Thousands of gold-painted half-scale human skulls stud the massive bas-relief that spans the back wall of Noble Experiment. Perhaps serving as a memento mori moment for the nightly crowds, these grinning bones encourage a morbid fascination — one which dares you to not turn away — after all, they were once as we are — while at the same time repelling — for we are not yet as they are.
In addition to irony and a quiet invidiousness, this frieze of bony visages might be expressing a certain satisfaction. For the skulls’ gaze is fixed on a fully stocked bar.
Yes, eat, drink — and drink — and be merry, my friends. Step right up and order something. And don’t worry about the skulls. They’ll be there for you when you’re done. As the saying goes, they got your back.
Put your hands on the stainless-steel bar to steady yourself against the possibilities, poke yourself with a cocktail spike to make sure you’re not dreaming, and take a long look at the amber-ranked and silver-columned shelves. Fully stocked is one way of describing this show of proof and strength. Legendary proportions is another.
Located behind a false wall that’s hidden by a plastic façade of beer kegs stacked three wide by three high, Noble Experiment is San Diego’s own modern-day speakeasy. To find it, a visitor enters a half-occluded passageway out the back side of the Neighborhood eatery.
The mystique of the bar’s entrance lives up to its promise, as even the vermouth and cocktail cherries are extraordinary finds. But it’s the liquor selection that ennobles this experiment in rarified cocktail culture: smoky scotches, peaty Irish whiskies, winey bourbons, creamy brandies, wry takes on American rye, ruminative rums, pucker-dry gins, even a blanco tequila or two — and absolutely no vodka on the premises. Waiting in the wings to take your order, a cadre of bartenders has more combinations clicking in their heads than a crack team of code-writers.
Once you’ve ordered, sit back and take a look around. (By the way, if you’re looking for somewhere to start, Noble Experiment bartender Anthony Schmidt makes nigh close to the perfect gin martini; but more about that later.)
If the walls of Noble Experiment whisper some sort of parable on the way of all flesh and spirit(s), the pictures on the ceiling provide, perhaps, a clue to what makes Noble Experiment’s noble experiment in classic cocktail service worth trying.
Look up and you’ll be convinced that this place is the joint Alice would go to were there a joint to go to in Wonderland. Defying gravity, and your own habits of seeing, prints of the Old Masters in baroque frames plaster the ceiling, landscapes and portraits staring down the long air, as if to say, “Here is art’s highest attainment.” Then, once your neck begins to hurt, you’ll note how the floor’s black-and-white checkerboard tiles provide a fundamental footing on which Noble Experiment’s masters have built their contribution to the art of the sip.
What is this art of the sip? Its object is delight; its medium, the bartender’s palette; its canvas, your palate.
Chicago, New York, San Francisco; London, Paris, Stockholm — all perfected the art of the sip and continue to write chapters in the history and recipe books.
In the past few years, however, San Diego has also put its twist (and shot and dash and splash and garnish) on this art. In a certain sense, the art of the sip has its new, if not true, home in San Diego.
It turns out that, according to the mixers who know best, San Diego provides the perfect elements: fresh local produce accessible to bars and restaurants throughout the year; a bartending corps with plenty of esprit to give innovation the long-pour, mixing it in the same tin with equal parts boldness and finesse; and, most important of all, a population with an enduring thirst.
What follows is a cross section of San Diego’s masters of the bottle and glass, a triumvirate of concoctors who are fixtures on San Diego’s cocktail circuit, each making a lasting contribution to the art of the sip (hangover not included) in a city where it rarely rains and always pours.
Noble Experiment’s cofounder and head bartender Anthony Schmidt
Image by Don Mirra
Cofounder and head bartender at Noble Experiment, Anthony Schmidt looks more like a bouncer than a bartender. Sporting a cue-ball head, a jovial smile, linebacker shoulders, and a thick broom of a mustache, he speaks with the slow eloquence of an art curator, ready to guide the parched through his gallery of drams and ounces.
While Schmidt has moved on from Noble Experiment, he remains a top-level aesthete of all things mixed and neat, serving as consultant to Polite Provisions, the speakeasy’s new sister bar in Normal Heights.
