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Into the mix: Six craft cocktail stars

Meet three pros in San Diego's craft cocktail scene and three new faces behind the bar

Mixologists from left, Zack Richardson of Bertrand at Mister A's, Jen Queen of Juniper & Ivy, Nate Howell of JSix, Leigh Lacap of Ironside Fish & Oyster, Christy Spinella of Polite Provisions and Anthony Schmidt of Noble Experiment.
Mixologists from left, Zack Richardson of Bertrand at Mister A's, Jen Queen of Juniper & Ivy, Nate Howell of JSix, Leigh Lacap of Ironside Fish & Oyster, Christy Spinella of Polite Provisions and Anthony Schmidt of Noble Experiment. K.C. Alfred

A good indication that a movement isn’t going anywhere anytime soon is witnessing its new flock of talent rise, fostered by those who paved the way.

We talked to three leading cocktail pros in San Diego to get their take on the changing landscape of the craft cocktail scene and three up-and-comers shaking their way to the top.

The Veterans

Anthony Schmidt

33, Lemon Grove

Noble Experiment, and a yet to be named new location in the Simon Levi Company building adjacent to Petco Park

Number of years dedicated to cocktails: 7

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Anthony Schmidt of Noble Experiment K.C. Alfred

When did you first get interested in making cocktails?

Right before we opened El Dorado, I was the DJ of a little crew, aptly named the Leisure Society (ha!). The owners of El Dorado were the other members (it would be the impetus for what became El Dorado). They would bartend while I added the appropriate hipster lounge tunes. Kind of hilarious looking back at that time. We would guest bartend and DJ at restaurants who would allow us to bring in our own ingredients. At this time, we had only heard about the fancy cocktail lounges in New York. We had no experience with traditional approaches. We hadn't experienced good cocktails firsthand. So, we were on our own, learning what we could through the internet. Most of our drinks were vodka cocktails, and relatively plain. Even our first menu at El Dorado was majority vodka. But, once we began using the fresh citrus and worrying about the quality of ingredients and flavor, vodka slowly found its way off our menus. It was all downhill from there.

How did you get your start behind a bar?

I got my start at El Dorado. It was there that I began asking big questions about cocktails. An example: We referred to ourselves as a cocktail bar and strived to serve high quality cocktails, but could any of us give an accurate account of where cocktails came from or why they were import to our little niche culture? I was a grad student as well, and was being forced to ask questions about everything. It was obvious that I was picking up information very quickly, compared to others. I was noticed, and invited to bartend and manage Noble Experiment, which would be my first full time stint behind a bar.

What’s your mixology style? Do you aim for the unusual or stick to traditional, classic recipes?

Simple is more. Show me something new with an Old Fashioned or a Ti Punch, and you’ll blow my mind.

When you have friends in town, where do you take them to drink?

Turf Club. Love that bar. The drinks are cheap and stiff. It’s timeless. Maybe Ironside for appetizing cocktails before? If we can make it to the bar. That’s a packed bar. But Leigh has put together an outstanding menu. I could easily see myself and my friends chowing oysters and crushing a couple fancy cocktails before getting down and dirty at turf.

How is the scene changing?

Well, we just had our best year at Noble. If that’s any indication, the niche is definitely thriving. I’m praying interest doesn't go anywhere soon. At the end of the day, people seem to really gravitate towards those who are eager to serve really delicious products with aloha. I work hard at learning what guests love, so I can continue along a positive path with the product I serve and the way I serve it. It’s working so far.

My bold prediction? More fancy cocktail bars open. Bars that make shitty drinks notice the shifting demand, and are forced into making tasty drinks with really good spirits (like major metropolitan areas; e.g. NYC, SF, LA, CHI). Then, all bars make good drinks, and give good service. I know it’s a long shot. Hoping that’s the direction, though.

What is one piece of advice you would give to the up-and-coming mixologists?

Walk before you run. You aren't an expert. Hell, I’m not an expert, and I’ve been doing this a lot longer, with some pretty serious training. Learn good sound technique. Learn why things work the way they do. Learn why a Manhattan and a martini have withstood the test of time. Learn that working fast and smart is often a symbol of leadership and promise for those who work by your side. Learn that you’re not alone, you’re not the best, you’re only a piece of a family, a team welcoming guests into your home.

