The Polite Thing to Do
Erick Castro balances cocktail OCD and good times at Polite Provisions
[INSERT HOLLYWOOD NARRATOR, PREFERRABLY A SMOKER WHO SOUNDS LIKE GOD AND TOM WAITS]
First came Neighborhood, the now-classic debut that swept craft beer moustache nation. Then Craft & Commerce, the artistic, boozy sophomore release that looks designed by crazy people. Then an international indie named Underbelly, the spoon-less top ramen project. Now… this February…. the art-canoodling, temperance-preaching alcohol jedis of San Diego bring you… Polite Provisions. Start warming up your awesome.
Yeah, it should be cool. Close to, if not on top of, amazing. Your presence is required.
“The first two days of training were nothing but mechanics—jigger, stir, shake,” says chief mixologist, Erick Castro. Two days of shaking and stirring? Go ahead and picture 12 Ralph Machios learning to wax Mr. Miagi’s stuff.
“It’s not about being strict,” he clarifies. “It’s about streamlining everyone to the same tongue. Unlearning our bad habits. The experienced guys are being real cool about it.”
Castro’s a big deal. Consortium Holdings itself—a collective of creative people led by restaurateurs Arsalun Tafazoli and Nate Stanton, mixologist Anthony Schmidt and chef Jason McLeod (two Michelin stars)—is a big deal. But Castro is the newest pedigreed partner, having spent quality time at Bourbon & Branch and Rickhouse, two San Francisco bars at the apex of America’s craft cocktails movement.
A native of Hemet and SDSU graduate, Castro’s plans for the Normal Heights watering hole are intricate, endless and obsessive. Cocktails on draft. Coffee on draft. Sherry and aperitifs on draft. He’s reverse-engineering sodas, spiking turn-of-the-century milkshakes and Brooklyn-style egg creams. He’s even using some futuristic flooring that gets rid of the need for bar mats, long the Smell of Death Incarnate in the bar industry.
Sitting in Neighborhood to talk it all over, Castro—an impressively humble, enthusiastic guy, about as far from the aloof-snoot hipster stereotype you can get—pulls up the image of a book on his computer screen. It’s his own personal bible of the moment, a collection of recipes for tinctures, syrups and forgotten potions written by a rogue pharmacist in the 1800s.
“It’s not just about competing in San Diego,” he says, showing old line-drawings of 1870s pharma-bar culture. “It’s about competing on a national level.”
Polite Provisions will have cocktails on draft? Sounds lazy…
It’s going to be a huge time saver and make sure our service is top-notch. What’s on our tap system I almost refer to as highballs—like a bourbon-and-soda or a rum-and-coke. Basically we’ll be reverse-engineering sodas and spiking them. For instance, we’ll have a house-made tonic thrown into a Cornelius keg with carbonated gin. Why waste time doing simple things like that when we can get them perfect every time off draft?
You dig soda?
Sodas today are made with no love. So many Americans’ only concept of sodas is a vending machine. It’s Red No. 5 dye, Purple No. 2. Soda pop is an American invention. It was like a bar for a kid—with real ingredients and fresh ingredients.
And coffee? Coffee on draft? That just sounds weird.
We’ll use it for all kinds of amazing coffee cocktails. Someone comes in and wants a Red Bull, I can use this to make them a better alternative. We’ll have Stumptown Coffee available, but on draft we’re going to have Coffee & Tea Collective [in Normal Heights]. Stumptown’s a great coffee, but on draft we wanna pour beans that were roasted four blocks away. We’ll keep it ice cold, just above freezing so it stays fresh.
And sherry… and Lillet Rose… and vermouth… all on tap?
Yeah, we’ll have Oloroso sherry and Lillet Rose aperitif. Bars are afraid to open a bottle of boutique, 15-year sherry because the peak freshness is the first three days. With fortified wines, the product suffers once you open the bottle. With draft, I can have a beautiful sherry in there for a while. Plus, bottling is expensive. By working off draft, we get to work with small wineries that can’t afford bottling.
Oh, yeah? Well what if I just want a milkshake?
We’ll have a milkshake that’s mind-blowing. A real classic recipe. Just a little sugar, cream and egg, topped with soda to froth it up. No ice cream, but everyone who tastes it swears they’re ice cream in there. It’s the same method used in Saxe’s New Guide.
Saxe’s New Guide—what is this thing?