Early on, this Silicon Valley native had a choice to either play football at a Division II college out in Wyoming or party with his friends at San Diego State. He chose the latter.
“I partied like I deserved a scholarship,” he deadpans, explaining how he first got interested in the social side of life. This party mentality led him to caucus as a bartender at one of the city’s many binge-and-bang nightclubs.
Reflecting on his experiences at these establishments (which he’d prefer remain nameless to protect the guilty), Schmidt says that mistakes along the way only clarified what he sought to both achieve and avoid in the cocktail scene.
“The goal [at other bars he’s worked at] was to get the people as drunk as possible so they could dry-hump on the dance floor,” he says. “It’s a profitable business model. It makes money quickly, and it’s not [meant as] a criticism of any particular bar. It was doing exactly what it intended to do very well. But in terms of the employees, we began to wonder if there was a better way to do bartending, if there was quality in cocktail service out there.”
As Schmidt’s patience grew thin for what passed as the town’s drinking culture, rumors trickled across the bar tops that a classic-cocktail movement was stirring to life. At about the same time, investors started showing up around San Diego, speculating about possible locations for higher-end cocktail service.
When restaurateurs Nathan Stanton and his twin brothers Matthew and Marshall Stanton opened up downtown’s El Dorado Cocktail Lounge, Schmidt went to work for them, honing his skills and making the usual mistakes along the way.
Visiting other bars in other cities to gauge their success, Schmidt says, “we quickly realized there was a big difference between what other folks were doing in these big cities and what we were doing.”
The El Dorado’s bar was unwieldy, for one thing. Mis en place — the fancy culinary way of saying “everything in its place and a place for everything” — clearly belonged as much behind the bar as it did in the kitchen.
“It was comedic,” Schmidt says. “We had one refrigerator where all our juices were stored, so if two people from opposite sides of the bar ordered something off our menu at the same time, from two different bartenders, the two bartenders would meet in the middle of the bar and duke it out for who would get the bottle first.”
At the same time, their approach to cocktails was as scattered as spaghetti thrown on the wall, as consistent as lemonade sold from a child’s sidewalk stand.
“We tended to do things like try five different daiquiris with five different rums and the same sugar. Or, sometimes, we’d try a different type of sugar and rum, and compare it to another [combination], and get this concept of the perfectly shaken daiquiri. The same went with Manhattans and martinis.”
Eventually, when Schmidt helped the Stantons open Noble Experiment, he learned that successful classic cocktails require the right building blocks — ice blocks, to be precise. Sizing up the 30-by-50-foot area that would become the barroom, Schmidt realized that a cocktail lounge that aims for intimate and cozy puts a premium on workspace.
“It was too small in the room to put in one of those cold draft ice machines that pumps out beautiful one-by-one-inch ice cubes. There’s no room in the kitchen in back or in here, so we had to figure out another way to do a high-end cocktail service without a proper ice machine. That’s when we realized there were bars out there cutting their own ice.”
As a homemaker will change the color of the curtains only to realize that the entire house needs repainting, so Schmidt, as he revised the proper setup behind a bar, found that mis en place fell into place.
One glance behind the bar confirms it. Laboratory beakers (“They pour more easily than bottles”) sit in neat columns, filled with pineapple juice, cranberry juice, and other cocktail mixers. Nestled in a large bed of ice that fills a stainless-steel reservoir, large bowls of olives, maraschino cherries, lemon twists, and lime wedges look more like a tapas bar than a garnish well.
Having solved that problem, Schmidt and his cofounders focused on the cocktails themselves. To crack this nut, Schmidt headed east.
“We didn’t know where to go from here, so we went to other people and brought on a mentor, a consultant, and we went all over the place,” he recalls. “They’d all say, ‘You’ve got to go to New York.’ So then we went to another city that wasn’t New York, for whatever reason, assuming we’d find someone to show us something different, and they would also say, ‘You’ve got to go to New York.’”
