Most of us have an association—a permanent Pavlovian connection—with a certain spirit, the mere thought of which inspires waves of nausea and oceans of regret. Maybe it's tequila from that ill-advised trip to Tijuana or Boone's Farm from your first high-school dance. Maybe it's the time you wrongly assumed that Kool-Aid would mix well with Canadian Club. For me, it's elderflower.
Yes, elderflower. St. Germain, to be exact—a liquor poetically described as being derived from blossoms plucked from the face of the French Alps during the waning months of spring. Let me assure you, it didn't sound nearly so pretty splattering against my bedroom wall.
I'll back up.
My first encounter with a mixologist (the revered forebear of our comparatively crude notion of a bartender) was in Chicago at a lush, dimly-lit “speakeasy” called The Violet Hour. It's the kind of place where the music is hushed, the mood is serious and activity, for the most part, is confined to the bar.
The bar is where I happened to be sitting, across from my friend Kirk Estopinal, a nationally recognized, award-winning mixologist. Until that night, Kirk and I had hung out in normal bars, but that night he was working. He was mixing, straining and emulsifying with an intensity that made me uncomfortable. He rarely looked up and spoke only when I asked him a direct question. A round of drinks took him 15 minutes to make.
“Next time just make me two at once,” I joked, taking a huge gulp from my frothing coupe. Kirk rolled his eyes like a disgusted parent. I decided to brave the long intervals and consume five, maybe six cocktails brimming with exotic, antiquated ingredients and requiring laborious attention to detail. When it was all over, I could barely stand.
The next morning, staring at my own putrid field of elderflowers, I realized he was right. I am the tourist who stands in front of the Mona Lisa madly snapping pictures rather than just fucking looking at the thing. I'm the asshole who approaches art from the standpoint of a gluttonous consumer. It's true, I can't deny it—the writing is dripping slowly down my wall.
Fast-forward to La Jolla's WhisknLadle where, thoroughly chastened by my experience in Chicago, I am taking prim, ladylike sips from my Lavender Cosmopolitan. I've chosen my first and only cocktail from a beguiling list that offers concoctions with curious titles (London's Burning, New Fashioned) and includes ingredients like cinnamon-infused bourbon and bubblegum vodka. These carefully crafted libations are the work of Ian Ward, the official “mad scientist” of the San Diego Bar Guild, a newly formed group that hopes to elevate drinking in this town to the level of art. Divided over whether to label themselves “mixologists” or stick to the user-friendly “bartender,” the group—that, in addition to Ward, includes Matt Hoyt and Kate MacWilliam-son of Starlite, Arianna Johnson of Modus, Sara Hanson of Arterra and Adam Stemmler of Firehouse and the forthcoming Syrah Spirit & Wine Parlor—is focused less on esoteric ingredients than on reintroducing an element of reverence to the act of crafting and consuming cocktails.
“It doesn't have to be about eccentric, complicated drinks,” MacWilliamson explains. “It can be something so simple as pouring someone a shot of whiskey and being able to tell them about its history—where it comes from and how it's made.”
“Absolutely,” seconds Hoyt. “You can be committed to the craft of cocktails without being a cocktologist.”
There is a brief pause.
“Did I just say cocktologist?”
Stemmler laughs. “Call it whatever you want,” he says. “Just please don't use ‘mixologist.'”
The group's wariness when it comes to mixology stems from a fear of the stigma the term may carry in the mind of the average drinker. In the same way that no one really wants to suffer through the tedium of performance art, pretending to like it for the sake of appearing cultured, people don't want to feign interest in the intricacies of the infusing process when they're really just looking to get their drink on.
“But, fortunately, I think the tide is turning on that kind of mentality,” says Matt Spencer, owner-operator of Firehouse in Pacific Beach, who, with Stemmler as beverage director, will open Syrah in late spring. “People have really been taking a closer look at consumption. The focus has become on quality rather than quantity, and so I think we're really ready for some mixology in San Diego. Drinkers today want more than Jaeger shots—they want an education.”
Thus, the trick—and one of the Bar Guild's primary goals—is to cultivate a local drinking culture that is equal parts entertainment and elucidation, a feat its members hope to accomplish through a series of events (they had a Sangria contest in February and hope to have a new event posted soon on their website, www.sdbarguild.com). Each member helps the others using her or his respective strength (Ward is a master infuser, Johnson is a gin nut, MacWilliamson can talk for hours about bourbons and whiskeys, etc.), which only helps them concoct drinks that get people buzzing as well as buzzed.
“Because, really,” explains Sara Hanson, “no matter how serious people are getting with fancy cocktails, organic mixers and flashy service, it always comes down to the symbiotic correlation between human connection and fermented beverages.”
But as is the case with all art, cultivating a culture of appreciation and understanding will take time. For every epiphany over a lavender Cosmo, there will be a dazed philistine lying in a bed that reeks of foreign flora, cursing the day she ever sat down across the bar from a cocktologist.