We first became aware of Tim Zohn’s spirited exploits last April, when vaunted San Francisco bartender Neyah White praised him via Facebook. At that point, he was working for a number of the city’s better cocktail bars, including The Alembic Bar, Rickhouse, Bourbon & Branch and Mr. Lew’s Win-Win Bar and Grand Sazerac Emporium. He was also a member of the Cocktail Lab with Ethan Terry, Danny Louie and Brandon Josie. Since then, a one-time La Folie co-worker, chef Mark Liberman, returned to San Francisco and recruited Zohn to head the bar at his seasonally focused AQ Restaurant & Bar. He left all but The Alembic Bar to take the full-time job. At AQ, Zohn now employs a collaborative approach to constructing the market-driven cocktail menu. On February 1, we spoke by phone, and Zohn shared further insights.
Is your title at AQ bar manager?
We’re really trying to do something a little different. I was hired as bar manager and hired all the staff, but we’re really running it as collaborative. Three of the six bartenders work at Cocktail Lab, which we started a few years back, and we’re running the bar like we run Cocktail Lab. It’s not a top-down program. It’s very much team oriented. I guess bar manager, lead ninja, whatever. I’m not big on titles.
Where did you grow up?
Seattle, Washington, and my family moved out to the Bay Area when I was 10 and 11, so I’ve always had a love of San Francisco. I moved here six years ago haven’t really moved back since.
Were you already working in cocktails in Seattle?
I was working at neighborhood bars. I had 18 IPAs on draft and a Jagerator machine and it was basically shots and beers. It was called the Park Pub in Phinney Ridge, in Seattle. When I moved here in 2006. I got a job valet parking, since that got me into contact with restaurant managers. I got a job working at La Folie, a Michelin-rated French restaurant on Russian Hill. I saw they posted an ad for bartender on Craigslist and brought my resume to work and handed it to the manager. Three days later, I was bartending at La Folie. That’s when I got into the creative side of cocktails and good spirits versus bad spirits.
I worked with these kids who spent $80,000, $90,000, working 14-hour shifts for minimum wage, I was at the bar putting in a five-hour shift and had to find a way to get respect from the kitchen staff, so I started staging in the kitchen and realized I could use techniques from the kitchen. This was six months to a year before Alembic opened and Bourbon & Branch opened. The chefs took me to Ansinthe, where Jeff Hollinger and Jonny Raglin were bartending. I remember one of the first cocktails that blew me away was one of Jonny Raglin’s cocktails, the Peppermill, with black pepper simple syrup, which just kind of blew my mind. That was the beginning.
Do you have a first cocktail memory, good or bad?
The Peppermill and the Corpse Reviver #2. After that, I was hooked. The first Corpse Reviver #2 I had was at The Alembic Bar, which was right before I started working there.
Did you become interested in spirits or cocktails first?
I think it was cocktails that came first, but at the time, when I started getting interested in cocktails, I had to do all the buying and maintaining of bar for La Folie, so I would be meeting with spirit reps and got to taste amazing spirits. Cocktails led me to be more interested in spirits and I realized the potential. That’s when I started nerding out about spirits so I could get a better grasp on flavors to create cocktails.
Was it a given that you’d work with cocktails and spirits for a living, or did you consider other careers?
I still have a strong desire to go get an architecture degree, but Jeffrey Morgenthaler in Portland will probably never use it…It’s one of those things. I think everybody should go to school and get a degree. It pushes you to think differently.
How did the AQ opportunity come about?
It’s kind of interesting. Our head chef, Mark Lieberman, was chef de cuisine at La Folie for eight months. He’s one of my favorite people I ever worked with, and we stayed in touch over the years, even though he was on the East Coast. We’d see each other at chefs’ weddings. When he came back to San Francisco, me, him and our manager-sommelier, Kristen [Capella], said he was opening up a project, a new restaurant. At the time, I was working at Bourbon & Branch , Rickhouse, The Alembic and Mr. Lew’s all at the same time. It must have been the booze talking. I said, “I’ll work for you.” Three weeks later, I got a call from him and the owner, Matt [Semmelhack]. I stopped working everywhere else except for The Alembic.