Heeding the advice at last, Schmidt took a flight to the Big Apple to visit pioneering mixologist Sam Ross, star bartender at the crazy-successful classic cocktail lounge Milk & Honey. Founded before the dawn of the classic cocktail revival in 2000, the eccentric, reservations-only Milk & Honey was a “hidden bar,” with no sign advertising its location, no menu for its customers, and a no-nonsense approach to cocktails that Schmidt says he’s consciously sought to emulate at Noble Experiment. (Last summer, Milk & Honey’s owners relocated to another part of town and became more accessible, adding a sign and menus. Ross bought the original space and opened Attaboy, which continues some of the exclusivity, much of the eccentricity, and all of the excellence of Milk & Honey.)
Explaining some of what he learned from Ross, Schmidt says that the successful cocktail is born from four basic principles: dilution, temperature, presentation, and the keystone, the coldest, cleanest, coolest ice on the market.
“Ice is both a foundation and an ingredient for our drinks,” he says. “Water leads to temperature, and it also softens the cocktail, which some people might criticize, but it makes fiery spirits more approachable.”
As an algebraic formula, if a cocktail is the equation, then ice is “x.” Solve for x, and you have your answer to cocktail perfection.
“The kind of ice we use is correlated with how much water is eventually added to the drink and the temperature of the drink. All these things are integral to how a drink tastes, how a customer experiences a drink. Also, if they’re telling us, ‘I drink whiskey neat or on the rocks,’ I need to be mindful of a presentation which uses a certain type of ice, so that the drink is going to be relatively strong, at least at first.”
And if the bartender must solve for x, sometimes it helps to control the other variables. That control came with something called the Clinebell Ice Machine.
“Instead of a conventional freezer, which freezes cold air from the top down, the Clinebell has walls that freeze inside and up,” Schmidt explains. “On the side of the console, there’s a hose that is constantly washing away any mineral deposits that might settle on the top. The mineral deposits are what trap the air and make the bubbles. So, if it’s constantly rinsing away these mineral deposits, you get this perfectly clear ice when it’s all set.”
Walking over to a bar back who is working in a far corner, tapping and cutting ice at a steady clip, Schmidt brings back a piece of the Clinebell-crafted ice. It’s about the size and shape of a chalkboard eraser and as translucent as a pale, oversized sapphire. Such clear ice comes to Noble Experiment in 300-pound blocks that have been sliced into 20-by-40-inch sheet cakes of translucent ice ten inches thick. The bar backs cut them down further into two-inch sheets, which are stored in stacks in a freezer next to the bar. Over the course of a night, Schmidt and his fellow bartenders will slide these sheets out as they need them and cut them down even further into “rods.”
From the large blocks to the rods, Schmidt explains, the bartenders can adapt the shape and size of the ice to the cocktail, which, in turn, “gives us the ability to control temperature and dilution. It gives us more accuracy for hitting that hypothetical sweet spot in the presentation of a cocktail, with just the right amount of dilution.”
The process also involves what Schmidt calls “wash lines,” the imaginary line a bartender learns to find on the inside of a cocktail tin or glassware that helps him control the dilution of water in the cocktail, and its temperature.
“So, in the glass, you’ll be able to see the wash line rise to a certain point. If it’s under that line, we know it’s too strong and not cold enough, and if it’s over that line, it might be freezing cold, but it could be too watered down. That’s why we have the different-sized pieces of ice. The wash lines vary with the shape, size, and presentation of our cocktails.”
Noble Experiment also has an in-house icemaker that makes cloudier ice. “We use this ice for a preparation for shaking cocktails, or, in the case of the martini I like to make, I use it to stir. Because the customer doesn’t see it in the cocktail glass, it’s not as much of a concern what the ice looks like, although the bartender has to accommodate his wash line, remembering that with more bubbles, the ice will melt faster.”
Using his favorite martini recipe as an example, Schmidt demonstrates how the wash-line process works.
“I prefer a three-to-one ratio of gin to vermouth, rather than the two-to-one we make for our house dry martini,” he says as he begins cracking the ice into manageable chunks and tossing them into the pint glass that serves as mixing vessel. With it goes:
2 ¼ oz. Plymouth Gin
3.4 oz. Dolin Dry Vermouth
1 dash orange bitters
Why Plymouth? “Because it’s approachable — it’s lower in proof and not as harsh.” Using an hourglass-shaped tin jigger, Schmidt caps it into the mixing glass. “I’m also going to add a couple dashes of orange bitters.”
