Daniel Hyatt has become one of the leading bar minds in the Bay Area while helping to establish The Alembic Bar as a required stop for anybody who’s interested in cocktails or spirits. He put together his first cocktail menu in Portland, at the bygone Imperial Lounge, and has continued to refine his craft and build his knowledge base ever since. On July 5, we met mid-afternoon at The Alembic Bar, a Haight-Ashbury bar owned by Magnolia Pub brewmaster Dave McLean, and Hyatt better explained his background and approach.
How did this opportunity come about for you?
I was running a restaurant previously called Winterland with a very talented chef, which unfortunately went out of business because the only people who came there were chefs and foodies. But one of the fans of our restaurants owns a brewpub up the street – [Magnolia’s Dave McLean] – and got a hold of this space and started telling me about doing something like that. We talked and sort of came up with a concept and ran with it from there. I sort of fell in love with it, so there was no reason to really leave. I was like, this is great. I got to do everything I wanted to do.
What was everything that you wanted to do?
One was really our focus on craft American spirits. Granted that’s not all we have, but the bulk of our shelf was originally built around whiskey. Cocktails were always supposed to be a part of it, and the food as well was very important, but it was really about the craft. He’s a craft brewer, so everything in here was about quality, and handmade from back of house to front. That was sort of the idea.
What’s the criteria for a cocktail that would go on the list here?
It’s kind of a matter of taste for me. I like cocktails that have a very classic feel. Half of our menu is straight classics. They might have a twist or two ingredient wise, or ratio wise, to make them more balanced. For the New School side of the menu, which is our originals, I try to go for cocktails that are really simple. I’m not trying to blow anybody’s minds by having a cocktail that’s super witty, it’s about having a cocktail with respect to classic architecture of the cocktail. Whether it’s something a little sweet, a little sour, a little bitter, with some booze. They’re ultimately simple, balanced, accessible and interesting.
What was the most recent cocktail that you developed, and what was your inspiration?
The most recent one, one of our bartenders came up with, is the Sugarpuss O’Shea, which is Apple Jack with a chile cinnamon syrup and a little bit of cider vinegar – just to give it some acid – some Creole bitters, and then a spoonful of peated Irish whiskey. So it’s a very classic Sazerac kind of formula for a cocktail, but it works well, and it’s just kind of interesting. It’s got some spice from the chile, and a touch of smoke.
Why Sugarpuss O’Shea?
It’s Barbara Stanwyck’s character in an old movie called Ball of Fire, with Gary Cooper. The other thing is that we try to keep things fun. On the menu, as you can see right here, we like to write a little story about it. Inspiration can come from a lot of places. I’ve done a lot of cocktails based on rock and roll songs, or based on old films, or based on sayings.
Because those are other interests of yours?
Yeah, the world’s full of things to be interested in. I like the idea that a drink or a dish can have a connection to something beyond just stuff in a glass that tastes good, or food on a plate that tastes good. Whether it’s a memory from your childhood, or a celebration of something or a reference or nod to something, or sometimes you come up with something and work the other way, like, “What am I thinking of at this moment? What’s it saying to me?”
As far as collaboration goes, it sounds like you take ideas from other bartenders who work here.
Yeah, they come to me with cocktails all the time. I encourage it, because that’s how you get to know your ammo, your palate, that you have to play with. You experiment, put a couple things together and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. The question I ask them all the time is “Why?” Sure you can mix chartreuse and rum and gin and whatever in a cocktail. There are infinite possibilities there, but why do those things make sense? I play games with it too. Sometimes I play with alliteration. I go through and grab two or three things with the same first letter.
What do you look for when you hire someone to work behind your bar?
A smile. If you can roll up your sleeves and work, because it gets busy in here, and you have a willingness to learn; I mean I’ve trained a lot of people who have never bartended before. It’s not hard to do. If they’re willing to do the work to get themselves up to a certain level of knowledge, learning how to use the tools and everything else is nothing. I really look for personalities, people who really want to do it. People that have a creative bent, too, helps because you improvise a lot.
Did you become interested in cocktails or spirits first?
Aside from drinking in high school – my dad really liked cocktails, so I learned how to mix him Manhattans when I was pretty young. My grandparents always had martinis and stuff like that. My original interest in cocktails probably came – I worked in kitchens when I was young. I was about 20, 21 years old, I started working a little more front of house when I was in the kitchen. When I finally got behind a bar, I was curious about some of these bottles that I had never touched before. What the hell does Benedictine taste like? What does Maraschino taste like? The bottles that collect a lot of dust, that nobody ever touches. So that when the bar was slow and I was all set up, I would go around and taste these things. That was around the time that cocktails started showing up back in nicer restaurants. There weren’t many that had cocktail lists, but I was like, this could be fun. I wish I still had some of the first cocktail menus that I put together, because I’m sure they were just hideous.
What was the first cocktail menu that you put together?
I was working in a jazz lounge that didn’t have one. It was really a pretty rundown place with some great music. I was just like, we should have a cocktail menu, so I just made one. I didn’t even talk to the owners or management. I just made one and photocopied it at Kinko’s and started handing it out on my shifts. I can’t remember for the life of me a single drink that was on it, but I’m pretty sure one of them had blue Curacao.
What brought you back down to the Bay Area from Portland?
Needing a change. I love the Bay Area. I spent a lot of time here. I had some friends here in San Francisco, and I was tired of the rain. I love Portland. Even more I love what Portland’s become now. I think it’s an amazing food city.
So is this place though.
It is, but there you can do it in the same places more often, because you have to serve food in the bar.
Would you say you have any mentors when it comes to cocktails or spirits?