Interview: bartender Carlos Yturria (Absinthe)

Bartender San Francisco

Photo courtesy of Absinthe

Carlos Yturria had a lot to live up to when noted bartenders Jeff Hollinger and Jonny Raglin left Absinthe Brasserie & Bar to open Comstock Saloon. Good thing for the Texas native that he had a decade of experience in his back pocket. Yturria also had his own style and original ideas, including an experimental cocktail pop-up that he dubbed “Pickled.” We recently caught up by phone, where Yturria better explained his background and approach.

Do you consider yourself a bartender or mixologist?

I am a bartender. The word mixologist was invented by Knickerbocker magazine as a joke.

What’s the difference?

The title that someone gives themselves.

Did you become interested in cocktails or spirits first?

Always spirits, because of the history, and I love history. I’ve been behind a bar for about 14 years now and it wasn’t until 11 years ago that I had a conversation with Tony Abou-Ganim. I love the history and learned the history of spirits, learned to appreciate what a spirit was.

What was your first cocktail related job?

I don’t really consider making Jack and Cokes and slinging beers bartending, so it was at Bacar in 2001. It was the first time I was introduced to wine and spirits. I was working for Shelley Lindgren at the time. She really opened my eyes to how she expressed flavors…Bacar offered 100 wines by the glass…I had these sommeliers who helped to break it all down…that really helped my palate, helped me understand spirits and how they worked.

Do you have a first cocktail memory?

The first cocktail that really struck me was a Joy Ride, invented by Tony Abou-Ganim, out of a Bellagio cocktail book, from the late nineties. It had Campari with citron vodka, lemon juice, grapefruit juice and simple syrup. I learned about balance and the history of spirits. Some people prefer a lot of spirits. I like to use fresh fruits and focus on balance.

What is it that inspires you about cocktails?

I like to paint and like to draw, and it’s another way of expressing myself. To me it’s the exact the same thing. And being cordial, I’m a friendly person, so it works out. Some of these bar managing positions, the main reason to take them is to create the cocktails I like to create.

Where are you from, and what brought you to San Francisco?

I’m originally from Corpus Christi, Texas. The surf is what brought me up here. I had a friend who was going to culinary school. I was blown away by the people, and the surf was really good. I started working at Bacar and I got lucky, met the right people at the right time who helped me and put me on a path.

What distinguishes your bartending style from other bartenders?

Overall, I do appreciate the classics, think everything stems from the classics, but the availability of produce here in San Francisco is amazing. To me it’s like raw cooking. I try to stay as local and as seasonal as I possibly can to celebrate the fruit and vegetables. I’ve always worked in restaurants, so pairing cocktails with food can be good, but it’s really hard. With all those odds against you, and working with chefs, you don’t want to ruin that. I try to focus on pre-dinner aperitifs and dessert cocktails. If I can’t assume or anticipate where you’re at in the evening, I like to ask. Whether you’re having dinner or not changes the type of cocktail. There’s so much that you can do beyond spirit-on-spirit, different flavors and textures.

Would you say that you have any cocktail mentors?

Absolutely. I’m a member of aka wine geek with Steve Olson, Andy Seymour, Paul Patholt, Doug Frost and Dave Wondrich, who have pushed me and introduced me to so many things. They’re there to help people who want to learn. Also, Tony Abou-Ganim and my peers in San Francisco.

Who are some other bartenders who you respect?

All the usual suspects. Erick Castro and the guys at Rickhouse and Bourbon & Branch. There’s a young lady named Brooke Arthur who used work with me at Range. There’s another young lady named Amanda Washington.

>Juan Carlos at Gary Danko, when I was 21-years-old, I’d sit at the bar and try to learn as much as I could. I wasn’t so much paying attendtion to the cocktails, I was paying attention to the managers and bussers. J.C. at Gary Danko, his service is impeccable. I tried to take whatever I could learn there and take it back to my restaurant. Camber Lay, I worked with her at Range, just everything, the service the cocktails the way she carried herself, it’s inspiring.

What’s the most recent cocktail you developed, and what was your approach?

I opened this bar once a month through Absinthe Brasserie, Pickled, it’s kind of a specialty cocktail event. They’re cocktails that I can’t execute on a large scale, cocktails that people see in magazines but never get to try. For example we’re doing a Japanese theme this month, so we had to come up with a Japanese menu. My chef and I are steeped in Japanese cuisine. It’s challenging and cool to get out of what you’re used to. I smoked some Appleton rum with green tea and we’re going to make a daiquiri. Last month I did upside-down snow cones. I made crushed ice and made them into cones. I sous vide’d plum and ginger and made a syrup out of that, used mezcal, ginger and lemon juice. I’m learning to candy, so I’m really into garnishes. It’s an important part and I think it should be edible, so I’ve been messing around with a dehydrating machine. I made sugar tuiles, fluorescent purple candy tuiles to go with the upside down snow cone.

Where do you like to drink in San Francisco?

I have a little girl now, so it makes it tough, but there are a lot of new restaurants. Bar Agricole, I’ve really been wanting to go to. I don’t have one bar I like to go to, but Rye, and there’s a tiki bar called Smuggler’s Cove, and I think they have the best line-up of bartenders.

What’s a great simple cocktail for people to make at home?

I just did the SF Chefs event last weke, and did a cocktail with chartreuse. That’s not the friendliest spirit for people. Green chartreuse with fresh muddled cherries and lemon juice, topped with Prosecco and garnished with a cherry. You have sweet and herbal from the chatreuse. The cherry came through and lemon juice pulled it all together.

What are the proportions?

1.5 ounces of chatreuse, 0.5 ounces lemon juice, two cherries and 1.5 ounces of Prosecco.

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

A Sazerac.

How come?

It’s a spirit-on-spirit, bright cocktail, great as an aperitif of after dinner drink. It has many faces and it’s the first American cocktail, so you can’t go wrong.


Joshua Lurie

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

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[…] Q&A with bartender Carlos Yturria (Absinthe) I have a little girl now, so it makes it tough, but there are a lot of new restaurants. Bar Agricole, I've really been wanting to go to. I don't have one bar I like to go to, but Rye, and there's a tiki bar called Smuggler's Cove, […]

[…] morning EaterSF posted a link to this interview with Absinthe bartender Carlos Yturria in which the purveyor of wormwood dreams and $7 garlic […]

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