Keeping his eyes on the stirring glass, he reaches for another rod of ice and smashes out more cubes with a few deft swipes of a kitchen knife, scoring a direct hit as he tosses each chunk into the glass.
As he stirs the contents, he keeps a level eye riveted to the glassy crunch and rattle of the mini-maelstrom he’s creating.
“As I’m watching the wash line come up, it’s diluting to the proper temperature,” he says. The water level begins to inch upward in the glass. “As I’m doing this, I’m also beginning to think about where my glassware and strainer are, and where my garnish might be.”
After about 35 seconds of steady stirring, he jerks the long-stemmed spoon from the glass, lets the contents sit for a minute, grabs an eye dropper from under the bar, and dips it into the glass. He squirts a small amount into his mouth and throws the dropper away. As he steps away from the shaker, Schmidt takes a thoughtful pause — his eyes make a slow barrel roll in their sockets — and then he nods.
“I’m tasting for temperature and for dilution. When I do this, if it’s very strong, I might stir it a couple more times. This one, now, it’s at a pretty good temperature.”
Placing a strainer over the stirring glass’s mouth, he brings the vessel close to the frosted stemware — a squat coupe — he’s placed on the bar beside it. The pour is long, as steady and smooth as water flowing from a slow underground spring.
“I like to strain low to the glass. That way there are no bubbles, and the only texture you’re going to get is the same as if it’s straight out of the bottle, as it was intended to be.”
For the final touches, he curls out a ¾-inch swath of lemon rind with a paring knife. As if casting a silent spell over the drink, he moves the rind in an arc above the diameter of the rim, pinching it in half lengthwise as he goes.
“I’m spraying the twist from either side, because part of the aroma will sit on top of the glass, but also on the sides of the glass.” He kisses the rim with the rind, drops it into the drink, and pushes it toward me. “When you grab and touch the glass, as you are doing now with your hand, you still get that wonderful aroma from the twist, and it stays with you.”
It not only stays with you. If the well-done martini works like a diamond-cutter on the senses, then Anthony Schmidt’s martini turns each sip into a 12-karat experience.
(Has gone out of business since this article was published.)
“I felt like a stranger when I first worked behind the bar,” says Alchemy’s Ricardo Heredia.
Image by Howie Rosen
South Park’s Alchemy Cultural Fare & Cocktails is located in a corner building that faces the neighborhood’s sleepy main street. This is as it should be. As part of its mission, the restaurant has sought to proffer itself as an accessible, sustainable resource for the community ever since it opened in 2008.
Once inside, the visitor is greeted by sprawling silver steel limbs with golden metal tassels that dangle from an art installation — a metal tree — that has become Alchemy’s official trademark. Sculpted by area artist Todd Williams, the 15-foot-tall work of seamless welding sprouts from a muscular trunk through the floor in the middle of the restaurant’s dining space. Its limbs climb to the ceiling, serving as a glittering canopy for diners and imbibers, and also as a chaotic counterpoint to the Apollonian cylinders and lines that dominate the decor, which is crowned by exposed ductwork streaking above Alchemy’s bar.
To the left of Williams’s armored arboretum, Alchemy’s S-shaped stone bar top stretches across more than a third of the restaurant. It is from behind this serpentine serving area that head chef Ricardo Heredia has become one of San Diego’s first avatars of an avant-garde foodie trend — the “chef’s cocktail.”
Sitting in the back of the restaurant in a corner table, Heredia hunches forward to tell me that his enthusiasm for stirring up things with both sauce spoon and swizzle stick more than make up for his lack of experience behind the bar. He considers himself an amateur at “messing around behind the bar” and says that he was inspired to create his own cocktails by working under the same roof with Alchemy’s bartenders.
“It’s fun to talk to the bartenders and get their ideas,” he says. “We’ll get talking — ‘How ’bout we try this, or how ’bout we do that.’”
