SoCal native Erik Adkins took a circuitous path north, beginning with an East Coast swing in Virginia, where he earned a Philosophy degree at Washington & Lee University. He started bartending in San Francisco at a Gordon Biersch brewpub, moved to the Mission to work at Slow Club and bided his time at some Virgin Islands rum bars before returning to San Francisco, where he caught on with star chef Charles Phan at The Slanted Door. Adkins currently works as Bar Director for The Slanted Door and Heaven’s Dog, which are the two Phan restaurants with full liquor licenses. We recently met in the Slanted Door lounge, where he discussed his background and approach.
Josh Lurie: What is it that inspires you about cocktails?
Erik Adkins: The sense of place and time. I love the fact that you can bring something from the past, and by bringing a cocktail out of the past, you can kind of get a glimpse of the time and the period where it came from. You can get a sense of what agriculture used to be like, and what spirits used to be like.
JL: Would you consider yourself a bartender or mixologist?
EA: Almost everyone I know falls firmly on the side of bartender. I realize people want to distinguish themselves from the guy who pours beer or works at the local dive bar. I would tolerate the term craft bartender. That allows you to say what you do, but still put yourself firmly on the side of service, and behind the bar. I think we all agree that a mixologist is someone who studies mixed drinks.
JL: Do you feel like that’s a component of what you do?
EA: It is. There are a lot of things that go into being a bartender.
JL: Would you say that there are any hallmarks of your bartending style?
EA: Two things that I think are important: the primacy of ingredients, which I think is sort of the heritage we’ve gotten from Alice Waters and the California cuisine movement, and an eye for detail and execution, which I think we strongly owe to Audrey Saunders and the New York faction. More of an eye toward temperature and dilution, and measurement.
JL: How does it affect your approach that you’re working in restaurants?
EA: As opposed to a place that didn’t serve food?
EA: It’s just easier. We have a kitchen that can back us. If we want them to make something for us, they will. There’s more produce coming in. We’re already set up with the local venders, and our guests can drink more because they’re eating.
JL: How would you differentiate your approach at The Slanted Door versus what you’re doing at Heaven’s Dog?
EA: Here we do more food friendly acidic drinks, more citrus drinks, brighter. The acidity gets you to salivate. It’s a component of digestion. At Heaven’s Dog, we do more spirit driven drinks.
JL: Do you have a first cocktail memory?
EA: A more recent memory is one that’s only four or five years old, from my first trip to New York at Pegu Club. I was there with my wife at five o’clock and Audrey Saunders was behind the bar. I guess the bartender had called in sick. She made us about 10 cocktails. We would get halfway through one and she would pull it and put another one out. This went on for an hour. She wouldn’t let us get drunk because she knew we wanted to go out, and it was painful to watch these drinks get pulled away. It was a revelation. I never knew that cocktails could taste that good. I’d never seen what good ice could do. I’d never seen what someone who had intimate detail and wasn’t just free pouring ingredients, what that could do to a cocktail. And that was probably the most influential moment. I just told myself that someday I wanted to make drinks like that.
JL: How did that reverberate towards what you were doing out here?
EA: I came back and started working on getting freezers behind the bar, a cold draft machine, getting the bar staff to start using jiggers.
JL: You’d never done that before?
EA: No, we all free poured. We made juicy drinks. We’d squeeze the juice of a lime and would build the drink around it, taste our way around it, more like a cook would. Now we make drinks more like a pastry chef would, measure things to get a lot tighter margins on our drinks.
JL: How do you think your Philosophy degree helps with you do now?
EA: The bar business is filled with lit majors and philosophy majors. Basically anyone who didn’t teach or go to law school, I find behind a bar.
JL: Would you say that you have any cocktail mentors?
EA: Absolutely. I already mentioned one. I can basically break it down into two people. Thad Vogler taught me the primacy of ingredients and the importance of artisanal spirits. Spirits that come from an agricultural point of view, not a highly marketed point of view. Audrey Saunders and all the New York bartenders also showed me that execution was also important.
JL: How do you decide what spirits to include on your menus?
EA: Again we really look for someone who spends more money on production than advertising, somebody who doesn’t feel the need to highly market themselves. It’s a bonus if they have a smaller distributor, which means they’re able to make less of the product. When you have to make 100,000 cases of something, there’s a feeling that it can’t be as good, that it’s more of a mass produced product.
JL: What about your cocktail menus? How often do they change, and what does that depend upon?
EA: We do a few seasonal drinks, but we don’t do seasonal menus as much, but we rotate a drink out every month or so.
JL: What’s a spirit that you’re currently especially excited about?
EA: I love the Ransom Old Tom Gin. Anything rum. Mezcal. Brandy.
JL: What about Pisco? It seems like that’s become more prominent.
EA: Pisco’s fun too. Anything that doesn’t have a lot of barrel-aging, I like. Too much barrel aging obscures the source starch that it’s made from.
JL: What are some other bars that you enjoy drinking at in San Francisco?
EA: This is going to be a long list. I’ll keep it short. I like Alembic because it smells and sounds like a bar, and yet they execute. I like Comstock because Jonny Raglin and Jeff Hollinger are just great guys. It has a great feeling in the place. I’m looking forward to Bar Agricole. That’s probably going to be the best bar that the city’s ever seen.
JL: How come?
EA: They’re just obsessed. The energy that’s going into that place, and the level of commitment from the guys involved surpasses anything that’s been done.
JL: Who’s involved, other than Thad?
EA: Eric Johnson. The old wine buyer from The Slanted Door, Mark Ellenbogen, who was a bit of a mentor for me as well. He’s sourcing all their food. They have people distilling spirits for them, growing food for them. They have people growing herbs. I’m sure there are other trucks they haven’t told me yet.
JL: Who are some other bartenders that you’re especially impressed with in this city?
EA: I like Brooke Arthur. She just has a really creative touch. From 15 Romolo, Scott Baird is great. Obviously Thad Vogler and Eric Johnson. Erick Castro’s fun. I’ve worked with him and like the stuff he does. There’s just a great group of people who are executing well.
JL: If you could only drink one more cocktail, what would be in the glass?
EA: If I were on a desert island, and it was hot, it would be a Pegu Club, for sure. If I was home, indoors, it would be a whiskey cocktail.
JL: Any one in particular?
EA: I would just go classic Old Fashioned with rye.
JL: What sort of rye would you use?
EA: I would do 100-proof Rittenhouse, a quarter ounce of gum syrup, Angostura and orange bitters, and an orange peel.
JL: How much of each ingredient would you use?
EA: Two rye, quarter gum, two dashes of Ango, dash of orange and an orange peel.
JL: What’s a great simple cocktail for people to make at home?
EA: I would say that, and the great thing about that, if you have those silicone ice trays, you can remove the ice without waking your wife, which is important if you’re a bartender and get home at 3 in the morning.