Sarah Ellis graduated with a degree in comparative literature, "which set me up perfectly to work retail," she says. Just out of school, she was living downtown and working at Bloomingdale's in Fashion Valley. After shifts, she'd stop by East Village cocktail bar El Dorado and chat with bartender Anthony Schmidt (who'd go on to head up Noble Experiment before opening Rare Form last year). He'd tell her tales of bartender lore going back to the 1800s.
"It transports you a little bit," Ellis says, "just like reading a cool story or hearing a great song from long ago."
Ellis had been considering going back to school for creative writing, but Schmidt convinced her to change course.
Nearly six years later, she's the bar manager at Normal Heights' Sycamore Den, taking over for Eric Johnson who became the bar manager at Juniper & Ivy in March. Between her first bar gig—in 2009, Schmidt hired Ellis to hostess at Noble Experiment, where she got to train under Sam Ross of famed New York cocktail bar Milk & Honey—and Sycamore Den, she worked at El Dorado and did a three-year stint at Jaynes Gastropub, where she earned a reputation as one of San Diego's best bartenders.
In 2014, Ellis left Jaynes to go on a five-month surfing trip to Central America. When she returned, she called up Johnson—whom she'd known since her days hanging out at El Dorado—to see if he needed any help at Sycamore Den. He did.
"He's such a fantastic mentor," Ellis says. "I just wanted to work for him."
A year later, and Ellis is running the place. In the craft-cocktail world, female bar managers aren't totally unusual, but they're rare, and Ellis still puts up with folks who assume she's a bar back or way too young-looking to be working there. While the former bothers her, she's OK with the latter: "I know you're trying to diss me," she laughs, "but I'm taking that as a compliment."
What she's got planned for Sycamore Den: Ellis says the staff's at work on a new menu. "We're a very team-oriented bar," she says. For her, summer cocktails are all about fresh fruit and she's currently a huge fan of Selvarey's white rum, a 5-year aged rum that's charcoal filtered to strip its color. "It got this velvety, marshmallow-y mouthfeel," she says.
At Jaynes, she learned a lot about wines from owner Jayne Battle and she's bringing that knowledge to Sycamore Den, adding to the wine selection and looking for ways to incorporate Sherries and Madeiras into cocktails. Right now, she's working on a Negroni variation using Rainwater Madeira instead of sweet vermouth.
What she's drinking: "When it comes to making drinks for myself, I tend to be a little on the lazier side," Ellis says. Her favorite cocktail is an American Trilogy—a variation on an Old Fashioned made with 1 ounce rye whiskey, 1 ounce apple brandy, a bar spoon of simple syrup or a sugar cube, orange bitters and a lemon twist. She's also a big fan of the Astoria, a take on a martini with 2 ounces of gin, 1 ounce of Dolin dry vermouth, a dash of orange bitters and a lemon zest.