to fuel innovation -- especially in entertainment -- like an economic boom. San Francisco was a sleepy little port until the Gold Rush and with the incredible wealth came incredible dining and drinking as well as headline entertainers from around the world. The rough and tumble tent saloons and shoddy makeshift saloons of western expansion became refined. Mahogany bars, carved in Europe, were shipped by boat to San Francisco. And when Prohibition finally hit, we were so far from the federal government that it was less strictly enforced and easier to evade problems. All of this made for an incubation center for good cocktails and great cocktail culture that survives to this day.

When, where and how did SF's current cocktail culture get started?: We all credit Dale DeGroff and Joel Baum for changing the game in the 1980s in the US, and people like Peter Dorelli and Salvatore Cabrese in Europe, but it really didn't catch fire in the U.S. until around 2006/2007 -- when people started noticing what we were doing in San Francisco and New York. That was the first time I went to Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans and it was like a small club meeting. I opened Elixir in 2003 as a shot and beer, local saloon and evolved my program once I was off the ground and running. I was competing with several other similarly priced and targeted bars and decided to take a chance on my culinary ideas by creating my first menu, firing three quarters of my staff and raising all of my prices in 2005. It took off in less than 6 months and I was off to the races.

Erik Adkins was doing great stuff at Slanted Door, Dave Nepove at Enricos, Duggan McDonnell at Frisson, Jonny Raglin, Jeff Hollinger, Marco Dionysos and so many more. We started San Francisco Cocktail Week in 2007. These were the bars I sat at and the new friends I made. Then I started traveling and meeting Dushan Zaric, Julie Reiner, Audrey Saunders, Naren Young, and lots of New York bartenders doing cool stuff. And then it exploded. I can barely keep up with it now. Just three years ago I would have never thought Arizona would have a Cocktail Week and here we are.

Name the trends you're seeing in SF: There is certainly a lot of innovation here, as there is in food. The majority of American trends start in the West and head east; however, the cocktail boom has evolved quite a bit since the early 2000s. What my friends and I were doing in 2005 was considered avant-garde but soon became de rigueur. We went from three United States Bartenders Guild chapters in 2005 (and 12 or so members in San Francisco) to 37 chapters now. We have bartenders in suburban markets researching their asses off and innovating things. So new trends can come from anywhere.

We've seen molecular mixology come and go (sort of; it still lingers in some spots) and are now seeing barrel-aged cocktails and carbonation as things that are really popular, but really being mostly innovated out of the Northwest (Portland and Seattle, respectively). Ice programs are big and house-made bitters are even somewhat trite. I believe that our use of produce is still market-leading, though San Francisco went through a period of shunning it in favor of East Coast style classic cocktails. The fact of the matter is that we have the best access to the widest variety of produce and most innovative kitchens in the country, and that inspires an amazing culinary cocktail culture. That's where we are most innovative and where we still lead.

Can you give us a few rules of thumb for pairing cocktails with food?: The basics of chemistry and flavor rule. Use acid to cut fat. Bitter and sour are great before dinner to get digestive juices flowing. Let the drink complement the food, where the food leads (since it generally washes it down). Don't get too crazy with ingredients and flavors; less is more. High proof spirits can ruin a meal, so keep it average to low-alcohol, and above all, enjoyable.

Enjoy this Chef Salad? Check out Nikki's previous interviews with: Tony Abou-Ganim & Adam Seger Charlotte Voisey of Best American Brands Ambassador Steve Olson of Valley Ho Dough Robson of Gallo Blanco Edward Farrow of The Cafe at MIM Greg LaPrad of Quiessence & Morning Glory Cafe Joshua Johnson of Kai Joshua Johnson of Kai Todd Sicolo of T.Cooks Josh Riesner of Pig & Pickle Lester Gonzalez of Cowboy Ciao M.J. Coe of Federal Pizza Steven "Chops" Smith of Searsucker Aaron Chamberlin of St. Francis Michael Rusconi of Rusconi's American Kitchen Chrysa Robertson of Rancho Pinot Lynn Rossetto of The Splendid Table Cullen Campbell of Crudo DJ Monti Carlo Pete DeRuvo of Davanti Enoteca Chuck Wiley of Cafe ZuZu Justin Beckett of Beckett's Table Bryan Dooley of Bryan's Black Mountain Barbecue Silvana Salcido Esparza of Barrio Cafe Jeff Kraus of Crepe Bar Bernie Kantak of Citizen Public House James Porter of Petite Maison Johnny Chu of SoChu House Neo Asian + Martini Bar Stephen Jones of Blue Hound Kitchen & Cocktails Chris Gross of Christopher's Restaurant and Crush Lounge Chris Curtiss of NoRTH Arcadia Payton Curry of Brat Haus Mark Tarbell of Tarbell's Josh Hebert of Posh Kevin Binkley of Binkley's Restaurant Lori Hashimoto of Hana Japanese Eatery Larry White, Jr. Lo-Lo's Fried Chicken & Waffles

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