Who’s one bartender you’ve never worked with that you would most like to work with, and how come?
Another good question. I’ve gotten to work with so many people. Let’s go with John Deragon. I like that guy’s style. He’s a genuinely nice guy. He doesn’t have to bartend as a career, he just genuinely likes bartending. He’s a really fun guy, always has a smile on his face, a witty comment, and a guy I could definitely learn a thing or two from.
What are the criteria for a cocktail that goes on the AQ menu?
It’s just got to be good, first off. Secondly, whatever we’re inspired by at the time. It’s a collaborative, so one of us was like, “It’s fall, so we should use this ingredient.” Another bartender will say, “I’ve been infusing pumpkin seeds in bourbon.”
The Mexican Piano was born out of “Huckleberries,” “Let’s light something on fire,” and “Let’s torch a bay leaf.” It has to be seasonal, but also fun. We like to make cocktails that are as fun to make as they are fun to drink.
What’s your top selling cocktail at AQ, and why do you think that’s the case?
To my total surprise and utter delight, it’s actually our old fashioned or our AQ Manhattan. Right now we’re doing orange peel infused bourbon, vermouth, and Angostura bitters with licorice root, nutmeg, vanilla, cinnamon, cloves, to bump up the spices and bring in fall flavors. The response has been great and we sell a ton of whiskey, and I love whiskey, so that makes me really, really happy.
As far as naming cocktails, what’s your approach?
I like things that sounds good together. Somebody asked me why I named it the Mexican Piano, and didn’t use the Spanish word for piano. I had to remind them that piano in Spanish was piano…I like the two words next to each other. Me and Trevor Easter, who is managing the bar at Heaven’s Dog, used to work at Rickhouse together. We used to to come up with names, and just with the way the words flow together, the cocktails will sell, just because customers like to say the words. We used to get into these fun cocktail battles. He is the master of the pun.
How are you able to maintain balance in your life, if you’re even able to?
There is no balance. It’s controlled chaos. I take my work ethic from back of house, from chefs, and I go until there’s no more hours in the day, and no more days in the week. I joke with my friends who aren’t bartenders, the only way to spend 15 minutes hanging out with me is to sit at a bar that I’m working at.
What’s a great simple cocktail that you would suggest people make at home?
Honestly, I would recommend that people get themselves some quality bourbon and drink it on the rocks at their house. Cocktails are great, but I enjoy the flavors that run the gamut in something like whiskey. If people want to taste a masterfully balanced piece of work, find your favorite distillery and taste a special bottle that they’re offering.
Which whiskey or bourbon are you really enjoying now?
Breaking & Entering from St. George Spirits. I think they did a great job with their blend. Eagle Rare 10 is one of my all time favorites. I can thank Daniel Hyatt for that. I like Cyrus Noble. Excellent, excellent stuff, and anything Jimmy Russell does. Their 6-year rye, 10-year bourbon, phenomenal.
If you could travel anywhere in the world right now, one city, primarily to drink cocktails and spirits, what would it be and why?
I heard Reykjavík in Iceland has great nightlife, but I’m going to Peru in a week. I’m going to go drink pisco and sit on the beach, so let’s go with Lima, Peru.
If you could only drink one more cocktail, what would be in the glass?
My deathbed, last cocktail? Probably something Scott Beattie made because I want to see something pretty before I die.
Where and what do you like to drink when you’re not working?
You’ll usually find me at what dive bars are left in this city. I drink at the Buck Shot a lot, and you’ll find me drinking whiskey, drinking whatever cold beer they have, listening to old school punk music and . They have a six-foot tall grizzly near the DJ booth. There are more dead things there than there are bottles at the bar.