After hearing a certain bartender’s name enough times, it becomes clear that they’ve earned the respect of the cocktail community. That was the case with Neyah White, who was lauded by Erick Castro and Jeff Hollinger, to name just two of his San Francisco compatriots. White manned high profile bars like Redwood Room and Bourbon & Branch before becoming bar manager at Nopa, where he’s become known for elevating seasonal and classic cocktails with homemade bitters and shrubs. He recently took time to share his background and approach.
Do you consider yourself a bartender or mixologist? What’s the difference?
I really don’t like being called a mixologist. I worked very hard to become a bartender and being lumped in with folks who don’t actually do the job…well, it’s pretty hard to be OK with that. Furthermore, the mixologist tends to place great importance on the drink, as a bartender, who pays his bills and supports his family through tips, I know the guest is much more important than the drink.
How did you become so interested in cocktails?
I started out in the kitchen when I was 15. My mother was a pastry chef and I went to work in the kitchen with her as soon as I was legal. Progressing to drinks was pretty natural for me.
What’s your first cocktail memory?
My family has never really been into drinks very much (lots of beer and wine though.) It was all pretty alien to me until I happened to be at the little bar in my restaurant pouring wine when I saw the bartender making an old fashioned. I was hooked immediately. She really had no idea what she was to my life when she explained the drink to me. I had the chance to make her a drink when I was working a party in my home town about 7 years ago. I don’t think she actually remembered me very well, but she sure thought the story was great.
What was your first cocktail-related job?
In this same restaurant, I went from the kitchen to the floor when I was 18 and poured our own wine often. When I was 20, I took a summer job at a neighboring restaurant that had small closet bar that no one wanted to be responsible for so I sort of inserted myself.
How did the Nopa opportunity come about?
I had lived in the neighborhood around Nopa for a few years and the idea of walking to work appealed to me so I applied for a part time job.
What distinguishes your cocktail program from other cocktail programs in San Francisco?
I’m not sure that we are really a stand-out program in San Francisco by being very different from everyone else. We all learn together here in SF and that shows in bar programs that speak to each other.
What are some characteristics that define your bartending style?
I try very hard to not be a slave to recipes or to the jigger. Also, I’m big on editing and trying to do more with less.
Do you have any cocktail mentors?
The most important person in my career was my mother, a woman who didn’t drink.
What did she teach you?
She would put incredible effort into trying to understand ingredients and their history in the hope that her food would be an interpretation on that. Cuisine that nourishes, entertains and teaches all at the same time is a beautiful thing.
Who are some other bartenders or mixologists who you respect?
This is a very long list. I will just say that anyone that has made or is aiming to make respectable career through beverage alcohol as a culinary endeavor has my love, my respect and my undying support.
What are some other San Francisco bars that you enjoy drinking at?
There are loads of bars I like sitting at for many different reasons. The whisky list at the Alembic, the rum list at Smuggler’s Cove, the tequila list at Tommy’s, the beer list at Monk’s Kettle and the wine list at A16 are pretty fun to me.
What’s a great simple cocktail recipe for people to make at home?
Vermouth and Soda with an orange slice. So simple, so good.
If you could only drink one more cocktail, what would it be?
My dirty secret is that I actually don’t drink cocktails all that often. I prefer my spirits by themselves. So, if Port Ellen (any Port Ellen) counts as cocktail, that would be my pick.