H. Joseph Ehrmann grew up in northern New Jersey and followed a zig-zag trajectory to San Francisco’s Mission District, where he opened Elixir in 2003, taking over a historic saloon. He earned an English degree at Boston College, skied and bartended in Vail for four years, managed adjacent restaurants in D.C., helped run a boutique PR agency in Spain, commandeered international business development for a Silicon Valley firm and helped steer an all-natural soup company before getting back behind the stick. We recently met at Elixir during the midst of World Cup madness to discuss his background and approach.
Josh Lurie: Do you consider yourself a bartender or mixologist?
H. Joseph Ehrmann: Yes. I always say they’re two different things. Mixology is the art of mixing. It’s part art, part science, it’s as much an understanding of liquid as it is texture, aroma and color. When you know what all these bottles are on the back bar, what every single one of them smells like, tastes like, how it’s going to mix, what all its different properties are, the story behind the category, the story behind the brand and production, the methodology; all of that stuff is the same as a painter understanding the different paint that they’re using, whether it’s an oil or acrylic, what color it is, what it’s going to do when it mixes with a different color…to me, that is mixology. Creating, understanding, constructing, deconstructing cocktails.
Bartending is a whole separate skill set that requires patience, tolerance, humor, good character…it’s all hospitality. It’s knowing how to take care of your customers, how to set up your bar and stay organized. How to handle multiple customers while you’re doing math in your head. You’re thinking about the beer pressure, whatever it is. You’re a conductor orchestrating the room when you’re bartending.
JL: Did you become interested in cocktails or spirits first?
HJE: Spirits first, probably.
JL: What was your first exposure?
HJE: In the summer of 1992, I was running a couple restaurants in Washington, D.C. called Roxanne and the Peyote Café, two restaurants in one building that shared a kitchen. I was a manager there, and that’s where I started bartending. One of the first spirits that I really fell in love with – besides Scotch, because I was already a Scotch drinker – was El Tesoro tequila. That turned me on to better tequilas. As I discovered more Scotch and Bourbon that summer, I also discovered Wild Turkey Rare Breed. That was the very early days of the small batch Bourbon shift. Discovering those better quality spirits early on made me realize how a good spirit changes a cocktail. I went back to a lot of the recipes that were standard at that restaurant, and at future restaurants, and always became an advocate of upgrading the quality of the ingredients to make a better drink. It really came out of understanding better spirits better.
JL: Do you have a first cocktail memory?
HJE: As a kid, my mom and my grandmother – my father’s mother – would get together on Fridays and have Happy Hour. My father would go to my grandmother’s house after work, pick her up and bring her to our house. My mom would be setting up the kitchen. They would either have martinis, gin and tonics or Scotch on the rocks. I don’t remember how they decided what they’d drink, but my grandmother would come over and my mom would have the table set with crackers and cheese and things to nibble on. She’d be making dinner and they’d sit and chat and have cocktails. I would sit there and watch and listen. Making martinis was probably my earliest cocktail experience.
JL: What is it that inspires you about cocktails now?
HJE: The culinary side of things, more than the mixology side of things, is kind of what lit a fire under me again in about 2005 or so. I opened Elixir in 2003, so it was the bar, bartending and the bar world that I’d loved for so long that made me want to own a bar, so I bought this saloon. It was kind of taking a chance that could happen at this bar in particular, in this neighborhood. With mixology, the success is what encouraged me to keep going. Making the change was something I needed to do and something that excited me.
JL: So people responded well when you made the switch?
HJE: Yeah, it turned the business around, it really catapulted this place. The more people got into it, the more I got into it. The more successful it was, the more I put into it. Success begets success.
JL: Do you think that your English degree helps in what you’re doing now?
HJE: It helps me write…Being a writer and being passionate about writing helped my overall education. It helped me as an entrepreneur in organizing my thoughts. My business plan for Elixir was probably my greatest work, and I couldn’t have put that plan together as well if I hadn’t been a good writer. It took awhile. A business plan is very important, and writing it well lays the groundwork for success.
JL: How close is that vision in the business plan to what you’re doing now?
HJE: Very close. A lot of the marketing programs that we have here on a regular basis like the charity guest bartending, the pub quiz and the TV sports program, a lot of those ideas – the mug club – those were all in the original plan, and those are marketing programs that drive a lot of business here on off days and on a consistent basis. They fill in the gaps. The cocktail program was actually not part of the original business plan. That was an evolution. Quite frankly, I did not have the balls to do it right out of the gate. I obviously wasn’t proven at that point, and I didn’t think my ideas would be accepted, so I went for the safe call on a neighborhood bar, focused on shots and beers and basic drinks. It wasn’t that I was looking for growth that I put a plan in place, and that made a difference.
