Behind the Scenes at SF Cocktail Week
San Francisco area bartenders have helped make the city one of the American cocktail headquarters, not least through the birth of the annual San Francisco Cocktail Week. This year’s event, recently completed, created quite a stir, so we thought it time to talk with one of the originators of events, H. Joseph Ehrmann, the proprietor of the city’s famed Elixir (which, by the way, has just celebrated seven years in business, so hoist one for him in celebration). [At right, Ehrmann (right) and David Nepove, USBG President (left), at San Francisco Cocktail Week 2010; photo courtesy of Liza Gershman.]
NCB Mix: Tell us about the genesis of the San Francisco Cocktail Week.
H. Joseph Ehrmann: In 2006, Jill and Dale DeGroff e-mailed me, Jeff Hollinger, Duggan McDonnell and several others around the country asking us to support the 200th anniversary of the first printing of a definition of the word “cocktail” on May 13 as World Cocktail Day. The event was to be part of the Museum of the American Cocktail’s push to recognize that day annually. The three of us got together for drinks and we thought it would be great if we made a week of it and focused on the history and culture of the cocktail in San Francisco in order to make San Franciscans more aware of the rich history and its impact on what was then evolving. So we rallied our friends and scheduled some events; it was all very organic and community driven. That’s what we wanted; a San Francisco event driven by the San Francisco bar community for ourselves and our customers.
NCB Mix: Is there a broader purpose beyond celebrating bartenders and cocktails (not that there has to be)?
Ehrmann: The focus was on trying to get the drinking public more aware of exactly how deep and rich this culture is and how today’s bartenders are working to continue and develop that history as part of our collective culinary culture. We not only wanted to get them out to the bars and events and focus on it all for a week, but wanted them to realize that the Bay Area’s culinary richness is not just Alice Waters and Michael Mina, Napa and Sonoma wine culture, small coffee roasters and local farmer’s markets. We wanted to get the message out that we are changing the way cocktails are appreciated and focusing on our craft. Since the beginning, San Francisco Cocktail Week has been about engaging the public in a new way. As a community, the bartenders were already engaged.
NCB Mix: Were you surprised at how quickly the event has made a mark? What's the highlight?
Ehrmann: Not really, because as a businessman I saw my business and those of my colleagues taking off in the last five years since we really started pushing the limits and the press took notice. The more people talked about what we were doing, the more people came out to check it out. So we knew we had an audience. The growth of that audience is what we wanted and I’m excited that we continue to achieve it. The highlight is the fact that it has grown into the establishment of a nonprofit called The Barbary Coast Conservancy of the American Cocktail and the opening of our beverage education and event center, The "Cocktail Bill" Boothby Center for the Beverage Arts. Now we have a legitimate organization to keep the mission alive and home in which to advance it.
NCB Mix: You've been to a number of these sorts of events across the country — what's different about yours?
Ehrmann: I think the main difference is that we are primarily a volunteer driven organization, created by and run by the bartending community itself. Secondarily, we remain focused on serving the San Francisco Bay Area. We welcome the rest of the world with open arms and hope they’ll come, but we have not spent time, money or energy promoting the event to the rest of the industry or the national audience. We are committed to engaging our public and customers in a new arena, outside of our bars, where we can have educational and entertaining events that incorporate their input. The things we hear from them at our events and after help us to drive change from behind the bar in a way that is not possible in a more commercial setting. It’s our version of a “non-partisan environment” for the cocktail community.
NCB Mix: Is there a regionality to this; I mean, are there certain things about the SF cocktail scene that are identifiable through the event?
Ehrmann: Yes, each year we address the question, “What is San Francisco style and how is it changing?” We turn to the leading bartenders to see how they feel things are changing or staying the same and we incorporate that into the classes and events. For example, this year Martin Cate did a retrospective class on the Fern Bar, which is a concept that came out of San Francisco and has some great stories attached to it that Martin addressed (while decked out in a full on 1970’s outfit). He looked at the concept’s influence on current bar and drink design as well as where some of those people are today. We continue to have some produce-driven culture and held our fourth Farmer’s Market Happy Hour where we showcased how we incorporate our seasonal produce into our menus. This was also a major reason for changing the week to September from May. The reality is that World Cocktail Day falls in a bit of a down time for fresh produce when winter citrus is done and early summer fruit is not here yet. In September we have fresh produce rolling through the streets!
NCB Mix: Is there a single event or moment from this year's week of which you're proudest?
Ehrmann: We had a killer “gala event” in the Cocktail Carnival party at the Old US Mint. It was a spectacular setting for a great theme. Not many people have actually been inside that building, as it is not open to the public, and we really want to support its restoration. We had a punch party with great drinks, circus performers, local musicians and great food. By having the party there we helped raise money to fund the restoration of the building that will one day be the home of the San Francisco History Museum. My personal goal is to eventually house the Boothby Center in that building and be a permanent part of it.
NCB Mix: Finally, what are you drinking these days?
Ehrmann: Since Whiskyfest I’ve gotten back into my Scotch collection. I have brought in some great new bottlings from Gordon and McPhail, Compass Box (Flaming Heart 3rd Edition) and The Dalmore. I’ve also been playing with new holiday recipes featuring some newer products. I’m bored with my old stuff.