Originally hailing from Fort Wayne, Indiana, Heredia grew up “all over the place” but considers the Yellow Springs neighborhood in Dayton, Ohio, the closest thing to a hometown. A Mexican-American of medium height, Heredia was blessed with a broad set of shoulders, a thick chest, and a matching set of forearms — more than enough bulk to tough it out growing up in the rougher sections of Dayton. Accentuating his rough-and-tumble look, a vineyard of tattoos curl halfway down his arms from beneath the sleeves of a black T-shirt. A recent accident left him with a black patch over his right eye. Held in place by a thong of leather that wraps around his head, the patch bears the eatery’s trademark: Williams’s steel tree in silhouette.
For his first chef’s cocktail at Alchemy, last year Heredia made what he calls the “male version of a cocktail,” a combination of beer, whiskey, and tobacco leaves sourced from local organic interest Suzie’s Farm.
“I did a beertail, where I infused Michter’s Triple Batch Bourbon with fresh tobacco and Dead Guy Ale,” he says. “I called it ‘Folsom Prison Blues.’ I was looking to make something that said, ‘Rrrrrrr! I’m drinking whiskey and having a cigarette and a beer — all at the same time!’ That was my inspiration. It was good, but I’ll admit it wasn’t for everyone.”
The beertail was a one-off, but like any good bartender or chef, Heredia listened to the clamor of his customers for an encore.
“I’ll sometimes sit at the bar and talk to people and have great conversations about food and drinks. They told me they thought it would be great to do another chef’s cocktail. So I did.”
Heredia admits that, initially, he was hesitant to proceed because he didn’t want to spark a turf war at Alchemy by meddling in the mixers’ territory.
“I don’t let my guys go behind the bar, and I don’t let anyone walk down my line in the kitchen. That’s my space, and there’s not a lot of it. What you have is yours.”
The mutual respect of bartenders and chef eventually allowed him diplomatic immunity to proceed, though the bar was still alien corn.
“I felt like a stranger when I first worked behind the bar. It was a new world to me. Put me in any kitchen and I’ll be comfortable, regardless; but behind the bar is a whole different kind of system.”
The lines are clear to cooks and bartenders, he says, but because Heredia’s world is stainless steel, copper, and cast iron, all backlit by blue pilot lights and an orange grill flame, he believed he could shed some light on the cocktail.
“I’m in the flavor business, understanding flavor components and making some interesting twists on things. This is what we do every day. We make sauces, we make infusions, we find creative ways to do classic dishes — so that’s the advantage. We already have that mindset, of understanding flavor profiles, combining flavor combinations, and using techniques to make something taste a little more interesting and different for customers.”
Without formal culinary schooling, Heredia made his way from his grandmother’s Fort Wayne kitchen to chef of his own line. He’s cracked more than a few eggs when it comes to the complexities of cooking.
“I learned a lot of the science when I was a kid — what not to do, and how things happen. It’s physics, chemistry, and art. First, you have to understand the physics of heat transference, or what happens to eggs when they’re heated. When you beat egg whites, you have to learn what happens to them chemically, or what happens to the acids chemically in certain things. To me, cooking was a periodic table; each ingredient was part of this big periodic table. So you start to understand what can be combined with what, and to make a compound with what cannot be combined. Once you have that knowledge, it’s art. It’s plate composition, what’s going to make things beautiful, what aromas will be extruded first, and so on.”
For the newest element on his table, a variation on the Tequila Sunrise, Heredia went back to his roots — sort of.
“It’s called a Tequila Sundown,” he says as he heads to the bar to make one for me. “It’s a little play on the Tequila Sunrise. Tequila happens to be one of my favorite drinks right now. Fortaleza Blanco tequila, in particular, I absolutely love. I drink pretty regularly when I get off work. A beer and a shot of Fortaleza Blanco is my MO.”
Behind the bar, Heredia grabs a pint glass and begins to build his drink in the same methodical rhythm he might use to prepare a sauce — a contrast, at any rate, with the more easy-as-it-goes style of most bartenders.
He begins by filling the glass with ice and rimming its edge with the carbonated confectionary Pop Rocks — cherry flavored. He then adds the following:
1 1/2 oz. Fortaleza Blanco tequila
1 1/2 oz. grenadine made by Heredia from a beet-and-blackberry reduction
Juice of 1 whole tangerine
He garnishes the drink with two slices of kumquat and carries the cocktail — and a shot of Fortaleza for himself — as we head back to our seats.
