Coolest thing I did in college, other than evading arrest while in a Cookie Monster costume? I built a bar.
I spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $500 in beer money on materials, sent schematics to my dad for review (he approved), and rented a backseat's worth of tools from the Berkeley lending library. I then sawed, drilled, and stained my way to a 10'x4' wooden block with black granite countertops, two beveled glass windows, and a ridiculously expensive piece of woodworked trim.
I stocked it with a ton of crappy alcohol and stuff for Irish car bombs (which you should never, ever try to order in Ireland), then, four days a week, I sold drinks basically at cost. I let all of the dudes in my house open tabs that they were supposed to pay off at the end of the month, and for the most part, I broke even. Save right before everyone left for winter break, I lost my ledger (Tzeheen Tang, if you're reading this, I'm pretty sure you still owe me $8).
The one thing you quickly realize when you set up a pretty sweet home bar: you know nothing about running a pretty sweet home bar. I think I used a butter knife to help strain drinks, hadn't the slightest concept of what a jigger was, and left everything in a perpetual state of stickiness.
Eight years later, I've finally upgraded the butter knife to an actual strainer and I even own a jigger, but still – for the love of God – I can't get rid of the stickiness.
The obvious solution? Going to seven lauded local bartenders' home bars on a Monday to (a) check out their setups, (b) solve the stickiness thing, and (c) get really, really lit on a workday.
It's 10 a.m. on a Monday and I'm deep in Bernal Heights, outside of Erik Ellestad's olive-colored coup.
I take the 20 or so steps up to his place, ring the buzzer, and the door whips open before I have even a brief second to practice my hellos (yes, I practice my hellos). We shake hands, exchange pleasantries, stand there for a few awkward seconds, until I finally ask, "So, where's the bar?"
He leads me into a checker-floored half-kitchen/half-nook and cracks the lid on two under-the-sink cupboards with a pair of shelves. This is it. This is the home bar of a lauded, self-taught 'tender who slings at Heaven's Dog and Alembic, and single-handedly made (and then blogged about) every drink in the bartender bible, The Savoy Cocktail Book. It's a freaking three-square-foot box. There’s a mass of bitters up top and spirits down below (including lots of Plymouth), plus a George Foreman grill wedged in between everything.
The counter space and here-and-there shelves in the rest of the room all have some bit of booze-y paraphernalia, from a handful of muddlers in a glass and a dish full of corks to a couple vintage shakers and a Secret Service shot glass (?).
Also: There are pastries (which will come in handy later), and two full pots of coffee, which, all starts to make sense when the doorbell finally rings.
In walks Jeff Hollinger, one of the 'tending partners at Comstock Saloon.
"Should I make two?" he asks, cocktail shaker in hand.
Jeff laughs. "Uh, yeah."
A pair of Ramon Fizzes later, and my first-ever bartender home bar crawl is underway.
My mouth tastes like walnuts.
Just before we left Erik's, he poured Jeff and me two glasses of five-year-old, homemade Nocino, an Italian digestif he's been making for years that involves walnuts soaked in vodka for 40 days, along with hints of lemon and cinnamon.
Bon Vivants rock star Josh Harris is determined to wash that taste out of our mouths with tequila.
Jeff, Erik, and I are in Josh’s "office" now, an old lighting company in the Mission, walking up a rickety old back staircase to a veritable alcohol war chest. There's a 600-bottle wine collection from an estate sale in Berkeley that Josh scored for $500. A 1955 Cristal. An antique bar mixer that's shaped like an old pistol (hold the trigger and the stirrers pop out of the barrel turn), and a bottle of Herradura made Dec. 2, 1969.
"There're two camps. People that don't like to open shit – that's me – and people that do. This was already open, so we can have a few capfuls of it," he says, unscrewing the Herradura. "Oh, and I got it for $1 at an estate sale."
This is Josh's thing. Estate sales. It has been for as long as I've known him. We all take a capful (except Josh, who stopped drinking years ago); he shows us the "check presenters" for his forthcoming bar Trick Dog (they've got drunk, dancing pink elephants on them); his personal collection of Haig Scotch Whisky paraphernalia (which he calls the "biggest in the world, probably"); and then we pop back downstairs, out the door, and over to Trick Dog, where he has conveniently left his keys.
There isn't room here to talk about Trick Dog (and Josh might kill me if I did), but It. Is. Going. To. Be. Awesome.
Fast-forward to us finally making it to Josh's apartment. It smells kind of like a cross between an English bulldog (which he has) and a laundry basket (which it kind of is).
Walking through his place is like stepping into a barkeep history book. Copper seltzer bottles. Old-school juice squeezers. Brandy warmers. Highball coasters that're tiny jockstraps you fit around your glass (!). A crazy old Abbott's bitters (which Erik and Jeff approve of). A shadow box full of jiggers. A dusty box of beverage thermometer stir sticks. It's all incredible.
