Riverside County native Erick Castro has achieved acclaim as one of San Francisco’s top bartenders, but his career began at an unlikely but ultimately invaluable venue: a San Diego branch of BJ’s brewhouse. “Working at a busy bar, you learn organization, speed, dealing with people and managing time, which you can’t learn about in a book,” says Castro. He migrated north to Zocalo, a tequila bar in Sacramento where he started working with artisanal spirits and fresh produce. He started researching the classics and eventually landed a prized job at nouveau speakeasy Bourbon & Branch. When that bar’s owners launched Rickhouse in 2009, Castro became the new bar’s manager. He recently discussed his background and approach over the phone.
Josh Lurie: Do you consider yourself a bartender or mixologist?
Erick Castro: I consider myself a bartender. Mixologist is a cool title, but it’s thrown around so loosely these days that you can’t distinguish who does what. Whether you’re pouring shots of tequila or making Remember the Maine, the role of the bartender does not change, dealing with everyday life. Some of the best bartenders I’ve sat in front of don’t even know how to make some of these vintage cocktails.
JL: How did you become so interested in cocktails?
EC: It’s one of those things. I was 14 years old bussing tables in a restaurant and they had a bar lounge, go I’d go in there grabbing ice for the bartender and grabbing garnishes. I thought, “This guy has the sweetest gig in the whole restaurant. He has his own show. I want to get where he’s at.” I got speed and organization down, then I started doing high end cocktails. Pretty soon it became one of those things, I planned on bartending to get through college, and once I got through college, I thought there’s this whole frontier out here.
JL: Where’d you go to school, and what was your major?
EC: I went to San Diego State and majored in Advertising.
JL: Did your major help you as a bartender?
EC: Advertising falls underneath the category of Communications. You learn how to write better and communicate effectively. It helps you with your boss, with the customer, helps you with everything…the whole interaction’s getting left on the backburner. I think that here at Rickhouse we’re part of changing that. Go to Death & Co. or PDT, those guys are also. Not only are they banging out great cocktails at high volume, but the interactions are also thriving.
JL: Was there a turning point in your cocktail evolution?
EC: Zocalo. That’s where I started working with different tequilas and discovered the world’s bigger than Cuervo Gold. That’s when I started getting into artisanal spirits, working with fresh flavors, fresh produce. That’s when I started doing research. That’s what I always impress on people: master the classics, because the formulas work. Don’t try to do your own variation on a daiquiri or Manhattan. Learn why the classics work.
JL: How did this opportunity come about for you?
EC: From Sacramento, I ended up getting hired at Bourbon & Branch. Working at a place like B&B when you’re young and hungry, you’re given full creative control. Once they hire you, they trust you. It’s a full ground for creativity, which was great because when we were working with Rickhouse and coming up with new recipes, we could try them out there, run them as a market special every night and see which ones sell.
JL: What differentiates Rickhouse from other bars?
EC: The thing about Rickhouse, in the past people had to say, “Are we going to party tonight and get loose or get proper cocktails?” For most environments, it’s one or the other…Rickhouse is one of the only jigger poured, fresh juice, fresh ice programs that can accommodate a party bus with 50 people unannounced. It’s loud music, it’s a bar.
JL: Are there certain signature drinks you feel like you’ve become known for at Rickhouse?
EC: Definitely our punch program’s been doing really, really well. A couple weeks ago on a Saturday, we had 14 bowls on the floor at once. When we opened, our clientele hadn’t been exposed to good cocktails. They wanted Vodka Red Bulls, Vodka Cranberries, so they were bummed out. We walked them through it. Now they trust us and we love them. It’s really rewarding. Before I was just making drinks for other cocktail nerds. Now we’re converting people by volume….There’s no Manhattan or Old Fashioned on the menu. We decided to stay away from the classics. In San Francisco, the level has risen so people know we can make them. I decided to focus on more esoteric drinks that have been lost in the shuffle. Instead of the Manhattan, we put a Claridge on the menu, which is a phenomenal vintage cocktail that got lost in the shuffle. Our program is very vintage, where we don’t have any processed sugar or high fructose corn syrup. When I ask staff for suggestions, I don’t want them to submit anything that couldn’t be made 100 years ago.
JL: Do you have a first cocktail memory?
EC: My first really, really gung ho cocktail, I remember I first started working with fresh juice. At this point, I was working for five years. The vibrancy of fresh citrus, what it does with a cocktail. This stuff that sits on a shelf is nothing. If it doesn’t go bad, it was probably never good to begin with.
JL: Do you have any cocktail mentors?
EC: I was actually really lucky to have some really good mentors. Jon Santer, one of the original guys from Bourbon & Branch. That guy’s definitely been a mentor. Marco Dionysus is another guy who’s helped me in a lot of ways, introduced me to a lot of old cocktail books. Erik Adkins is another big influence on me. He kind of helped break me out. “Now you know Prohibition cocktails, now let’s go back to the 1800s, to the 1700s.” He kind of shook my head up…Keep it natural, get it rustic.
JL: What are some other bars that you enjoy drinking at around town?
EC: My favorite bars around town…Alembic. Daniel Hyatt is a fucking monster. He’s always doing something cool, plus they have great food. Neyah White at Nopa has a complete program, delicious food, great cocktails, great wine program. Those are probably my two favorite bars in San Francisco.
JL: What’s a great simple cocktail recipe for people to make at home?
EC: The Metropol is a phenomenal cocktail that gets lost in the shuffle. It’s pretty much just a Brandy Manhattan. It’s 2 ounces Cognac, ¾ oz. sweet vermouth, a couple dashes of bitters and garnished with a brandied cherry. I’ve made it for people who don’t even like Cognac.
JL: What type of sweet vermouth do you suggest?
EC: With the sweet vermouth, I leave it up to the guest, because if you change the Cognac, you change the sweet vermouth.
JL: If you could only drink one more cocktail, what would it be?
EC: The Old Fashioned, cause I believe the Old Fashioned is the window to the bartender’s soul. I could drink an Old Fashioned every day for a year, and each one could be different. One person might make it with Rye and an orange twist…Another person might make it with Appleton Rum and cane syrup. You might have five Old Fashioneds and they’re all different, but they’re all great Old Fashioneds. You can sit down at a bar and order an Old Fashioned and it can tell you everything you need to know about a bartender’s style.