Jen Queen

32, Golden Hill

Mixologist at Juniper & Ivy

Number of years dedicated to cocktails: 10

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Jen Queen, Juniper & Ivy K.C. Alfred

When did you first get interested in making cocktails?

My mom 'tended bar when I was kid, and I have always seen it as a really fun life/career choice. An affinity for cocktails and fresh ingredients began when I moved to San Francisco.

How did you get your start behind a bar?

I was promoted from serving to bartending at the Hard Rock Cafe on Pier 39 in San Francisco. I fell in love with the fast pace, the social interaction and the cash in my pocket after every shift. I never looked back, and somehow that turned into all of my friends being industry kids that geek out on ingredients and push the envelope of what you can do with solids turned into liquids that inebriate you.

Which liquor could you not live and mix without?

Green Chartreuse

What’s your mixology style?

My offerings are always based on locally sourced, house made items. I let the ingredients drive what cocktails I will make, as opposed to making up a cocktail and then ordering the ingredients needed. I have a respect for tradition, but most of my cocktails are modern twists on the classics.

Which cocktail craze kills you?

Moscow Mules

One piece of advice you would give the up-and-comers?

You will never know it all, and that doesn't matter! What matters is how people feel at your bar. Don't take yourself too seriously and remember that first and foremost this is hospitality!

When you have friends in town, where do you take them to drink?

Cantina Mayahuel, Coin-Op, Seven Grand, Craft & Commerce, Puesto and there are so many others! San Diego is full of great bars! A night on the town with me will surely not be remembered.

How does the cocktail scene in San Diego differ from other cities you’ve worked in?

The industry in San Diego is small, humble, very connected and quickly growing. We are all fortunate to be friends working together to elevate how we drink in our city as a whole. We support one another like a big family. There is little to no trash talk and the competition here simply pushes a healthy growth that we all benefit from.

How is the scene changing?

Bar patrons in San Diego are definitely becoming more educated in their consumption. After educating guests for years, the tables have turned and I'm now having rich conversations over the bar that I'm learning so much from. There is a definite buzz about what's drinking well and who is having the most fun with mixing it. That challenges us on the other side of the bar to keep giving something new and to never get complacent.

Nate Howell

29, Hillcrest

Head Bartender at Jsix Restaurant

Number of years dedicated to cocktails: 10

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Nate Howell of JSix at Hotel Solamar K.C. Alfred

When did you first get interested in making cocktails?

When I started at Sable Kitchen & Bar in Chicago, I really learned the concept of a craft cocktail. I knew a lot about bartending; I knew the hospitality side of it and had the ability to get to know the people at the bar and what they liked. There is an art to making craft cocktails and a high learning curve that is challenging, which is awesome. I liked being able to express myself and get creative as well as make something that people enjoy that had more substance to it than a Jack and Coke.

How did you get your start behind a bar?

I actually started as a food runner, but made my way behind the bar pretty quickly. I knew I could make a career out of it when Mike Ryan gave me a shot at making a cocktail for the menu at Sable Kitchen & Bar in Chicago. I called it the Clark Kent – Sailor Jerry, Cherry Heering, demerara, lemon juice and allspice. I was so proud of it and so happy to have a drink on the menu that I felt like I was in and that’s where I wanted to be.

What’s an ingredient that you find yourself using the most?

It’s hard to say, but my focus is on American-made products. I learn more every day about new products I’ve never heard of before, so the obsession becomes what can I do with that and how can I support what these people are doing. I have so much respect for the people who start these small batch distilleries. I want to be able to take their product and make a great cocktail out of it so a wide range of people can experience it, get curious about it and want to know more.

Explain the process of inventing a new drink.

Seasonality is always something I keep in the front of my mind, but in San Diego there isn't as drastic of a difference as far as what is available and what isn’t as opposed to the Midwest or Northeast, so we’re lucky to have access to much more year round. My process depends on whether I’m going to get really bar nerdy with a drink or keep it simple.

What is a common misconception about your profession?

It’s not just about learning recipes. You have to be the DJ, psychologist, entertainer, food runner, busser, and dishwasher in addition to making drinks. We wear a lot of different hats simultaneously.