I finger through shelves of beaker tubes while Josh mixes up our next drink. He doesn't have an ice pick so he's using a large bread knife to hack into the chunk on his kitchen counter. I can totally relate [winky smiley face with a hat].
"I make this all the time," he says. He pours four ruby red glasses (with Sanbitter, a no-booze version of Campari and tonic) for us, adding a slice of lemon he plucks from a tree in his backyard. It tastes like a nonalcoholic Americano.
Two shots, one cocktail, and a nonalcoholic drink in and we're now up in Lower Nob Hill at Kevin Diedrich's next-level-sweaty third-floor apartment. It is so fucking hot. Seriously. Kev's bar is in his living room, in a recessed, closet-sized space where you're probably supposed to put a TV, or a life-size cutout of Kelly Kapowski.
"Once I started watching football every weekend, I didn't want to have to walk to the kitchen to get a drink," he says.
He also didn't want to have to walk outside to smoke cigars, so he put a leather chair near the window. Smart dude.
The bar's basically a bookshelf full of bartender medals and booze, like 10 year 107-proof Old Rip Van Winkle, a Willett's that he can't find ("I think I might've drank it all"), and a Bitter Truth Rye. There are around 200 bottles in all, and no doubles. To the right of the booze-shelf: a mini fridge with a cigar humidor on top of it, plus a Jasper's Corner Tap flask (where Kevin's the bar manager) and copper tins from Burritt Room (where he used to be the bar manager).
Considering everyone is dripping in sweat at this point, Kevin breaks out the drinks: four shots of that Bitter Truth Rye poured in shooters with traffic signs on them, plus a your-choice beer from the fridge. I go with a Wailua Wheat.
"I have a bunch of stuff in the bedroom too," Kevin says. That he does. I convince him to let me check it out, and I see that he's got bedside green chartreuse and Campari, all of the old Burritt Room menus and spec sheets, old recipe books from when he worked in NY, a Repeal Day menu from when he was at Bourbon & Branch, and a bunch of whiskey books written by Michael Jackson. No, not that Michael Jackson.
I'll be honest, I thought Jamal Blake-Williams would have the coolest bar. Dude (a) has super rad tattoos, (b) 'tends at Tipsy Pig, and (c) seriously, his tattoos are so rad. I mean, I was expecting the ultimate college-type bar from this guy.
But he just got married. So…
"I don't drink a lot at home," he says. "Mostly wine, and the booze I have is left over from my wedding." He's got empty bottles of Macallan 18 and 15 on top of his kitchen cabinets that he drank once a year with a buddy, and a bottle of Cristal someone gave him when he turned 18… er… 21? There's also some Rivera Vineyards wine, a bottle from when he first moved into the place, and a fridge top full of Russian Standard, rye, and tequila (with wine tucked in out of view).
"I try not to be too fancy," he says. "I do that all night at work."
As such: We're drinking glasses of Casa Azul in little mini bottles that look like something you'd buy at an airport duty-free shop. I'm also starting to realize that bartenders drink a lot of straight booze.
Jamal's house looks kinda like it was pulled from a Pottery Barn catalog. He tells me he once tried to start collecting old bar stuff until his wife suggested otherwise: "Our house is going to get cluttered!"
We eat through a row of super fluffy baguettes from Tipsy Pig (job perk!), talk about how insanely busy Tipsy was during the Series, swig down the rest of the tequila (and some beer that's now making the rounds), and head for Kristin Almy's.
Kristin's bar is so cool. It's laid out on a couple kneeling-height hutches (and her grandma's end table), with six types of vintage glassware from her hometown in Southwest Colorado, and alcohol-propping-up cutting boards that her great grandpa hand carved. I realize five minutes in, Kristin – who tends at Grand Cafe – is a quote waiting to happen, so I'm just gonna let her do the heavy lifting here.
On an alcohol decanter shaped like a ceramic strong man holding a barbell: "I bought that from a corner shop in the Tenderloin when I was drunk one night."
On why the barbell was missing one of its balls: "Where's the other 1,000-pound ball? I was drunk. Don't buy porcelain stuff when you're drinking."
On her alcohol selection: "Bourbons, slight rum, little gin, tequila, liqueurs, and no vodka in this bar. I keep my vodka and Jäger in the freezer." (She's joking, or is she?!? She is.)
On her dog: "His name's Boobie. He's a Chihuahua Miniature Pinscher mix with a lamb/duck diet."
Upon pouring us four glasses of Yamazaki whiskey: "I like to get straight to it." [Hand punches air!]
On how often she uses the Kimpton bars’ flask in her bar: "I used it last night, if that's anything about that."
