The Beautiful Legacy of Unglamorous Work

There always seems to be something exciting going on in the San Diego Cocktail Scene, especially around the holidays.  If it's not Old Fashioned's and Ugly Sweaters at the Lion's Share, it's Fernet's Bad Santa Toy Drive for Rady Children's Hospital (Dec 14th) . Not to mention the various Golden State of Cocktails Preview events in San Diego this week.

Behind all the hubbub, glitter bombs, out-of-town personalities, and competitions to determine who the "best of ... " is this season, we have bartenders and managers who show up for their shifts to provide consistent, considerate, intelligent service to their customers, day after day, and night after night. Today we'd like to shift a little of the spotlight onto two of these gentlemen who quietly ensure the magic happens every day of the year.  

Frank McGrath and Aaron Zieske of Polite Provisions. Photo by Shawn Michael

Frank McGrath and Aaron Zieske of Polite Provisions. Photo by Shawn Michael

These are Aaron Zieske and Frank McGrath, General Manager and Assistant GM at Polite Provisions.  With a majority of their work happening behind-the-scenes, we don't often have a chance to sit down and appreciate the role that Managers have in a cocktail service operation. So we carved out some time to chat about what makes a cocktail bar like Polite run the way it does, and what specific skills and duties are crucial to being a successful bar manager.

Aaron Zieske, in his 10th year behind the stick, started at Polite Provisions as a lead bartender from the very first day in February 2013, nearly 3 years ago. Before he'd ever touched a bar spoon, he was a coffee roaster, which he credits to the initial development of his palate. Tasting coffee taught him about the nuances of flavor, which led to an interest in wine.  When he moved to Oregon he took a position as a bar back at a fine dining restaurant to continue to study wine, but it was there that he learned about cocktails and started bartending. A decade later, he's moved from Assistant GM to General Manager of one of the best high volume cocktail bars in the US. Photo by Shawn Michael

Frank McGrath was in culinary school picking up extra work as muscle for a moving company when he met Erick Castro, Proprietor of the soon-to-open Polite Provisions. Between moving boxes and piles of couch cushions, Castro offered Frank a job as a prep guy at the new place.  A few months later, first week on the job, not the last of Frank's questions was "what's OR-GEET"? For being new to the bartending world, he moved quickly from prep guy to bar back to bartender in about a year. As his studies and hard work continued, so did the opportunity to prove himself as positions opened for a lead bartender, and then an Assistant General Manager, a role he's been in since June 2015. Photo by Shawn Michael

"The Poet's Dream" Cocktail - what got Frankie McGrath into gin. Photo by Shawn Michael

"The Poet's Dream" Cocktail - what got Frankie McGrath into gin. Photo by Shawn Michael

The Front Side of the Job

Ok, well first things first and obviously, to manage a cocktail bar you've got to be on point with your cocktail knowledge and craft. Being a bar manager means developing new cocktails, working on new menus, making sure service is consistent, guests are happy, and there's enough booze flowing freely into the hearts of happy customers. It means working shifts behind the bar, delivering incredible service, making patrons feel loved, and supporting everyone else working with you. However, the service pressure lightens up as you exchange some shifts for office hours, and you have "additional duties."

Frank McGrath in his craft. Photo by Shawn Michael

Frank McGrath in his craft. Photo by Shawn Michael

While there are certain benefits to exchanging  bartending shifts for office hours, it can also be a challenging transition. Aaron and Frank report that while you definitely miss some of the energy of shift work (especially those epic in-the-zone marathon nights of solidarity and hilarity behind the bar), you're also pretty excited about not having to close 4 nights a week, and about having Sunday and Monday off.  After working only one shift each week for a while, it's also obvious how physically demanding bartending is, and your future body thanks you for giving it a break. However, it's also apparent that making drinks is a skill you've got to keep up, or you'll get rusty at it -- real fast.

When asked if there's a lot of pressure to come up with your own original cocktails, Aaron replied with an emphatic YES. One of his cocktails, the Sorcerer's Apprentice, is due to appear on the menu this season (See the end of this article for the recipe!) Its name speaks to the emphasis he places on the importance of learning under someone and being mentored, and how continuous learning and development are an essential part of his story, not only as a recipient of wisdom and knowledge, but as one who now is responsible for providing it. "People have given that to me, and I have a responsibility to pass it on," he stated, matter-of-fact.

Aaron evaluating a cocktail made by staff. Photo by Shawn Michael

Aaron evaluating a cocktail made by staff. Photo by Shawn Michael

The Other Side of the Job

So what do a manager's duties entail when they're not keeping their craft up behind the bar? Well, there are administrative duties related to ordering, dealing with money, managing and revising workflow, keeping track of inventory, purchasing and managing repairs of machines, and dealing with emergencies like power outages and that one time there were no limes to be had anywhere.