How does the cocktail scene in SD differ from other cities you’ve mixed in?

The scene is great because it’s finally being recognized. We were the younger brother of L.A. for so long, so it feels good to have grown beyond that. But, I think there is a downside to where we are as well. There is a lot of excitement, so I think newer bartenders jump to try to go out on their own and do something themselves without really taking the time to develop or think about what they are leaving behind when they go.

One piece of advice you would give the up-and-comers?

Learn how to read people and know what they want. Be funny but not too funny, have a conversation but don’t talk too much, make suggestions but don’t be pushy. You can learn a lot about people just by observing, and you have to be able to adjust.

The Up-and-Comers

Leigh Lacap

29, North Park

Bar Captain of Ironside Fish & Oyster

Number of years dedicated to cocktails: 3.5-ish

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Leigh Lacap, Ironside Fish & Oyster K.C. Alfred

When did you first get interested in making cocktails?

I had my first old fashioned on a whim at El Dorado sometime late 2009. It completely changed my mind about mixing drinks. Previously, I thought it was sacrilegious to put anything in my whisky except for ice.

It wasn’t until the first week Craft & Commerce opened and I had the pleasure of having Nathan Stanton make me a few drinks that I decided making cocktails is pretty darn neat. He was an absolute pleasure to sit in front of and I was enamored with his conversational skills and the work was putting into every drink.

How did you get your start behind a bar?

Nate asked me if I would like to learn about spirits and to call him about a job opportunity. I thought he was blowing smoke up my ass. I came back to Craft a few days later with friends and Nate put me on blast about how I never called him back. Needless to say, I talked to him the next day and he pulled me in for an interview. The rest is history.

What’s an ingredient that you find yourself using the most?

Salt. I love bitter things and salt makes bitter better.

Do you aim for the unusual or stick to traditional recipes?

Classics. I like spirits and liqueurs the way they were created. I attempt to match things up to amplify one or two main flavors and enhance the base ingredients. I don’t like confusing things with infusions and what not, because I am easily confused.

Which cocktail craze kills you?

Molecular stuff. Only because I’m too impatient and I would have failed high school chemistry if I didn’t copy someone’s test.

What’s one thing people should never say or do to a bartender?

Tell me that his or her favorite bartender from their favorite bar makes their favorite drink better after asking me to make it.

What intrigues you most about the craft cocktail scene in San Diego?

The love in our small community. We have camaraderie. It’s the best.

Best advice you’ve ever received?

LISTEN.

What drink do you make for yourself?

Cynar + soda + lemon wheel. All day.

Christy Spinella

26, City Heights

General Manager of Polite Provisions

Number of years dedicated to cocktails: 3

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Christy Spinella of Polite Provisions K.C. Alfred

When did you first get interested in making cocktails?

I grew up in New Jersey and had my first customer service job as a barista at 16 years old. I went to Temple University in Philadelphia with every intention of going to law school after graduating. Eventually I dropped the idea, since I’d known deep down that I loved the hospitality industry. When I became old enough to enjoy bars I began thinking to myself, “Bartending looks like something I can probably figure it out, I bet I’d even be good at it!” I took the idea and ran with it.

How did you get your start behind a bar?

My first job behind a bar was at the Hotel Palomar in the Gaslamp District. I had met a couple who had just moved to San Diego from NYC, and since I had just moved from Philly we bonded over our culture shock. They offered me a job at the hotel bar they were renovating. Bartending for a hotel allowed me the opportunity to work in every type of bar they operated, so I bounced around between the restaurant, nightclub, catering hall and pool. It was in the lobby bar where I met Mr. Erick Castro, who was still working as a brand ambassador for Beefeater Gin. I must have made a good impression. He remembered my passion and dedication, and when he moved to San Diego to open Polite Provisions, I was among the bartenders he recruited for his opening staff. I’ve had a great relationship with him and Consortium Holdings ever since.

Which liquor could you not live and mix without?

Probably bourbon. It’s so versatile, which I love. Bourbon lends itself well to almost any sensation that you might look for in a cocktail.

What’s your mixology style?

