Erick Castro worked in restaurants from a young age and quickly observed that all the action was behind the bar. He started tending bar in college and found that not only did he enjoy making drinks, it also paid well. After he got his degree from San Diego State he started looking for a job and discovered the world of cocktails. For the first four years of his bartending career Castro worked in high-volume bars and restaurants where he learned how to be fast, efficient, and organized.
But Castro got the bug for well-crafted cocktails and moved to San Francisco in 2007 where he worked in influential establishments like Heaven’s Dog
and Bourbon & Branch
. He describes his cocktail style as “vintage minimalist” with a distinct emphasis on the classics. But Castro isn’t just into Prohibition-era classics; he likes to go even further back, searching for obscure recipes and using primarily methods and ingredients from a century ago.
After earning his chops at Bourbon & Branch
, Castro was assigned the beverage director position at its newest sister bar, Rickhouse
. Since it opened in June of 2009, and under the direction of Castro, Rickhouse
has been named one of the World’s Top Bars by Food & Wine
magazine. Recently, it also won The Cheers: Benchmark Award for Top Cocktail Lounge 2010.
Interview with Mixologist Erick Castro of Rickhouse – San Francisco, CA
Katherine Martinelli: What drew you to restaurants and, in particular, to mixology?
Erick Castro: I was bartending in college and working in a restaurant and I thought “that’s where all the action is.” In college it was high pay; I really enjoyed it. I was at San Diego State, got my degree, was about to start looking for job and then discovered this whole world of cocktails. I was working with fresh juice, discovered aviations, and it was a rabbit hole and kept going. If I hadn’t come of age in such a good time for bartending, this might not have happened. I’m not going to be happy until the whole nation is doing proper cocktails. I’m not kidding. Twenty years ago, you couldn’t get good cup of coffee at a five-starred restaurant and now I can go to a truck stop in Phoenix and get fair trade beans. When [Starbucks founder] said that was his vision, people were like “what are you talking about” and they’ve been proven [wrong]. I hope we can follow in that same route.
KM: Were you trained in bartending or mixology?
EC: For the first four years that I was bartending, I was banging out cocktails in a high-volume restaurant. I didn’t learn too much about the balanced cocktail. I learned how to be fast, efficient, organized. All those things you can’t learn from a cocktail book. Rickhouse is a combo of all the best things: efficiency combined with systems, fresh juice, everything I’ve seen.
I lived in Sacramento for a few years, worked at tequila bar, did a few cocktails programs, then I said, “I have to move to the big city, one of the best cities for cocktails in the history of cocktails.” I started working at Bourbon & Branch, was there for year [before I] took the reins here and worked my way up to general manager, or worked my way down—however you look at it. I worked at Heavens Dog for a while because I got to work with Thad Vogler and Eric Atkins. Those guys are amazing. They are like cocktail masterminds. They taught me a lot of things. When I started working with them, I was thinking Prohibition and they smacked me over the head and said go 100 years back, try making a Bitter Sling or Knickerbockers. I was making an Old Fashioned with white sugar cube and they were like “you think people used white sugar back then? Keep it as vintage and classic as possible.”
Working there, and at Bourbon & Branch, and traveling all over is where I got my style of vintage minimalism.I hate technology in my cocktails. When someone pulls out a foamer, it turns me off. I don’t want to eat my cocktail. I can tell everything about a bartender by the way they make an Old Fashioned, it’s the window to a bartender’s soul. For me, it’ll come with unprocessed sugar, no soda water, bitters and a twist, because that’s how I feel and that tells you who I am. But someone else might do bourbon, a sugar cube, soda water, and another might use tequila or Appleton rum.
KM: What is your philosophy on cocktails?
EC: Vintage minimalism. Keep it very vintage but keep cocktails as clean as possible. There’s a reason people think of Old Fashioned, Martinis—after all these years they’ve achieved complexity through simplicity, which is the biggest challenge. One of the quotes that influenced me heavily didn’t come from bartender. I was reading this interview with The White Stripes and Jack [White] said they only use production methods that pre-date 1963 and he said, “I love doing it because I love how much more creative you can become when you put restrictions on your technology.” And that’s why their music is so much cooler than everyone [else’s]. That’s my whole philosophy. I love that whole concept of making the old, new, and making the old better. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel, just make it better; add some new spokes.