JL: Tell me about your guest bartending series. What does that involve?
HJE: It’s a weekly program that we do on Wednesdays and sometimes Mondays. It’s for the public. Our customers sign up to be guest bartenders. We’re booked for two to three months in advance. You book a certain night and get up to five of friends together at 8:30 at night. We have a training for about 20 minutes as to where everything is and how the bar works. You are the marketing force for that night, so you bring all your friends, and you’re working for a charity. Whatever your charity is gets the tips. It’s always a fun night. People get excited to have their chance to get behind the bar, in front of their friends. It’s like being on stage…We have about $15,000 – $20,000 a year for various charities all over the country, most of them local. A good chunk of it goes to SF AIDS Foundation and Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. It’s all the Team in Training runners, all the runners, marathoners and bike riders who are always looking to raise money. They know this program now. It’s always been a good vehicle for fundraising.
JL:What was your first move after graduating from Boston College?
HJE: Vail, Colorado. I went out there in season as a ski bum, and that summer I went back east to visit my brother in Washington, D.C., and ended up falling into this job managing a restaurant. I stayed there for the summer and managed, then left and went back to Vail for another season. I left after four seasons and went to Arizona. I went to grad school to get my MBA at Thunderbird. That took two years and I bartended all through that at the school pub on campus. I studied abroad for a semester in Geneva and another one in Prague. When I graduated, I moved to Spain and lived there for two years. I left the business for awhile and helped run a small PR firm in Madrid. My father died and I came home when that happened, wound up getting a job in a software company to be near my mom on the East Coast. That led to be recruited by a firm in Silicon Valley to do international business development. I came out for that job, and that lasted about nine months until it blew up, along with the entire economy. That’s when I ended up back behind a bar again, trying to make my rent and figure out what I was doing. I helped open a bar here in town called the Fishbowl. After four months I decided I wanted to do my own bar, started to get my idea together and my plan together and quit after eight months. I quit everything. I consulted on a few companies. I consulted on a soup company called Heartland Soups with a high school buddy of mine. He started the company and I joined as the number two guy. That’s where I learned everything about organics, because we had a fresh, all-natural, refrigerated soup product that we were selling in about 80 markets around the Bay Area. They were low sodium, low fat, healthy soups. I created a lot of the recipes and learned a lot about the all-natural and organic produce market. What I learned from that, I ended up carrying into my cocktail program.
JL: That’s how you became eco-conscious too?
HJE: Pretty much. Definitely on the culinary side. When it comes to the business side of it, green business and energy conservation just made sense to me as a businessman. When you’re conserving, you’re saving on the use of stuff, the cost of stuff. It all makes sense. It’s better for the environment and for your bottom line.
JL: Would you say that you have any cocktail mentors?
HJE: Definitely. A bartending mentor is one of my bartenders who I worked with in Washington, D.C., Bill Dickett. He’s still out there running bars. He was a great bartender, I had a lot of fun working with him, and we’re still friends today. A number of the bartenders that I worked at, at the Jackalope in Vail.
JL: That’s when you first started working with cocktails?
HJE: I started playing with stuff at Roxanne in D.C., but it was at the Jackalope that I really bartended a lot. We made a lot of margaritas. That’s where I really started to discover tequila. We made a lot of bad margaritas, a lot of pre-mix and such, but that’s what you did back then.
Mentors from where I am now are more my peers, more of the people who I met coming up in this in 2004 around San Francisco. I was so myopic in here, being the owner, just trying to stay on my feet and try to keep this business open, that I didn’t really know what else was going on around the city. As I did more and more of it, people told me to go so Dave Nepove at Enrico’s, and you should go meet Marco Dionysos and Jeff Hollinger. I started going out to see what was going on at other bars. What Erik Adkins was doing back then at Slanted Door. I met these guys and started going to USBG meetings when we were like 15 or 16 people. I saw what they were doing on their menus, learned from them and upped my game. I started, at that point, buying more books. That’s when I wrote my first good menu, 2005. I started studying more of the classics. I had already made all the changes back behind the bar, as far as changing to all fresh squeezed citrus and making my own simple syrup. Those are some of my better friends in the business, now, who I met then. Then of course I met Dale [DeGroff]. I met Tony [Abou-Ganim]. They’ve been great to me over the years.
JL: What’s the most recent cocktail you developed?