As he considers this spinoff from one of the more popular tequila-based cocktails, Heredia admits that cactus juice wasn’t always his friend. Back in his Fort Wayne and Yellow Springs youth, when he wasn’t getting in trouble with his grandmother — his mother was often absent, and his father took a mostly hands-off approach to his upbringing — he was trying to stay on the good side of the law. Of course, there was always time to kick back and enjoy a “40” — a 40-ounce mega-canister of malt liquor — of Colt 45, or Mickey’s Big Mouths.
Ricardo Heredia of Alchemy crafts a naturally sugar-free cocktail, using miracle berry to turn sour to sweet.
“Yeah, we drank a lot of 40s, but no tequila, not at that age, no tequila at all,” he says, adding that once he did discover tequila later in life, “it had been a love-hate relationship. Then I started touching on some really finely made tequilas, and just like anything, it’s all in the aroma and the balance of flavors. I think we’ve all had bad experiences with the José Cuervos or some of the lesser tequilas, and with me, it resonated for a long time, especially when it shows up in food. It took me a while to start to appreciate it again. And then I found one I really like.”
That would be Fortaleza, the American label for the high-quality Los Abuelos brand. Fortaleza is processed, potted, and stilled in the town which gave its name to the stuff, Tequila, in the state of Jalisco, Mexico.
“I wanted to use something I really like and that I drink all the time,” Heredia says, adding with a deep laugh, “and something people are familiar with me drinking all the time.”
Besides redrawing the Sunrise as a Sunset, Heredia also wanted his concoction to engage all five senses. Thus, the Pop Rocks.
“I thought it would be kind of fun. It’s tantalizing other senses, which is what we like to do here at Alchemy. We try to tantalize all five of them. You add a component like the Pop Rocks, and you can hear and feel the Sundown. They make it more fun than your average tequila-and-orange.”
If the Tequila Sunrise is an aubade to the alchemic distillation of the agave, then Heredia hopes that the Tequila Sunset is the nectar’s nocturne. Its moody colors — cheery tangerine bleeding down into a melancholy crimson and finishing off in a deep, brooding plum — and earthy flavor are both emphasized by the blood of the tuber that makes up one-half of Heredia’s kitchen-sourced grenadine.
“I love to put beets in lots of things. I love to use them for savory and sweet applications, and I wanted that deep red color. The balance of sweet and earthy can be utilized in so many different ways in cocktails” — he pauses half a beat before letting Ricardo Heredia the chef have the final word — “and, besides, beets are really healthy for you.”
Jeff Josenhans on the rooftop of the U.S. Grant, where herbs and fruits are grown for their specialty cocktails.
Image by Howie Rosen
Anthony Schmidt’s perfect martini and Heredia’s Tequila Sundown linger in the mind and on the palate not only because of their flavor, but because they come off as hidden surprises in the heart of San Diego’s cocktail culture. In contrast, the US Grant Hotel’s Grant Grill announces to the visitor from the start what it’s staking its cocktail reputation on — the Centennial Manhattan.
Waiting at the Grant Grill’s entrance to make that announcement loud and clear is a 52-gallon barrel lying on its side in a wooden cradle, its weathered blond staves bound by rust-red hoops. Bolted across its belly, a steel plate in raised white lettering and large sans serif font states: “An inspired collaboration between The US Grant and High West Distillery, the 100 Day Barrel Aged Manhattan was crafted in honor of the hotel’s Centennial Celebration.”
The cocktail carries the distinction of being one of the first barrel-aged cocktails in the world. Classic yet contemporary, the innovative blend was unveiled October 15th, 2010, exactly 100 years after the US Grant opened its doors.
The Centennial Manhattan is the work of the Grant’s sommelier, mixologist, and all-around wine-and-spirit wunderkind, Jeff Josenhans, and it has put the Grant on the map as a regular pilgrimage site for both born-again cocktailers and the longtime faithful.
Almost six-and-a-half-feet tall, Josenhans sweeps around the corner with such grace and modesty that I momentarily mistake him for a busboy. Dressed in a smart navy-blue suit with a shirt open at the collar, he leads us to seats at an empty table against the wall opposite the bar. Decked out in art deco, chrome piping, and golden tones, the Grant is empty this afternoon, except for wait staff and bartenders busy with preparations for the evening crowd.