KM: What goes into creating a new cocktail? How long does it take?
EC: We’re known for running seasonal menus often. My only regulation is it can’t be anything that couldn’t have been made 100 years ago. Obviously if they want to use aged tequila or something I’ll make exceptions, but no dehydrated rhubarb or vaporized campari. Even if I like it and think it’s good, it’s not good for our profile. For every good cocktail bar you need a house style and if you cheat on the house style you cheat on the bar. One of the chefs at Momofuku could come up with a rockin’ pizza but he won’t put it on the menu because it betrays the house style. I believe every cocktail here should taste like Rickhouse.
KM: What is your clientele like at Rickhouse?
EC: I was the one who said forget Prohibition era, forget Manhattans—we have a really savvy clientele, they’re used to good Martinis. I said, “let’s take these guys back a hundred years before, let’s make Flips, Punches, Cobblers.” I wanted to focus on as many archaic styles of cocktails. We’re blessed with an awesome clientele in San Francisco we can challenge [them]. I want a place that is cutting-edge, so far beyond the competition that they have to scramble to catch up.
KM: Tell me about your systems, volume, and consistency.
EC: I love systems. Sometimes with a cocktail bar, people come in, do the menu and are there for five days. When an executive chef is opening a restaurant, they are there for six months before opening. The bar is a last-minute thing. Lead bartenders are hired two weeks before opening. No infrastructure is in place and they don’t have the means to achieve the drinks. I was able to come in with construction orders—where the bar will be, the dishwashers. We have an infrastructure that allows us to be set up for what we do—big wells, sinks where they should be, this place was designed to be a high-volume cocktail bar. People at Bourbon & Branch know how to make really good drinks fast, but we are actually designed to make high-volume artisanal cocktails. And I’m staffed to the point where I have five bartenders working five independent wells. Most nightclubs that hold 700 people maybe have five or six bartenders. We’re so overstaffed that my guys can take their time because there are so many per guest, there isn’t a drink that comes out rushed, ever. A drink on a Saturday night tastes the same as on a Monday night—same drink every time. We’ve created an assembly line. Cocktails are so pervasive now that we’re becoming more diverse. Artisanal cocktail bars are morphing into separate features.
KM: What is your favorite cocktail to drink?
EC: I love drinking Old Fashioneds. I love seeing where I can take them. I love being able to adjust the sugars and bitters for people.
KM: What ingredient do you feel is under appreciated or underutilized?
EC: For the most part, Latin spirits. They get a short sell. Everyone wants to make a spirit-based drink, their own version of a Manhattan. Until recently, even tequila didn’t get a fair shake. People think it goes in Margaritas. More recently spirit-based tequila cocktails are coming into their own outside of Margaritas. Pisco, cachaça, people won’t play with those. Those are the spirits that I think will be on the forefront. People are starting to wake up. You can get phenomenal Latin spirits for under $20. I’m obsessed with agave spirits right now. I’m obsessed with playing with tequila and mezcal.
KM: How are you involved in your local culinary and mixology community?
EC: I’m all about spreading knowledge, not just in San Francisco, but everywhere. I love the fact that I can go to New York and learn something and then I go to LA and they learn something. I have this way to hold metal jiggers that I learned that from Brian [Miller] at Death + Company. I got my whole staff doing it and I taught it in LA. We all learn from each other.
KM: What does success mean for you? What will it look like for you?
EC: I’ll be making cocktails. My goal is to change the way America drinks. The fact that people of lesser financial means around the world are drinking unprocessed sugars and fresh juice in cocktails and the middle class here isn’t, just makes me upset. They’re making vodka Red Bulls and that Red Bull is $2 a can. I could fill that thing with lime juice for 30 cents. A proper Southside costs a fraction of a vodka Red Bull—hopefully that will snap people into drinking better.