ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Bartender of the Year H. Joseph Ehrmann and the Spirits of San Francisco

San Francisco is a classic drinkin’ town. On any given day, there is no shortage of bars and speakeasies to frequent. Monday: Travel down to the waterfront and sample a famous Irish Coffee at Buena Vista Café. Tuesday: raise a toast at the Drake Hotel with the Cable Car, a San Fran spin on the SideCar cocktail. Wednesday: break out some Sam Spade sleuthing and comb North Beach for a stiff Martini. Thursday: oh, you get the idea!

Although steeped in history, the Bay City is also at the forefront of modern cocktail culture. From the freshest ingredients to the most tantalizing blends and innovative techniques, San Francisco mixology shows no signs of slowing in creativity and coverage.

At the helm of this renaissance is H. Joseph Ehrmann, better known behind and beyond the bar as “H.” A mixology maestro with a keen focus on ingredients and imaginative flavors, H is both a local fixture as proprietor of Elixir in SF, and a national sensation as Nightclub and Bar Magazine’s 2010 Bartender of the Year.

With an expert in Haute Living’s midst, it’s only fitting that Friday: chat up H about spirits and saloons in San Francisco:

Haute Living: What does SF cocktail culture mean to you?

H. Joseph Ehrmann: A blend of old and new. We have such a deep and significant history in cocktails dating back to the mid 19th century. [Today] our cocktails are as innovative and internationally significant as our food and wine, and it is all driven by a public that is educated, savvy, and discerning. That is the most important thing, that people enjoy what we do and ask for more.

HL: Different tastes and palates abound when it comes to spirits. What is your go-to cocktail when someone says “Surprise me!”?

H: I try to ascertain their level of knowledge or awareness, whether they want it “spirituous and classic” or “produce driven and culinary” and the base spirits they like. Then I have some direction to go in where I’m fairly certain that whatever I make, they’re going to enjoy.

HL: You are the proprietor of Elixir, one of the oldest bars in San Francisco. What other bars are on your radar?

H: I hang out in my neighborhood a bit. [The Mission] I like the cocktails and whiskies at the new bar in the back of Dalva, the ambiance at The Lone Palm, the Homestead  and Shotwell’s. I’m a sucker for saloons , and anxiously awaiting the opening of Comstock Saloon!

HL: Running a bar is mainly an after-hours occupation, with a first-hand glimpse into SF nightlife. On your night off, what hotspots would you hit up with friends?

H: I like the downstairs bar at Smuggler’s Cove, anything Daniel makes at Alembic, nibbles and cocktails at Heaven’s Dog, pizza and mezcal at Berretta, chit chat and pisco at Cantina, and Sunday mornings at Lazlo.

HL: Describe your perfect San Francisco day.

H: Sunday Funday: Sunny, 65-70 degrees, sleeping in, brunch at Foreign Cinema, then a bar crawl with my girlfriend and friends that encompasses some outdoor drinking at the Ramp or Pier 23, reading the paper along the way and finally ending with a good steak at Izzy’s and a movie where the seats recline.

HL: You’re a major advocate of fresh juices and organic spirits. Are there any specialty markets or stores that offer the best ingredients?

H: I shop at the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market regularly. I love Rainbow Market for quirky ingredients and smaller shops including Bi Rite, Golden Produce next to Safeway in the Castro, the Latin and Asian produce at Casa Lucas on 24th Street (amongst others down Mission Street).

HL: A mixologist has to eat too! Where are your favorites spots to grub?

H: Brunch at The Clock Tower. Absinthe is also a standard go to, Maverick  is a regular [spot], Arinell’s Pizza, Caldo de Pollo at Puerto Alegre and cheap breakfasts at Mission Kitchen.

HL: What’s the next best trend in cocktails? Any advice to future mixologists hoping to break into the scene?

H: San Francisco bartenders are experimenting more in spirituous cocktails, traditionally associated more with “New York style”. I’m still in love with fresh produce and all that can be done with it. The more I explore my culinary skills and spirits knowledge the better my drinks get, while still keeping the recipes accessible and understandable. For me, a drink that doesn’t sell is a drink that may be interesting, but has no other real value. So for people trying to learn the game: know your spirits, understand your palate and offer what the customer wants!

Follow H on Twitter!