A regal vertical affair of massive woodwork, this high-end watering hole calls to mind altar and reredos in a cathedral sanctuary.
As sommelier and mixologist, Josenhans has contributed three innovations to the San Diego cocktail scene: the above-mentioned trademark Centennial Manhattan; other cocktails cultivated with the Grant’s own rooftop herb and vegetable garden; and a newly invented delivery system for the first-ever bottle-conditioned cocktails, using the elite sur lie method of fermentation.
Josenhans has been bartending since he turned legal; in short order, he worked his way up to management. While his roots are in Riverside, he traveled to Sweden to study corporate finance at the University of Stockholm.
“I bartended on the side while I was there — and I loved it,” he says. It also loved him, he adds, noting with neither bravado nor false modesty, “I guess I was a good-looking guy, and I was fast behind the bar. I met someone who ran a nightclub, who said, ‘Hey, we can use you.’ I started bartending in there and did well and started entering bar competitions and won competitions. At one point, I was even on the Swedish National Bartending Team.”
As the barrel sign at the entrance states, the first bottle of the Centennial Manhattan was cracked open the day the Grant hit the century mark. But Josenhans was busy much earlier than that, making sure the Grant’s celebration would be one to remember.
“Already, back in 2009, I started working on this project. The idea was that we were going to barrel-age the Manhattan for a hundred days, in honor of the hundredth anniversary. And still today, they barrel-age it for a hundred days.”
One of the Grant’s serving staff appears, carrying to our table a cut-crystal decanter about the size of a 20-ounce mason jar. A brass cocktail strainer fits snug within the decanter’s open mouth. The decanter is slightly more than half filled with a liquid of deep amber and tawny hues.
The Centennial has arrived.
After the server pours the well-chilled cocktail into a pair of vintage coupes, the glasses frost up with frozen perspiration. The server sets the decanter on the table, accompanied by an antique bitters bottle shaped like a cruet and topped with a pinched-brass spigot. The Centennial is a self-contained drink: with whiskey, vermouth, and bitters included, there’s no assembly required. But at the Grant, Josenhans explains in his rich baritone — seasoned no doubt by the vintages and proofs that have become his stock-in-trade — guests are given bitters on the side, to season the concoction to their own tastes.
If upon the first sip of the Centennial, words fail the imbiber, this level-two CMS Sommelier is ready to iterate the tasting notes of what has long been considered a chimera of the cocktail pantheon: the perfect Manhattan.
“You get the cinnamon aspect and dried-fruit character from the vermouth and the spiciness from the rye. But what I really love about it is the way it melts on the tongue. It’s really smooth. I actually drink it neat sometimes, with cigars.”
Exchanging his sommelier hat for a bartender’s, he stands up and lopes over to the bar and retrieves a bottle of the Centennial. He brings it back to the table, where he cradles it in his hands, displaying the bottle with exaggeration, as he would a fine vintage.
With the exuberance of a proud father, he exclaims, “I love this!” He turns the bottle’s label to read it. His face stricken with mock surprise, he points at the label and grins. “Oh, and see? I got my name on the bottle, too!” He sets the bottle on the table, leans back in his seat, throws a leg over a knee, and knits his fingers at the back of his head. Looking up at the ceiling, he says, “Ahhh…success!”
With a mischievous smile, he leans forward and holds the bottle up again. So unique is the Centennial, he says conspiratorially, that, after a bit of clever legal footwork by his supplier, it even left the federal government with a bit of a buzz.
“If you buy a bottle of liquor at the store, it will say in small letters somewhere, ‘Whiskey,’ ‘Gin,’ and so forth.” Josenhans peers closely at the label. “If you look at the Centennial’s label, it says, ‘Manhattan made with rye whiskey and vermouth.’ That’s a category that the U.S. government came up with just for us. This is the only bottle you’ll see in the whole world that has that classification. That took months.”
