The story of San Francisco’s modern cocktail scene could not be told without Marcovaldo “Marco” Dionysos. He grew up in Stockton and started bartending in Portland before moving to San Francisco. Dionysos created the cocktail program at Absinthe Brasserie & Bar in 1997 and has since worked behind the bar at establishments like Stars, Pesce, Bourbon & Branch, Tres Agaves and Harry Denton’s Starlight Room. He created the beverage program for the Michael Mina Clock Bar and currently splits time between Rye and Smuggler’s Cove. In his spare time, of which there is little, he teams with H. Joseph Ehrmann and Scott Beattie on H.M.S. Cocktails, a cocktail triumvirate that crafts artisanal cocktails at special events. Dionysos recently took the time to discuss his background and approach.
Josh Lurie: Do you consider yourself a bartender or mixologist?
MD: A bartender, because I spend so much time behind the bar. I just wonder how much of an issue there is. There’s a lot of animosity toward the term mixology, but a lot of people who don’t like the word, don’t spend much time behind the bar. I think it’s a non-issue…Bartending involves being the host of the party, as well as making the drinks…There’s a sense that it’s arrogant to call yourself a mixologist, but the word’s been around since the mid 1800s.
JL: Did you become interested in cocktails or spirits first?
MD: Cocktails first. When I started bartending, there wasn’t nearly the range of spirits that there is today, so it was definitely the cocktails. I had the good fortune to start bartending in Portland and lived close to Powell’s World of Books. I came across old vintage cocktail books before eBay and Amazon drove the prices up.
JL: What was your first cocktail related job?
MD: A tequila bar. We had all of 30 tequilas, which was everything on the market at the time, Casa U-Betcha. There I learned to make fast cocktails. I don’t know how many were good. It was working at Saucebox that I became interested in cocktails. The program was pretty ahead of its time. We were doing fresh juice and making interesting classics in 1995.
JL: Do you have a first cocktail memory?
MD: I worked in restaurants before I turned 21, which protected me. I never went the Cuervo Gold route and stayed away from some terrible stuff just by being around people who knew better.
JL: What is it that inspires you about cocktails?
MD: What’s most exciting to me now is the range of spirits and products that are available. We have such an amazing palate to pull from. 20 years ago you’d only have two vodkas and two tequilas, Cuervo and Sauza. The cocktails at that time reflected that. There wasn’t nearly the variation. Even without getting into fresh ingredients, you have so much to work with. It’s fun to work with tiki cocktails, which don’t follow classic formulas. I’m using Allspice Dram, Velvet Falernum, and amazing rums are coming from the Caribbean. We’re not limited by one or two colors.
JL: Where did you grow up, and what brought you to Portland?
MD: I grew up in the Central Valley, Stockton. It’s really hot in the Central Valley, and I’m convinced that when you get older, you get taller and your head gets closer to the sun. I had to move before my hair caught fire. I spent A couple years in Eugene, then Seattle and then Portland.
JL: What distinguishes your bartending style from other bartenders?
MD: It’s easier to say from the other side of the bar what distinguishes you. I have a classic approach, which isn’t unique. I try to make cocktails approachable and try to make cocktails easier to make and understand. My physical style is something I call mai tai chi. I’ve been accused of flair bartending, but I’ll deny it to my death. I have a vigorous style. It would be hard to barback for me. Let’s put it that way.
JL: What would you like to be known for?
MD: I’d just like to be known for making consistently excellent cocktails.
JL: Would you say that you have any cocktail mentors?
MD: Probably dozens. I think I learned more from watching other people work and drinking other people’s drinks than from my 350 cocktail books. I take something from each person.
Peggy Boston, who set up Saucebox, is pretty instrumental to opening my eyes to the possibilities of great cocktails. [She’s now at COCO500.]
JL: What’s the most recent cocktail you developed, and what was your approach?
MD: Probably the Argonaut. It was something I developed for Campari 150th Anniversary, which is this year. I looked back 150 years ago at the most popular cocktail in San Francisco: Pisco Punch. I used Pisco as a base and Campari as modifier, orange juice, pineapple gum, lemon juice, orange bitters and edible gold flake. Argonaut was the first paper in San Francisco and referred to people who came to San Francisco by sea to search for gold. I tried to tie in history of Campari with the history of San Francisco…I could make that at Rye.
JL: Where do you like to drink in San Francisco?
MD: For me it has more to do with who’s working behind the stick, and it depends on the night of the week. Ken at the Daily Grill makes a mean Negroni. 15 Romolo. Recently the Burritt Room with Kevin Dietrich, who I worked with at the Michael Mina bar.
JL: What’s a great simple cocktail for people to make at home?
MD: The simplest would be Tommy’s Margarita, two parts tequila, one part agave nectar, one part lime juice, and it’s delicious.
JL: Any tequila in particular?
MD: Anything 100% agave. Siete Leguas may be my current favorite, or Partida.
JL: If you could only drink one more cocktail, what would be in that glass?
MD: I’d probably have to go with a Negroni. It’s by far my favorite drink. If it’s well balanced, it’s just beautiful. I like the drink so much that the color of a Negroni is probably my favorite color. It’s just the perfect balance of cold, bitter, herbal and sweet. And it’s the perfect aperitif, which is the role of the cocktail in the first place, to get you ready for food.
JL: What’s the recipe?
MD: The classic would be equal parts. I like a little more gin. I’d probably go with Plymouth, and a little less sweet vermouth. One-and-a-quarter to one-and-a-half ounces gin and three-quarter ounces of sweet vermouth, Martini & Rossi. [Garnish with] an orange peel.
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August 24, 2010 at 1:09 PM
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