On her boyfriend, who reaps the benefits of her being a bartender: "I don't think he knew this is who he wanted to date, but he totally lucked out. This one's a keeper!"
On her apartment motif: "We're working on our urban hunting lounge theme.” [pointing] “That's a squirrel my dad shot."
On our way out of her apartment: "Hold on.” [grabs remote, flips on television] “Boobie likes to watch TV when I'm gone."
Bryan Ranere's house looks like what would happen if the '70s had sex with a bunch of striped zoo animals.
His liquor is all stored in a hollowed-out vintage radio that's flanked by two shelving units with tons of weird stuff on them, like a tarantula in a glass box, a signed Dan Aykroyd-backed skull bottle, a 20-lb. seltzer bottle, a Gordon's dry gin ash tray, and his grandma's shaker, which comes with some sweet teapot pour action. "Oh, she liked a cocktail," he says.
"Mostly we drink whiskey and gin around here," he says, fingering a bottle of High West Bourye first batch, one of the many gifted bottles on his shelves. "When you've been running the bar program at Laszlo and Foreign Cinema a long time, everyone is dying to do you a favor."
Or if you're Bryan's brother.
"I have an ongoing bet with my brother. I'm a Phillies fan, he's Marlins, of all things. I end up with a fairly nice bottle of whiskey every year."
Coolest thing about Bryan's bar? He's got a bar cart. It originally housed a printer, but today, there are actual bottles of booze and glassware.
Bryan leads our merry band (which now includes Kristin) into his kitchen where he keeps Homer's and Krusty-O's cereal boxes, a bunch of old, oddly shaped glassware, and a little kitchen station where he makes all of the drinks on the Foreign Cinema and Laszlo menus.
Kristin's still hooking up awesome quotes, mostly about all-nude strip clubs in Portland, as Bryan makes us a gin Amaro Black Swan. The conversation then turns to super-nerdy bartender stuff like Natura filters and the Seltzer Sisters, while I sip on what is a super stiff drink. Enough that I'm starting to consider taking a cab up the hill to Jeff's place.
Jeff Hollinger lives in a taxi wasteland (it later takes me almost two hours to get a ride home). But his bar makes it all worth the trip.
It's majestic. The type of giant '70s-style bar you'd expect to find in the Brady Bunch's basement. There are pics of his grandfather's home bars framed on the walls (Jeff is planning to get the bar and chairs in the pictures remade), plus, newish additions like a 170-bottle wine fridge in one corner, a bar bookcase, a glassware display, and even a record player, which Jeff turns on and slides on some Louis Armstrong. Nice.
There's a shelf on one wall with "absinthe you'd never want to drink," a fake wood fireplace with red lights for fire, and tailgate chairs (he's waiting on the classy leather ones still). There are Cheyenne chilies hanging (in case he needs them for drinks), a Vermouth bottle turned into a bar lamp (it's his grandfather's), a Dale's Pale Ale pic from one of the Absinthe bartenders (where Jeff used to work), and a back bar that's maybe 15 ft. wide, with more booze than Jeff keeps stocked at Comstock. Really. Oh, and the front bar's still in the works, but it'll be midcentury, with a Formica top.
Choice bottles include Rebel Yell, a backup bottle of Rebel Yell, an eight-year-old cherry-infused bottle of Rebel Yell, vodka in an area you can't get to (bartenders apparently really hate vodka), gin, rum, agave, whiskey, random liqueurs, brandies, and an entire area for back stock with tonic, bitter, glassware, and barware.
"It just happened," Jeff says of the collection.
He shows us a bottle of Sazerac Rye hand selected by Johnny Raglin, his bro-tender at Comstock. A St. George Pinot Brandy, too, plus some really old Plymouth bottles, and a signed Bulleit Bourbon bottle from when it was first released.
There's also a row of handmade bitters (one is called just "Kitchen Sink," another's "Strawberry Dopeman") and a now-discontinued bottle of Wild Turkey Rye. Also kinda cool: Out the bay windows you can see his daughter's plastic pink lawn mower.
Jeff shows us three other whiskeys that are now discontinued, and explains the Steven Lylles cocktail flag on the back of the door: If you were in the British Royal Navy and at port on an off day, you'd fly that flag to say to people, "Come on for cocktails!".
The beer fridge is his brother's college dorm fridge (the stickers are all Jeff’s).
Kristin's overwhelmed. "I'm embarrassed of my home bar now. This is literally the size of my living room."
We're now sipping on whiskey and absinthe. Erik is kinda drunk at this point. Out come some cocktails: Four Roses Bourbon and Dolin Sweet Vermouth infused with chai tea and Darjeeling tea, Berentzen Apfelkorn apple schnapps and house cacao bitters, which he pulls from a one-gallon jug.
From here, I'm not entirely sure what happened, but I'm fairly certain, things got sticky.