It's around 5:30 p.m. on a Wednesday and Sycamore Den is sparsely populated. (That's not to say the Normal Heights bar, which opened in May, doesn't attract a crowd—check back on Friday night if that's what you're looking for.) The mellower scene gives Eric Johnson a chance to chat with patrons—he introduces himself to each one—whip up an off-menu cocktail for a customer who's looking for something with bourbon and citrus and talk to me about everything from the annual Tales of the Cocktail festival in New Orleans to unusual French aperitifs.
Johnson's worked behind the bar at three of San Diego's craft-cocktail OGs: Noble Experiment, Craft & Commerce and El Dorado. He's a childhood friend of Nathan, Marshall and Matthew Stanton and moved to San Diego from Spokane to help them start El Dorado in 2008.
Last year, Nick Zanoni, who owns Thrusters in Pacific Beach, asked Johnson to create a menu for Sycamore Den. While the theme of the Bells & Whistles-designed bar is rustic-retreat-meets-1970s-cool-dad-hangout, the menu's more sophisticated than the Creedence-loving dude the décor invokes. The Eskimo, for instance—Johnsonís take on a White Negroni—includes Suze, a French aperitif that's been available in the U.S. for only about a year. Made from gentian root (a key ingredient in bitters), Suze adds brightness to the cocktail while Cocchi Americano plays the role of vermouth and soda keeps the whole thing light.
"It's been a popular cocktail among the bartenders," Johnson says.
Johnson's just returned from Tales of the Cocktail, where he was one of eight bartenders picked to create a drink (see below for the recipe) for "Juniperlooza," a gin-centric festival that doubled as the after-party for the Tales awards ceremony. Gin is the star in several cocktails on Sycamore Den's current menu. The Flannel Mouth—another nod to the Negroni—is Johnson's favorite, made with gin, Cocchi Americano, Aperol, bitters and garnished with a cucumber slice. The Garden & Gun (gin, Jack Rudy tonic, lime, celery bitters and soda) is a variation on a classic gin-and-tonic and named after the hip Southern lifestyle magazine Garden & Gun (Jack Rudy is made in Charleston).
But the Dovetail Julep (gin, cognac, peach bitters, mint, absinthe) is what got my attention.
"If you look at a lot of old cocktail books, they did a lot of gin and cognac," Johnson says. "I wanted to do a julep with that combo and then spice it up a little bit."
The absinthe is sprayed on the mint leaves that garnish the drink, which is served in a blue-metal mug, like the kind you'd take camping, and topped off with a mound of ice. The cocktail starts strong and evolves nicely as the ice melts; it's how a spirit-forward cocktail on the rocks is supposed to be enjoyed, Johnson notes.
"Old Fashioneds, or a julep like that, it slows me down a little bit. You're not drinking them as fast," he says. "For me that's a good thing."
All Men Rose
· 1 1/2 ounces Beefeater 24 Gin
· 1 ounce Americano Rosa
· 1/2 ounce orgeat
· 3/4 ounce fresh lemon