True to the style in which I was trained, I tend to stick to the classics. There is something so perfect about a simple cocktail where each ingredient can really shine. I’m a strong believer that less is more. Some bar menus make me cringe when I see five, six or sometimes even more ingredients in one drink. With such complicated drinks, your palate will become overwhelmed and not be able to distinguish what is what. By sticking to classic formulas and traditional flavor profiles, a bartender can be creative but still make a clean and delicious final product.

Explain your process of inventing a new drink.

I like to find inspiration from my food. Once I have flavors I’m interested in, I try to apply them to a traditional recipe.

What drink best describes your personality & why?

I really had no idea, so I did what anyone would do: I took an online quiz. According to Buzzfeed, my personality is a Cosmo because apparently I am independent, not afraid to speak my mind, and like to wear nice shoes. Seems legit.

What intrigues you most about the craft cocktail scene in SD?

The people! Everyone from the customers to my amazing colleagues. I love watching the average customer expand their knowledge on craft cocktails. I had these two young women in my bar the other afternoon, and while you shouldn’t make assumptions about your guests, I totally expected them to order a glass of Chardonnay or a Moscow Mule. They surprised me not only by ordering Sazeracs, but by having a strong preference about what kind of rye I poured. The average customer is becoming more informed, and beginning to see the cocktail as a culinary achievement. It means that we all have more appreciation for each other and for the craft.

Best advice you’ve ever received?

The best bar advice I’ve ever received was from a coworker back at the hotel pool bar. She told me, a good bartenders will know how to talk to customers and make them feel welcome. A great bartender will know how to get customers to talk to each other. Get your bar to engage with one another and you can take a step back and watch them entertain themselves. Meanwhile you can sling more drinks!

What drink do you make for yourself?

Campari and soda. After a long day of shaking up cocktails, it’s nice to make a drink that doesn’t require tins or tools. In fact, I even use ice straight out of my freezer, no carving required.

Zack Richardson

27, Banker’s Hill

Bar Manager and resident mixologist at Mister A’s

Number of years dedicated to cocktails: 10

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Zack Richardson of Bertrand at Mister A's K.C. Alfred

When did you first get interested in making cocktails?

Honestly, I was on a cruise when I was 14 and I snuck a Tom Collins. It was all up/downhill from there.

How did you get your start behind a bar?

I started as a barback at Mister A’s and worked my way up through the ranks. I have worked and learned at other places along the way, all the while still tending bar at Mister A’s.

What’s a typical day like for you?

On a workday I will often head into the restaurant around 9 or 10 a.m. and do some prep for the bar. That usually takes a few hours; then I’ll head home and enjoy the day until I go back into work for the evening. I’m also a student at SDSU, so if it’s a school day for me, then you might also find me in the library at SDSU pulling my hair out over some sort of linguistics assignment. On my days off… I’ll have to let you know the answer when I find out.

Explain your process of inventing a new drink.

I have a notebook in which I write my ideas. These ideas can be from something I’ve tried or seen on YouTube or maybe something not even in the culinary realm. Sometimes they work; often they don’t. I like to take a concept or a flavor profile and try to make it something that is appealing to wide audience. There is a lot of trial and error.

Which liquor could you not live and mix without?

Gin. Its versatility and bouquet lend it to so many different applications that I really love it, both to drink and to serve.

What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?

I’m a native San Diegan that doesn’t care for most IPAs. Blasphemy.

What drink best describes your personality & why?

A Bloody Mary. Spicy, salty and rejuvenating.

What intrigues you most about the craft cocktail scene in San Diego?

The vast potential that lies before us. As a city we have come so far in such a short time and there is so much out there to be done and achieved, it is very inspiring.

Do you aim for the unusual or stick to traditional, classic recipes?

I try to make modern adaptations of traditional drinks. They are classics for a reason, they have stood the test of time. And I believe that being unusual for the sake of being unusual has its place, but if something goes into the drink that doesn’t improve its flavor, color, texture or aroma then it’s superfluous.

Best advice you’ve ever received?

“People think of an education as something they can finish.” A quote from Isaac Asimov that a friend once showed me. It’s crucial to never stop learning.

What drink do you make for yourself?

Sazeracs, although I find they never taste as good at home as they do somewhere else.

 
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