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Erick Castro is a busy bartender. He runs the award-winning and innovative Polite Provisions, in San Diego. The documentary series he shares with his wife; Bartender At Large is increasingly being seen and screened across North America. He’s known for his time working for global brands and bars in big markets on both coasts. Notable on his bar resume are the critical hits, Rickhouse in SF and Boilermaker NYC. Given that he spends a lot of his time interviewing bartenders to gain their insights on the industry we wanted to turn the questions in his direction.

It’s a turbulent, albeit exciting time and so the conversation ranged from cocktails and menu costing to some of the heavier topics we’re discussing in 2017.
Erick Castro and his wife Amelia Castro respond to audience questions at a screening of Bartender At Large in the Rio Theatre - VancouverErick Castro and his wife Amelia Castro respond to audience questions at a screening of Bartender At Large in the Rio Theatre – Vancouver.

1) What do you think the balance should be between bartenders focusing on competitions/pursuing brand ambassador roles VS. grinding it out behind a bar?

Erick Castro – It varies from market to market. In a place like San Diego we’re kind of immune to the brain drain that you get in big city markets. We don’t have brands snatching people up.
As long as a bartender is sticking to a realm that they’re comfortable with. Bartending and focusing on making good drinks. I think a lot of good can come from working with brands. But if a persons’ true passion is bartending they shouldn’t be made to feel like they have to own a bar, or work for a brand just to continue working in the industry. You can also work at a distillery.
Right now, it almost seems like there’s almost too much opportunities and some people aren’t picking things the smartest way. They aren’t picking what would be a good fit for them and rather doing what they think they’re ‘supposed to do’.

2) Polite Provisions has a legendary bar program. What were some of the challenges to setting it up the way that you did?

I honestly think one of the reasons the bar’s been so successful is – well, I knew the drinks were gonna be good, They’d been R&D to death – I wanted to create a culture and something special for the community rather than just a place that’s gonna win awards. The industry, I feel, has become a bit of an arms race. Everybody is so focused on impressing journalists and bloggers that they’ve actually stopped focusing on their neighborhood.
I can tell you several times I’ve been to cities with bars that win all the awards and they’re media darlings. You go, and the bar’s dirty and it’s empty. You’re the only one there. You realise, they spent all their budget on impressing journalists on the other side of the world. But, they forgot about the people that live two blocks away.

3) You’ve done a lot of work with cocktails on tap. What’s the number one thing to learn about setting up a tap cocktail program?

“Tap cocktails are not a short-cut.” – Erick Castro

Tap cocktails are just as ‘craft’ as any drink that you’re making to serve to guests across the bartop. If anything, what makes them so special is that all the hard work being done in advance. Some people accuse a tap drink of not being craft, and I’m like, “That drink is a seven-day prep!”. I could not make that drink on the spot, unless you ordered it today and came back in a week.
I’m not going to put a drink on tap that would taste better if I made it à la minute. It has to be a drink that’s conceived and developed with a purpose. Which is why we’ve always done so much to promote the high-ball.
The idea of the carbonated mixer and a spirit needs more love. Bourbon and soda has gone strong for 150 years. Bring that up to something we carry on tap: Gin sous vide with blueberries and charged up with a lavender soda.

3b) When are tap cocktails shitty?

When you have a drink that has a lot of fresh juice, it needs to be aerated. It needs to be woken up, shaken. You’re losing so much aromatics on that cocktail by not shaking it. I don’t think that a Collins on tap will ever be as good as one shaken on the spot but… If I was at a concert, or an outdoor event, and they had a Collins on tap. I’m sure I’d be extremely pleased with it.
None of our drinks on tap have citrus juice in them. We never want the tap drinks to be second best to the drinks made on the spot.

4) Where do you come down on the recent dialog about tipping in the industry? Who do you think should be paying a bartenders salary?

The thing that’s a bummer about the topic is consumers hate it. A very high percentage of customers in restaurants actually enjoy tipping. They like to keep the option to reward good work.
When I served, I would never auto-grat a table because I found I always made more money if I didn’t. I felt like I knew I was gonna do a good job.
I’ve been on both sides of the fence in this discussion. For instance, If someone is going to add a tip for the service staff – more power to them. What I don’t like is when a place says, “Oh, well, there’s no tip expected. Please don’t tip” Then I’m like, wait, who’s getting that extra money? “Oh you know, we distribute it.” To who?!
I know of one place, in particular, that shall remain nameless. One time, they had a big buyout and a massive entertainment company left a $20,000 gratuity. The owners went to Italy on that money.

JC – Yeah, I don’t think that a lot of people that advocate an end of tipping realize that servers are pretty far down the “rung” of the money control situation. A lot of staff in a lot of places would get ripped off very easily.

