To sit in front of any of these bartenders is a real treat—and not just because of the dynamic drinks they pour. Their passion for flavor and cutting-edge technique is inspired by the countries they've traveled to, and the stories they've shared prove it. Four of the city's top guns were posed a two-part question: What worldly influences have shaped your drink program? And, in what cocktails can guests travel back with you to those places? Here are their answers that are bound to make you thirsty:
Off the Beet'en Path is one of mixologist Erin Williams' most delightful surprises at Saltbox (1047 Fifth Ave., Downtown), combining saffron-infused gin, beet brine and yuzu, among other unexpected ingredients. And, its name is telling of her unique approach to modern mixology, which focuses on flavor-packed, low-calorie cocktails. Naturally, Williams' influences hail from the land that inspired a diet based on all of the thin women who still manage to eat and drink well.
"France's higher-proof, lower-sugar and smaller portions with exquisite flavors inspired me to create cocktails in that mindset," she says, "and also to consider something very un-American in terms of recent mixology—using liqueurs as a base spirit."
The Blushing Fizz combines Cointreau, Hendrick's gin, strawberries, cucumber, mint and club soda. Williams is also hot on Lillet Blanc, a citrusy, French aperitif wine that she likes serving with a splash of champagne and club soda for a light, summertime drink. "That's all people drink in Paris," she says. "That, and Cointreau, neat on the rocks, with tonic, soda, champagne."
Imbibe guilt-free this summer at Saltbox's rooftop pool, where the drinks mentioned here range from 90 to 150 calories each.
Nick Majersky has traveled the world over for surf—from Indonesia to Mexico—but it was the latter in which he found one of his greatest flavor influences: mezcal. On an extended trip to Oaxaca, where the smoked agave spirit originates, Majersky fondly recalls drinking the stuff day in and day out. Back here in San Diego, he's shaking his way to the top tier of mixologists with drinks like the Stamped Strawberries at Red Light District (409 F St., Downtown).
Due to its robust, smoky flavor, mezcal is difficult to work with, but Majersky challenged himself to create a drink on the sweeter side that uses it.
"I got the idea from ceviche—the fresh herbs and spicy-sweet and sour flavors all at once," he says. "I have a passion for the savory side of cocktails. It's not just one characteristic, but many, that keep you enjoying a drink."
Majersky muddles organic strawberries with fresh basil and agave, then adds fresh lemon and lime juices and elderflower liqueur; it's shaken with ice, then strained into a martini glass and topped with effervescent prosecco. Deep, smoky strawberries get a botanical lift from basil and elderflower in this complex drink that you'll think about for days after your last sip.
Anthony Schmidt is widely regarded as the best bartender in San Diego, and if you've had the pleasure of sitting in front of him at East Village's speakeasy, Noble Experiment (777 G St. in East Village), then you've witnessed his passion and knowledge for spirits, classic cocktails and plenty of playful takes on tradition. Recently, Schmidt traveled to Cambodia and Thailand for three weeks, where tamarind is a prevalent flavor, from snack-food to juice form.
"When I got home, I started developing a tamarind syrup. I wanted to apply it as a simple ingredient to match our style of cocktailing that uses fewer ingredients so that each shines," he says. "I started with a basic daiquiri: light rum, lime and tamarind syrup. Then, I switched the rum and used some batavia arrak, a spirit from Indonesia, in an attempt to preserve the southeast-Asian roots. It turned out amazing."
The drink has evolved into the Tequila Rickey—ask for it, because it's not on the menu. Tequila, lime, soda water and tamarind syrup are blended into a refreshingly tart drink that's garnished with the candied, pod-like fruit. The flavor will forever transport Schmidt back to Bangkok, where he says people snack on "nature's Sour Patch Kids" at Muay Thai boxing matches as if it were peanuts or sunflower seeds.
While living in Stockholm, Sweden, for 12 years, Jeff Josenhans traveled to more than 45 countries around the world, became a certified sommelier and worked his way up the hospitality-industry chain to become an acclaimed bartender at The Grand—voted one of Conde Nast's Top Ten Hotel Bars in the World during his tenure there. Josenhans' worldly experiences—mainly, observing the cutting-edge mixology techniques that were coming out of England at the time—have shaped his drink program at the U.S. Grant Hotel (326 Broadway, Downtown), where he's the residing master mixologist and creator of Cocktails Sur Lie.
"When I came back to the states, I realized how limited I was as a bartender, in terms of what I could make," Josenhans said. "Cocktails Sur Lie incorporates the beer-brewing process and mixology in one product."
The Grant's current offering is a take on the mule, incorporating cascade hops and champagne yeast. The Le Grenade will be the next bottled cocktail that pops. Brandy, pomegranate, hibiscus tea, black pepper and bay leaves comprise what Josenhans describes as a sinister, dark-in-flavor drink, despite its summer release.
"It's all inspired by old-school cocktails," he says of the Sur Lie series. "Really, I wanted to master something that's very hard to re-create."