It also took months to put the whiskey in the bottle in the first place. The greatest obstacle for getting the project off the ground was finding the right ingredients, especially the right rye whiskey. What would work best — and keep best — in a bottled Manhattan? The question, Josenhans admits, had him over a barrel.
“I started out with the Jim Beams, and even the small-batch stuff, but they weren’t having it. They were telling me it couldn’t be done. I had so many people telling me it couldn’t be done. It was against the law, they’d say. But we went and changed the law, to make it happen.”
Though his personal Manhattan project kept him busy, Josenhans still had time to plant a few other ideas at the Grant.
Jeff Josefhans talks about the rooftop garden that supplies the bar at the US Grant's Grant Grill and his own favorite dive.
“On our roof, we have a garden we dedicate solely to the cocktail program, and last year we had an array of stuff. We started out with flowers. They would bloom in the spring. Then, in the summer, we do more herbs and fruit-based drinks.”
We are speaking during the off-season, so Josenhans explains that there isn’t much to see in the 1000-square-foot plot of high-altitude planting soil.
“Right now, the garden’s being excavated and replanted.” Some planting has been done, but there’s nothing to show for it yet. “I have pink lavender growing up there right now, and that will be for the floral menu in the spring. I want to do more exotic calendula this year. Then we’ll see whatever other flowers we find. We used safflower last year, too, which is a cheaper, poor-man’s saffron.”
Putting his sommelier hat back on, Josenhans speaks next of what he considers his greatest achievement — the Cocktails Sur Lie bottle-conditioned cocktails. From the French for “on lees,” sur lie is a method of winemaking that skips the filtering process known as racking. It can add toasty notes to a wine, Josenhans says, and can mellow out a wine’s otherwise harsh oak flavors.
The lees, or dead yeast and other sediment that sinks to the bottom of a wine vat, are aged to give a wine — especially champagne — its characteristic taste.
In the course of making the Cocktail Sur Lies, Josenhans adds other ingredients to the grape juice to turn it into a cocktail. For the prototype he brought out for sampling, a Moscow Mule, he added fresh ginger and lemongrass, to give it the cocktail’s traditional flavor. At the end of the process, he added grape vodka, to bolster the alcohol content to 20 percent, well within the range of a good cocktail, and Cascade hops, to further develop the flavor’s complexity.
With the sur lie cocktails, Josenhans has knocked yet another pie out of the sky by creating a beverage that brings wine, beer, and cocktail crowds to the same cocktail hour. The mischievous smile returns to his face. “That’s what I love about this product,” he says with a laugh. “I could say something to a master sommelier, and he’s going to be perplexed that this is not a wine product, and then the hops we use are going to get the attention of the beer people, and since it’s a cocktail — a true cocktail — the mixologist is going to be there as well.”
That open invitation to one and all laid down by Josenhans’s sur lie invention is the very spirit of San Diego’s cocktail culture. According to Josenhans — and he should know, being a member of the San Diego chapter of the United States Bartenders’ Guild — that spirit, hollow leg and all, is alive and kicking.
Headquartered in Henderson, Nevada, a suburb of Las Vegas, the guild is the official representative within the International Bartenders’ Association. In addition to hosting educational and charitable events with bartenders, the guild gives members access to trade shows and new product information.
Working in the San Diego chapter with many of the city’s other cocktail holy sites — such as Prohibition, and Craft and Commerce — and cocktail consultants, such as Snake Oil and Blind Tiger — Josenhans says that San Diego has begun to define a spirited cocktail culture on its own terms.
“San Diego has something different going for it,” he says, noting that the enthusiasm reminds him of his bartending days in Stockholm. “Not all cities are like that. San Francisco and Los Angeles are more cutthroat and looking out for themselves, but we have a community here in San Diego that is much more giving. The individuals in the city make the difference. We’re all pros looking to help each other, and I got help from them along the line, and they helped us out.”
According to Josenhans, San Diego’s cocktail scene offers a healthy variety, from the high liturgy of the Grant to the straightforward simplicity of the neighborhood bar.
After all, even a sommelier and hot-shot cocktail inventor needs a place to unwind.
“When I think of a good bar, I’m there for the personality of the bartender and not the beverage, per se,” he says. “Yeah, I have my dive bar I go to sometimes.”