What do you like to drink after a shift? “A cold pilsner (Czech-style beer) and a whisky I haven’t had in a while. I try to keep reminding myself of what some of them taste like.”
What is the all-time best dive bar jukebox song? “Johnny Cash, “Walk The Line.” Or anything Johnny—there’s a good chance there’s gonna be some Johnny on there.”
When you bought your San Francisco bar, Elixir, 15 years ago, what was the most popular drink you served? “A shot of Jameson. When I bought the place, I always say there were 12 bottles on the back bar, eight of which were Jameson.”
What is the most popular drink you now serve at Elixir? “An Old-Fashioned made with our house barrel of Buffalo Trace Bourbon.”
Name the first good drink you ever drank and where you had it. “My dad was not a drinker, but he drank Old-Fashioneds when he did. My Mom and Grandmother (my Dad’s mother) used to drink together during Happy Hour on Fridays and they drank Martinis and Highballs. Even though they were the ones that influenced me most about cocktails, my Dad taught me the value of a good Old-Fashioned, and though his version had a bright red cherry in it, it never had soda water and I always liked it. If he was alive today, I think he’d enjoy my Old-Fashioned.”
What book on cocktails or spirits is your go-to resource? “I have a pretty good library, so it depends on what I’m looking for. If it is a balanced version of a classic cocktail that I’m not sure of, I start with [books by] Dale DeGroff, Tony Abou-Ganim and Gary Regan and then I look in the books of Paul Harrington, Jim Meehan and Lou Bustamante and in Difford’s Guides. For spirit production, I have favorites for each category, and that list is too long for this question. For technique and science, it’s Dave Arnold and Jeffrey Morgenthaler.”
What’s your favorite cocktail and food pairing? “Islay single malt Scotch and oysters.”
What’s your favorite shot-and-a-beer combination? “An oatmeal stout and an Irish single pot still whiskey.”
What drink are you most proud of creating? “The Celery Cup No. 1 was my favorite until I won the San Francisco World Spirits Competition earlier this year with The Pamplemousse au Poivre.”
What is the one tool that you always make sure to pack when you’re traveling for business? “A tin-on-tin Boston shaker and a Hawthorne strainer. If I feel safe about where I’m going, it’s my silver Christofle Parisian shaker and strainer, which I picked up in a Paris flea market for about 600 euros, but they stay in my carry-on!”
H. Joseph Ehrmann is the owner of San Francisco’s historic bar, Elixir, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary this November.
Interview has been condensed and edited.