Features & Columns

Craft Cocktails in San Jose

South Bay's preeminent tastemakers cheers to a candid discussion
of what makes and breaks a great bar, a great cocktail.
craft cocktailsFrom top to right: Eric Nielsen, Cache Bouren, Paul Chen & Stephen Shelton

Of course the wagon had to roll through the day I called a roundtable discussion among four owners of some of the best craft cocktail bars in the South Bay. But bartenders who take self-imposed, non-Lent-related layoffs from drinking are a susceptible species, and beverages between friends have a way of ruining the best-laid plans of alcohol abstinence. It didn't take long for a couple of the South Bay's preeminent tastemakers to ditch their vows and cheers to a candid discussion of what makes and breaks a great bar, a great cocktail.

Holding court at 55 South, located in the heart of downtown San Jose, co-owners Eric Nielsen and Paul Chun hosted a roundtable discussion with myself; Stephen Shelton, co-owner of The Lexington House in Los Gatos; and Cache Bouren, owner of singlebarrel, SoFA District's speakeasy and the first true craft cocktail bar to set up shop in San Jose.

My goal was to get these fellows—who share a combined 89 years of industry experience—to share their wisdom. We would cover the essentials:

♦ What makes a truly great cocktail?

♦ Where is the future of the industry?

♦ Why does my soul always cry out for gin gimlets?

I also asked these four to come together because some truths are self-evident: People are demanding more from their drinks, and craft cocktails continue to dominate the bars and clubs landscape. You want a Tokyo Tea? Adios, motherfucker. You still fooling yourself into thinking PBR tastes good? Maybe it's time you retired that mustache. I called in the experts to talk about the nights that don't consist of Jame-O, Stellas and texts you'd like back.

The following is the best and worst of a free-flowing discussion on craft cocktails, great and terrible bars, and the last drink a dying (wo)man should order.

Josh Koehn: You guys all have a specialty in the sense that you're not just serving up High Life and shots of Jack. There's an art to the way you're presenting your drinks. So what do you look for in a bar?

Cache Bouren (singlebarrel): Usually when you're going out, you kind of have a mission. It's a first date, a bachelor party—any one of those things; the occasion kind of dictates the situation. I've worked every kind of bar there is, so I'm open to everything. But, for me, as long as there are no dirty glasses, cockroaches and cigarette butts on the floor.

Eric Nielsen (55 South): I want to go to a place where I feel the bartenders care, number one; and, number two, they have some training and knowledge, and it's not just some pretty face that they stuck behind the bar.

Stephen Shelton (The Lexington House): We're basically a bar with a restaurant instead of a restaurant with a bar. Everybody has Jack and Maker's Mark, but why not make it an experience. Why not go out and have a special occasion. Let's go out and do something new. It's not about being snobbish. But everyone has Maker's Mark, so let's have a (Evan Williams) Single Barrel 2004 instead. It's a fine line, but I look for places that actually give a shit. There are bartenders and then there are drinkmakers.

Paul Chun (55 South): The overall experience is what counts. The bartenders care, the service level, the quality of their products.

You're on your deathbed. What's the last drink you order?

SS: Easy. Old Fashioned. It's the definition of a cocktail. It's almost the purest form of a spirit with two ingredients.

CB: I don't know, man. That's impossible to answer.

EN: What about a really good Vieux Carre?

SS: It's all about place and time. Now a Sazerac. That's good.

Well, I should mention this hospital happens to have a fully stocked bar.

CB: If I'm on my deathbed there's no way I'm having one drink. I'm drinking until the lights go out. There's no way you could hold me to one drink, but an Old Fashioned is pretty damn good.

(At this point, Cache realizes he is the only one who is drinking.)

CB: Wait, where the hell have you guys been? I've been sitting here this whole time looking like an alcoholic.

(The bottles get a little lighter.)

What is the drink when you're out on a date to impress someone?

CB: I'm not going to order something to make them go, "Huh, cool." Matter of fact, I hate people who order drinks to impress people. I want to choke them. The ones that sit in the well and say "look at me." But on a date, so I can keep my control and not screw it up, I'll order a low-alcohol cocktail, something centered on amaro or vermouth, tons of flavor, so I can drink like five of them.

SS: That's a good call. It depends on where you begin. For me, aperitif wine or vermouth on the rocks, I love it.

CB: Guys would come up and order a martini on the rocks when I was younger and I'd make it and they'd say, "No, vermouth on the rocks." I didn't know why the fuck would you drink that? Now I get it.

EN: That's a key part of it too, though. You can't go anywhere and [order] that.

My wife bartends on the side and she has certain orders that piss her off to no end. When someone comes up and says, "I'd like a beer," she's like, "OK, which one?" Or when someone comes up and orders a Long Island iced tea but with no ice, like that's going to make the drink stronger. What are some things that people do when they order that really annoys a bartender?

EN: People who push their way to the front to order drinks and say, "I'll have one of these and—hang on," and they turn around and ask people behind them.

CB: They're not prepared. That actually lends itself to what you said about the beers. I've had people peer over the beer taps and say, "What do you have on tap?" (I tell them) we don't have any beers. They're like, "Are you serious?!" You're not being prepared. You're not being a functional adult. Like, "I have to pee. Should I open my zipper first? Nah, I'm just going to go."

SS: People will say, "I'll have a cocktail, make sure it's strong." (Laughs) Well, it's a cocktail. I'll make it however strong you want, but you know.

EN: Or, "Which of your drinks are the strongest?" Every drink I have on my menu has over two ounces of liquor in it, so you tell me what you would like to drink.

SS: Yeah, strong in flavor or effective?

CB: A big one for me is not a particular thing people say but people who refuse to be open to the possibility. People who refuse to be open to something new.

PC: It's like going to Lexington House and ordering a Bud. It's like, c'mon, you know you're going here for an experience.

EN: It's like going to a sushi restaurant and asking for a hamburger. I'm not saying they couldn't do it but.

We've got about 80-90 years of experience at this table. And all of you are out front right now on craft cocktails. I think a lot of people are now going out to have a really good cocktail that's different from what they've had before.

CB: More than anything, it's across the whole foodie thing. People are OK now with paying more to get more, especially in this area, which is one of the reasons when we opened singlebarrel. I had no fucking idea why it wasn't around.

SS: We're at the point now, do whatever you want to. Three years ago, no chance.

CB: We have eggs where we crack them directly in the cocktail because we want people to say, "What the fuck is that?" We want to educate people. People used to balk at it and I was like, "Try it. If you don't like it, I'll dump it out." Sometimes I had to dump it out. But now I get people coming up saying, "I want four drinks with eggs in them."

SS: It's a completely different world in the last three years.

What do you see as the next trend in the industry? What will people want more of when they go to bars?

CB: People want faster cocktails. So, the next person who captures that wave will be able to do quality with speed. It's very doable, you just have to change some of your mentalities about craft cocktails.

PC: The craft comes from the bartender.

What is the best thing about owning a bar?

CB: Autonomy. Being able to make the call. Your creativity doesn't get restrained. You're the boss. But at the same time that's also the worst part about it. You don't get to say, "I'm not going in today." You get used to not having that option after a while.

Paul, I know you were going to say the women. That's OK.

PC: You know, for me, it's just being able to do what I love to do. I grew up in this industry—my parents. It's something I've always loved to do. It chose me, basically.

CB: I tried to leave, but I couldn't.

SS: I tried, too. I did three different careers and always came back to it.

EN: My favorite thing is being able to build a team and make them want to build something better—make the city better.