Duggan McDonnell has made a big impact on the San Francisco cocktail scene. He worked at Frisson, the Redwood Room and Absinthe before founding Cantina. He’s also a historian and worked with H. Joseph Ehrmann and Jeff Hollinger to establish the Barbary Coast Conservancy of the American Cocktail and its marquee event, SF Cocktail Week. On December 1, he was in Los Angeles to promote milk-based holiday cocktails for “Got Milk?” at Bar Lubitsch. Before his presentation, the vaunted NorCal barman, who recently launched Campo de Encanto pisco, took time to discuss his background and approach.
Why do you think milk doesn’t get used more in cocktails?
Milk, like other ingredients that were classically important in cocktails, all got lost in Prohibition. In the 20th Century, American drinking culture kind of went the way of the antiseptic and the saccharine at the same time. Instead of using good ingredients – milk and eggs are the two main ones when you think of classic cocktails – and strong-brewed teas and really good things, good spirits, good ingredients all across the board. Ben Franklin, for god’s sake, had milk recipes, and one of his many creations was a milk cocktail recipe.
Have you made any of Ben Franklin’s cocktail recipes?
His recipe is cited in Dave Wondrich’s very recent book called Punch. Dave was just down here like a month ago, right?
Yeah, I was actually at the release at Hemingway’s.
It’s in there. It references it. His technique is interesting because he boils it, so then it curdles and you have to fat wash it. I haven’t done that yet. I’m not into cooking, so I’ve adjusted that and it’s not bad. Let me just say that. Jerry Thomas’ is not bad either. I find my own balance with every recipe as my guide. Obviously through this process I did a lot of liquid experimentation.
What are a couple misconceptions about milk in cocktails?
The first one is that it has no place. Frankly, I think that people just don’t conceive of it. We are in such a gin and tonic culture, per se, or a Manhattan, or a Negroni, or a Daiquiri culture, which has so much alcohol, acid and sugar, that you forget the other ingredients…What’s the one drink that comes to mind that might have some dairy in it?
A White Russian?
Yeah, but what’s it made with? What makes it white? It’s half-and-half. So restaurant bars and hotel bars would always stock that, just in case they had to make one of those, or if they had to do coffee service by the bar. Milk is not part of the usual mise en place. It got lost somewhere. Perhaps it was Prohibition.
Did you become interested in cocktails or spirits first?
Was there a motivating memory?
Probably drinking. You know, the summer I turned 21, I didn’t go out and go drink Long Island Iced Teas, I actually went wine tasting on the entire West Coast, the states of Washington, Oregon and California. Reflecting upon that, I think that’s kind of goofy and ostentatious for a 21-year-old kid to do. At the time I just thought it was awesome that I would go on a road trip and visit a bunch of wineries. I could finally do that at 21. In a sense, clearly I had a certain curiosity, and a certain palate that was already there and was shaped from those types of experiences. Then I got really into liquid tastes right out of college.
Do you have a first cocktail memory?
It was a Maker’s Mark Manhattan. It was at a restaurant called the Pink Door in Seattle, and it was February 1998. I was with three beautiful women who were all friends of mine, and one of them said, “I’ll have a Maker’s Mark Manhattan.” I hadn’t had one before and it sounded just right. And then the other woman said, “I’ll have a Maker’s Mark Manhattan.” And then the other woman said, “I’ll have a Maker’s Mark Manhattan.” And then I said, “I will have one too.” So there I was drinking whiskey with three women and it was a dead-on Manhattan, as those can be, and from then on I thought, “Aha.” It just opened the doors even more.
What was your first cocktail related job?
I was a barback shortly thereafter at Wild Ginger, a big Asian fusion house in Seattle. Have you been?
I have been actually.
Downtown, really big place. There are three bars there. One upstairs, one’s a lounge and one downstairs back by the kitchen. I started off as a barback there and I lost 10 pounds in my first month on the job. The kegs were up on the fifth floor and the liquor room on the third, and I was running stairs all night long. And you worked open to close, so you came in at 5 and were out at 3. It taught me quite a bit right away. It was my first blue collar job, if you will, and I still consider to have learned a lot on the job, and I really associate myself with that experience.
What was the turning point where you knew you’d work with alcohol for a living?
Do I really work with alcohol for a living?
I do. My parents are still quite proud. I evaluate that question all the time. I ask myself that question all the time, and relationships like this – working with Got Milk? – I took this opportunity because I was really excited about the challenge. What is it going to teach me? I remember being behind the bar at Wild Ginger, and I was just kind of transitioning by promotion to doing a little bit of bartending. And I remember cleaning up my well, my station, at the end of the night. I was whistling while I worked. And it was so ridiculous. I saw myself above myself – I had this camera on me and I saw myself – and I thought, “Oh my god, you’re happy. Why are you so happy? You’re working. What’s the matter with you?” That was the turning point. Then from there I started realizing I have to ply my creative intellect while I’m here for these six, seven, eight, nine hours. That’s how it really started, and the excitement came, and the passion came, thereafter.
Do you consider yourself a bartender or a mixologist?
It goes back to that blue collar comment I made. I cut limes and squeezed stuff and all those things. There is a quote that I can attribute to a friend of mine named Ryan Magarian, and it says, “Every mixologist is also a bartender, but not every bartender is a mixologist.” But you’ve got to start from schlepping ice and slinging drinks and being nice to people, and understanding what to do before you can apply your culinary talents and your palate to the occasion. Is there mixology happening today? Is there milk mixology happening today? Of course, and it’s great. In as much as I learned a lot through this gig, I hope that other people can now learn a lot through the efforts and the recipes we put online. Mixology is exciting, but the word mixologist – you’ve got to be an athlete before you’re a professional football player, right?
In terms of learning, is there anybody who you would consider a mentor?
Great question. The simple answer is that I’ve had many mentors. You glean so many bits and pieces from a lot of people.
When you’re not at work, where do you like to drink and what do you like to drink?