A book from the 1800s. It’s got all of these old recipes for tinctures and syrups. I love it because Saxe is really arrogant. A lot of the pharmaceutical guys were trade secret. He was one of the first to tell all the secrets.
First two days of training were just shaking and stirring? Was the third day catching flies with chopsticks?
The third day for six hours we made classic stir cocktails—just pouring, straining, tasting, pouring, straining, tasting—to make sure it’s perfectly balanced every time. We worked our way chronologically through the history of cocktails—from daiquiri to Queen's Park Swizzle. I don’t feel right teaching someone to make a Polite Provisions cocktail until you can make a daiquiri. And a Fizz. And a perfect Manhattan. You’ve got to have the basics. We’re testing everybody on dilution and shaking techniques. If a drink is under-diluted, it’s too tight and it hasn’t loosened up. If it’s too diluted, it becomes a swamp.
Is all this fuss over “the perfect ice” really worth it?
Yeah. It’s not just for authenticity. Ice to a cocktail is the same way heat is to food—underexposure and overexposure are both bad. You have so many different types of ice. Punch ice. Cold draft. Super rocks. Two grades of crushed—pebble and flake. That crap deli ice dilutes way too quick. When you make a cocktail, you shake it over ice. The clock just starts ticking from that moment on. Put a little piece of flake ice into a margarita and the margarita’s going to win.
What’s the most important thing about bartending?
Hospitality. We’re going to make good drinks, that’s a given. But that’s only 10 percent. How do you cater to people? I don’t care how good the drinks are if the hospitality sucks.
Consortium’s famous for not offering certain items (ketchup, Vodka, Red Bull, spoons for ramen, etc.) on principle. Is that hospitality or just being a jerk?
Hospitality isn’t about trying to be all things to everybody. Just because we’re not going to have Red Bull and flavored vodkas doesn’t mean we’re not going to have hospitality. I think that’s necessary to shock people at first. It’s not about saying no. It’s about teaching customers to say yes to something else.
First bartending gig?
BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse in Grossmont Center. A lot of people like to bash corporate dining, but the guys who trained me were top notch. You ran a clean bar, your bank was on, the sense of mise en place was perfect.
Then you ended up at the famous Bourbon & Branch. That’s like going to heaven. Tell me about it…
It was the SNL of San Francisco bartending. So much talent. So many young, hungry bartenders in the same room. The level of competition is exponential. You get better by being around one another.
Why come back to San Diego?
San Francisco’s saturated with something to do. The food and cocktail scene is blowing up and spreading here. It’s more exciting to be involved with something new.
Do mixologists hate parties?
No. Partying is a good thing. We’re doing crazy cocktails and making these crazy drinks, but we shouldn’t lose focus that people are here to have a good time.
Are mixologists smug bastards?
I hate smug, rude bartenders. For a while, mixologists got a bad name for being smug. They pretty much became the sommelier of the 1990s. They weren’t there to enlighten you, but confuse you. That flies in the face of everything hospitality stands for.
Are mixologists deaf? You order a vodka tonic and they come back with a Manhattan infused with the tears of homeless virgins.
It’s so easy when you get caught up in the cocktail world. You want everyone to try everything. We have to remember that every customer is at different levels of progression. If you would’ve put a glass of Scotch in front of us when we were 21, we wouldn’t have dug it. If someone orders vodka, I’d tell my bartenders to ask the customer questions. Suggest white rum or gin, which is just vodka with botanicals.
Fresh ingredients, boutique spirits, rare bitters… all this makes a drink a little spendy. Customers OK with it?
People don’t mind as long as they know they’re not getting gouged. Americans are starting to open their eyes to what drinks should taste like. If you go to a nightclub and a Jack and Coke is $17? That leaves people jaded.
You’re so polite. Tell me something you hate.
A dirty bathroom. If the bathroom’s not clean, it shows the people don’t care.
Bar mats are legendary for smelling like death. Is it true you found one that doesn’t stink?
We won’t have bar mats. Instead, we got this professional type of flooring that’s used in slaughterhouses and newer butcher shops. It’s antibacterial, and it’s padded. There’s no smell, and it’s way easier to clean.
Polite Provisions’ soft opening is scheduled for Feb. 12. Unless able to maintain namaste amid chaos or heavily Xanaxed, I’d suggest not going. Wait a couple weeks. With the buzz on this place, it’s gonna be like Guernica in there for a while. Polite Provisions, 4696 30th Ave., Normal Heights, 619.677.DRUG, www.politeprovisions.com.