Interview: bartender Matt Conway (Absinthe)

Bartender San Francisco

Photo courtesy of Matt Conway

Boston native Matt Conway has worked with some of the best bar minds in San Francisco, including Neyah White at Nopa, Jeff Hollinger and Jonny Raglin at Comstock Saloon, and Jason “Buffalo” LoGrasso at Cotogna, so it seemed inevitable that he’d eventually run his own program. He recently started managing the bar at Absinthe Brasserie & Bar , one of the city’s earliest adapters to craft cocktails. On March 15, we spoke by phone, and Conway shared some spirited insights.

What’s your first cocktail memory, good or bad?

It’s kind of a blur, and it’s not my first but I can definitely recall the little cocktail epiphanies I had…My first Sazerac was at Absinthe in 2002, when I first moved here from San Francisco…Having moved here from Boston, which didn’t have a great cocktail scene at that time…It was in the early stages of the cocktail renaissance. I worked a block from Absinthe and this was a place I drank after work.

Do you remember who made the drink?

I don’’t know. I think it was Jonny [Raglin].

Was it a given that you’d work with cocktails and spirits for a living, or did you consider other careers?

I’ve worked in restaurants for a long time and love restaurants and love bars. I love the culture and energy. I tried briefly working behind a desk for 7 or 8 months, and absolutely hated being behind a desk, being in a cubicle, and being in an office, so I returned to restaurants. I love the social component and interacting with people at a high volume and meeting new people and being in a lively, social environment. It’s afforded me a schedule that’s let me pursue other things and travel. It’s a very generous industry in that regard. A lot of people can’t skip out and travel a month out of the year.

What was your first bar job, and how did it come about?

My first bar job was at Citizen Cake in San Francisco. I worked there as a waiter for awhile and this guy named Micah, our main bartender, moved to Portland, so they needed a full time bartender. I worked at the restaurant for awhile and knew the restaurant very well, and met with the owners and managers, and they gave me an opportunity to get behind the bar. I’ve been bartendeing every since. That was 2004. San Francisco is an amazing city to be a bartender in, there’s a wealth of talent and people are really cool about sharing ideas.

Would you say you’ve had any mentors over the years?

I kind of shy away from the word mentor, but a few people have had a significant influence on me. Neyah White is one of them. He was a great person to work with at Nopa for four years. Yanni [Kehagiaras] is a great resource, and of course Jeff [Hollinger] and Jonny, first seeing them work, and then working with them at Comstock.

What do you want people to know you for as a bartender?

Primarily, just for being a good host. That’s the most important thing. A lot of times people get hung up on what’s in the glass. That’s fine to nerd out on cocktails, but there’s more to it than that. It’s more important that people at your bar are having a good time, and the drink is only one component of that. The interation, the conversation, the energy at the bar, all of those are things the bartender’s responsible for. I just want to make good drinks with integrity and have people have a great time.

What does a cocktail have to be if it goes on your menu at Absinthe?

Flavor wise, it should be balanced, first and foremost. I like balance, I like simplicity. I don’t like fussy or busy cocktails. Hopefully, I like showcasing the components of the cocktail. If you’re using good product, that should show through. You should have something that’s greater than the sum of the its parts, but you should know what’s in the glass.

As far as naming cocktails, what’s your approach?

It’s probably thrown away a lot more cocktail names than I’ve kept. You want something with some relevance to what’s in the glass, but you want something with some allure without being too cheeky or too cute. Some crazy, esoteric, disjointed explanation shouldn’t’ be required.

What was your most recent cocktail, and what was your approach?

The most recent one is not that recent. I haven’t really put any drinks on the list yet at Abinthe, but the last one was the Luca Brasi, the character in the “Godfather,” basically a rye drink with a couple vermouths and amaro Montenegro and a mole tincture. That was on the list at Cotogna.

What do you look for when you’re hiring a bartender?

I haven’t actually had to hire anyone, but what would I look for? Someone who’s really thorough and works clean. Of course attention to detail and speed, of course, and someone who’s good with guests, who people like and who doesn’t realize it’s not about him or her. It’s not about the bartender, it’s about the guest. At the end of the day, it’s a service industry, and that comes first.

What’s a great simple cocktail that you would suggest people make at home? What’s your preferred recipe?

I guess a Negroni because like many, many bartenders, it’s in my top tier of drinks. It’s three ingredients, it’s equal parts, so you can’t really fuck it up. Any measuring cup will do. For me, I would say Rittenhouse, Punt e Mes, and of course Campari.

Who’s somebody you’ve never worked with behind the bar that you would most like to work with?

That’s a good question. In San Francisco, I would probably say, it would be cool to work at Alembic with Daniel Hyatt, not just for the sake of working at Alembic, but I kind of like his approach. I’ve worked with a lot of guys I’ve sought out to work with. I worked with Slanted Door, but never worked with Thad [Vogler]. That’d be cool. It’s a really interesting approach. His cocktails are really simple and work really well.

Outside of San Francisco, maybe Jamie Boudreau. I stopped by his place in Seattle when I was there and was completely enamored with the bar. I don’t know him personally, but know about him. There’s a list of people in New york doing cool stuff.

Where and what do you like to drink when you’re not working?

I don’t drink a lot of cocktails, but my favorite drink is certainly a Vieux Carré. Beyond that, I tend to drink American whiskeys and tequilas.

Anywhere in particular?

I like the Alembic. That’s been one of my favorite bars since it opened. At any given neighborhood, there are places you can get a drink at this point. I like Bloodhound a lot. That’s always been one of my favorite bars. It’s fun, not pretentious. Of course I still like going to Comstock. Of course those guys are all family so I’m biased.

If you could travel anywhere in the world right now, one city, primarily to drink cocktails and spirits, what would it be and why?

I guess it would be probably London or New York, but I feel like I’m reading a lot about stuff going on over there at the moment.

If you could only drink one more cocktail, what would be in the glass?

For the rest of my life?

A single cocktail.

Like I’m on a firing squad?


I’d have to go with a Vieux Carré.

Who would you let make it for you?

Yanni [Kehagiaras]. He’s probably the most meticulous builder of cocktails I’ve ever met.


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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