Anyone who’s been in this industry for a few years has seen so many servers and bartenders get ripped off by shitty owners. If you want to have a charge that goes to the staff, whatever, more power to you. But, in some states the bill will say; “Admin Tax“, and it doesn’t go to the staff, it goes to the owners. And they can do with it whatever they want.
A lot of owners, from my perspective, don’t see the tip as something service staff have earned. They see it as a revenue stream. They just think, “How do I tap into that and (in effect) take money out of my own staff’s pockets.”
It can be very shady if it’s not up front.
Look at a lot of the people who are clamoring for tip-free dining, Is it your local diner up the block? No. Is it your chain restaurants? No.
I think it’s too many chefs that have watched “Top Chef and never learned how to cost out food and run a proper business. So instead of learning how to cost out food, they’re trying to sell a local grass-fed beef tartare and charge $8.
It ties into a larger concept, which is, food isn’t expensive enough. We are going to nice restaurants and no one is paying enough for their food. To use the example of the grass-fed beef tartare, that should be $18, if you’re trying to make proper food cost. It’s not just an order of ‘dirty fries’ for $10 that’s gonna make all your food cost back…

JC – That seems to be a discussion we need to have about drink costing, as well.

Yeah. Same goes for drinks. If you’re going to sell expensive drinks, it’s not okay for the drink to just be good. The drink has to be excellent.
I overheard this interaction recently: “How’s the drink?” – “Oh, It’s excellent. But normally when I spend $14 on a cocktail I expect it to be excellent.”
We laughed because that’s so common-sensical that they hit the nail right on the head.

5) What city do you most enjoy being behind the stick?

Aw man. I really miss being behind the bar at Boilermaker, in New York. The clientele there is super cool, and it’s such a turn-and-burn venue. I just like the New York pace of life, ya know. At the same time, I love bartending here in San Diego. Polite Provisions is more of a neighborhood bar than something in Manhattan. The change of scenery has been really nice for me. I’ve actually worked a Friday at Boilermaker and a Saturday in San Diego. Haha. Such a nice change of scenery. But they’re my two favorite cities in the country.
I would say, from Vancouver all the way down to Baja, you just have this Pacific Coast vibe that translates. Portland, San Francisco or Seattle have way more in common with Vancouver than they do with Miami. It’s cool how the vibe crosses the borders.

6) What, if any, role do you see for Bartenders in fighting injustice?

“Look beyond politics. Discrimination against gender, sex, race or whatever – has absolutely no place in a bar.” – Erick Castro

Those things have no place in bar culture. The way we live and the way we operate is on hospitality. A pub is short for Public House. Everyone who comes in is protected within our cloak of hospitality, if you will. Anger, hatred, racism and sexism, none have any place within my bars.
Everyone who comes in gets greeted with a hello, a menu and a glass of water. It’s important to me that everyone feels welcome no matter what’s going on outside.

JC – ‘Hospitality for everyone’, is a simple but beautiful mantra.

I would say that it does kind of irk me when I see people who are upset online but aren’t actually doing anything about it. I’ve seen people rant about sexism or racism online, but you go into their bar, in a major city, and their entire staff is all white guys. I don’t think they’re racist, or that they did it on purpose, but I think it’s a good reminder to be introspective and say to ourselves, “What am I doing to combat this mono-culture at home?”

7) Back to drinks. When you set out to create cocktails, do you riff off an existing recipe, a classic cocktail or a single ingredient?

I can’t help it. I’m rooted in the classics. The reason is they are all so elegant in their simplicity. They tend to be very clean and the spirit is the star. You look at a Southside cocktail. You got citrus, mint, sugar and Gin. You make that drink with five different gin’s you’ll end up with five different cocktails. That’s because the drinks were compiled so that the spirit was always the star.
I try to do that with all of my drinks. If I have so many ingredients that I can’t tell if the drink was made with bourbon, rum or brandy… Then maybe it’s time to review the cocktail and strip it back, making it more austere.

8) Thank you for your time. Final question: What is the single greatest thing you’ve learned about yourself, or others, as a result of being a bartender?

Oh man, I don’t know if it’s just one thing. I will say that I once heard someone say, “The meaning of life, is a life with meaning.”
I think that we really get to live that as bartenders.
We can’t judge who’s coming into our bars. What they’ve been through or what their day has been like. Somebody might be in for a drink because they got promoted, somebody else because they got fired. So it’s my job to make sure everyone feels welcome. Everyone’s in an environment where they’re taken care of. And, hopefully, they leave in a better mood than the one they came in. If we’re not doing that then what’s the point of what we’re doing?
Erick CastroErick Castro toasts the crowd while sitting with Dave Mitton and wife Amelia. at a Bartender At Large screening.
Thank you to Bambudda alumni Andrew Kong for his help in this interview.

LISTEN: Erick Castro talks Bar Culture, on Soundcloud.

Erick Castro Talks About What’s Working vs. What’s Not