Interview: bartender Jonny Raglin (Comstock Saloon)

Bartender San Francisco

Oklahoma native Jonny Raglin moved to San Francisco in 2000 to pursue a career as a professional bartender. He landed at Stars, a now legendary San Francisco establishment, before transitioning to B44. His longest stint was at Absinthe in Hayes Valley, where he honed his skills alongside manager Jeff Hollinger. Earlier this year, he partnered with Absinthe owner Bill Russell-Shapiro and fellow bartender Hollinger on Comstock Saloon, a pre-Prohibition style bar in a North Beach building that dates to 1907 and originally served as a saloon. I recently sat across the bar from the “saloon keeper” at Comstock, where Raglin discussed his background and approach.

Would you consider yourself a bartender or mixologist?

A bartender.

Why, and what’s the difference?

A mixologist just makes drinks, and a bartender holds down a bar. There’s a lot more dynamism in bartending.

How did you become so interested in cocktails?

I’m not sure that I was so interested in cocktails as I was interested in working behind a bar. It just so happened that I always worked in places that make cocktails, and it’s always better to make a better one than a worse one.

What was your first bar job?

It was a gig in Oklahoma City, at a restaurant called Pearl’s Oyster Bar.

What brought you to San Francisco?

I moved to California in 2000. I had just graduated from college and knew that I couldn’t work as a career bartender in Oklahoma, so I either had to move to New York or San Francisco.

Where did you go to college, and what was your major?

University of Central Oklahoma, and I was an English Lit major.

Would you say that helps you at all in what you’re doing now?

Not necessarily, no, but certainly being in the social vein, and talking to people about life, love and literature, and all that good stuff. That kind of what English Lit’s all about.

What was your first job once you moved to San Francisco?

I bartended at Stars bar and dining, down on Golden Gate.

And what has the progression been since there?

From there, I was at B44 Catalan Bistro downtown on Belden Place, Incanto, a restaurant and wine bar out in Noe Valley, and then I joined up at Absinthe about six years ago.

Cocktail San Francisco

How did the Comstock Saloon opportunity come about?

For about the past two or three years, Jeff and I have been working on a business plan to open a class pre Prohibition saloon somewhere in San Francisco. The place finally reared its head, this saloon. We just kind of jumped at it. Our partner, Billy Russell-Shapiro is the owner of Absinthe, so he gave us the opportunity as sweat equity partners to come down here and start this place up.

Why was it important to do this style of bar?

Because we really didn’t think it existed. There are a lot of speakeasy places out there, but really nothing from the heyday of cocktails in America, the turn of the century. This place was founded as a saloon in 1907, so we didn’t have to come in and invent it. It is what it was.

Do you have a first cocktail memory?

Maybe my first Manhattan.

Where was it, and what struck you about that experience?

It was in Oklahoma City and it probably wasn’t even made in the traditional manner. It probably had cherry juice or something like that. It was probably the first spirituous drink that I had, that wasn’t citrus based, a strong drink that I really liked.

Would you say that you have any cocktail mentors?

Jeff [Hollinger] is certainly one of those people. I knew a bit about cocktails before working at Absinthe from my time at Stars. Jeff’s always been a trailblazer within the cocktail scene. I always take a great deal of a lead from him.

The bar manager at Stars back in the day was a gentleman named Daniel McCracken. Dan was one of the first bartenders to show me the way of true old school bartending, fresh juices, spirituous drinks, measuring your cocktails, understanding balance, and the classics. Knowing all the classics.

What are some other bars that you enjoy drinking at?

My favorite bar in the world would be Little Branch in New York. It’s just really quaint, simple, and my time there was having really fabulous cocktails. I met a really amazing bartender there a few years ago who’s been a great friend since. He actually came up here and helped Jeff and I open up this place.

Who’s that?

Eric Alperin was that bartender. He’s the embodiment of class within a bartender. In one interaction with him, I learned a lot. That’s one of the great bars in the country.

Here in San Francisco, I really like a lot of the bars, but I would still say my favorite bar is Heaven’s Dog, even though it’s a Chinese restaurant and bar, cause the guy who runs the program there and The Slanted Door, Erik Adkins, is definitely one of the gentlemen in the business who I respect a great deal. He has kind of a different take on things than I do, but in the end we kind of see common interests, so it’s really nice to see a different take on things. He’s a consummate professional, whereas I’m not. A lot of times, I’m more cavalier in my style. There’s a time and place for both of those things. I probably have more respect for him as a bartender here in San Francisco than anyone.

Are there any other bartenders that you especially respect in San Francisco?

Marcovaldo Dionysos. Marco has been a trailblazer in cocktail bartending for the past 10 or 15 years. At the time I moved here, he had left Stars to open up Absinthe and really Absinthe’s cocktail program was founded by him. You can still see that mark today. Historically probably one of the most important bartenders in San Francisco history, especially modern history.

What was your approach in assembling the cocktail program here?

Keeping things very simple, similar to Little Branch. A small selection of spirits, a small cocktail list, everything classic, and anytime we do anything new, we’re admittedly just making a riff on a classic cocktail. We don’t name cocktails here. Some of the bartenders have cocktails from their pasts that they have names for. That’s totally cool, but we don’t create drinks and name them here. That’s kind of a way of us saying, nothing is really that new. It’s all been kind of done before. We take newer products and plug them into places, but it’s not magic. It’s not sorcery. It’s bartending.

What’s a great simple cocktail that you suggest people make at home, and what would it involve?

It’s a Manhattan. Two to one Bourbon or Rye to vermouth, with Angostura bitters. If you can’t make a Manhattan, you shouldn’t even try to make anything else.

Any particular brands in the Manhattan?

No, I’d say there’d be particular brands to stay away from rather than particular brands to go with. A lot of people get real fancy with their sweet vermouth. I think that Martini & Rossi is just fine as long as the whiskey’s not too big and crazy. What we use here is Four Roses with Martini & Rossi and Angostura bitters. It’s a simple recipe that makes a light Manhattan, not one that’s bold or in your face. It’s the kind of Manhattan you could have two or three of.

If you were going to have a last cocktail, what would be in that glass?

I would probably have the original recipe for the Jimmy Roosevelt as my last cocktail, which is a combination of brandy, champagne, chartreuse and an Angostura soaked sugar cube. The reason being – it’s a good drink, first of all – but it’s supposed to come in a 16-ounce goblet. It would be a good big drink to end on. That one comes from Charles Baker’s book, The Gentleman’s Companion.


Joshua Lurie

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

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