But when we asked Aaron about the most important part of his job, his answer was suspiciously thematic: "staffing, scheduling, hiring, training, terminating, paying, mentoring, recommending...." to sum it up, the most important part of his role is staff relations. Yes, admin and technical duties are part of the package, but those things are easily teachable. If you're not adept at managing employees, and not willing to work on staff relations every single day, being a bar manager is not the role for you.  

Photo by Shawn Michael

Photo by Shawn Michael

Being in charge of staffing and ensuring a bar program is run efficiently isn't the most glamorous of jobs. According to Aaron, if you're in it for the status, to be the big boss, to have a little reign of your own, it's pretty likely you'll fail before long.  Being a Bar Manager or GM means you work for your employees, and your job is to make sure that their jobs are more enjoyable and more secure. That means being consistent, being fair, listening with understanding, and creating a culture of trust and dependability. It also means pointing the finger at yourself when things are rough, and constantly working to be better at the work you're doing. 

Frank's journey to a managerial role is an exceptional case, the perfect combination of hard work and natural leading capability paired with being in the right place at the right time for the right opportunities to manifest in rapid growth. He's had his work cut out for him with a steep learning curve, but rose to the challenge, and his development is a great asset to the bar. We asked him about the most significant part of his journey into management, and he responded with the wisdom that's evidently a core part of his character: "any move to management is based on earning trust above and below you. If you don't have trust and respect, you don't deserve management." 

Photo by Shawn Michael

Photo by Shawn Michael

The Everyday Man Will Be There Tomorrow

And that brings us to one of our closing thoughts.

It's easy in the cocktail industry to value the visible strengths of magnetic personalities, sexiest bartenders, scientific cocktail nerdiness (dare we say, snobbery?), or that guy who's moved on to open a bar program at the next new hot spot. None of these things are bad, and we appreciate them as well - they're fun, exciting, educational and challenging.

But there are other strengths that are so incredibly impactful, and that are by nature less newsworthy. Loyalty is one - what about the bar manager who's built up a great team and managed it well for years? Loyalty is, by it's very nature, the same old news. Trust and dependability are more of the same - no drama there to splash on the local magazines. These are the things we appreciate about sitting down at a familiar bar with a familiar face behind it. These are the things that communicate substance and provide a safe place, both for patrons and staff. 

Of course, and as Aaron emphasized at one point, not everyone has the opportunity for development where they are, and every career follows a different path. Often change is necessary to remain engaged, challenged, and growing. But the quiet character traits of patience, perseverance, commitment and contentment are worth taking a step back and recognizing when you come across them.

There are many more of these men and women than we can recognize, and many that have been serving in managerial roles longer than Aaron and Frankie. We'd like to thank all them for the role they play in creating a culture where your team is solid and established, your guests are comfortable and familiar. Here's a cheers to those favorite haunts where you go not to be in the fray of the next big thing, but to rest in the familiar routine, have a glass of something nice, and just be.

CHEERS!

You can find Aaron behind the bar on Friday nights, and Frank on Thursdays & Saturdays.

Photo by Shawn Michael

Photo by Shawn Michael

BONUS - Favorite Stirred Cocktail Recipes

DID YOU KNOW? You can buy these at Polite Provisions - check out the tools selection in the cases at the back of the restaurant next time you stop in for a drink. You can also buy them online at our Store, or at Amazon.com

While we were talking bartending craft, Aaron and Frank shared a few of their favorite cocktails with us. Since we were trying out the new spoons behind their bar, we kept them stirred and boozy! While both bartenders love the single-piece, straight handled Aero Cocktail Spoon, Frank unapologetically stands behind the Wingman Spinning Cocktail Spoon as a workhorse for busy nights behind the bar :)

Want a spoon for yourself or to give as a gift this season? Polite Provisions is currently the ONLY place in San Diego to pick up these spoons in personHere's some stirred drink inspiration:


The Sorcerer's Apprentice Cocktail by Aaron Zieske - Photo by Shawn Michael

The Sorcerer's Apprentice

  • Dash of Dale Degroff's Pimento Bitters
  • Short 1/2 oz Nux Alpina Walnut Liqueur
  • 3/4 oz 15-year Oloroso Sherry
  • 1 oz Famous Grouse Blended Scotch Whiskey
  • 1 oz Balvenie Doublewood 12 year
  • Orange Twist Garnish
Frankie's   Old Fashioned  Cocktail - Photo by Shawn Michael

Frankie's Old Fashioned Cocktail - Photo by Shawn Michael

Frankie's Old Fashioned

  • 2 dashes black walnut bitters (a little goes a long way!)
  • 1/4 oz house-made vanilla gomme syrup (make some with vanilla beans added to this DIY recipe)
  • 2 oz Buffalo Trace bourbon
  • Lemon Peel Garnish
Jump the Gun  Cocktail - Photo by Shawn Michael

Jump the Gun Cocktail - Photo by Shawn Michael

Jump The Gun - The first cocktail Aaron ever created, circa 2007. On the menu at Ten-01 in Portland

  • 2 dashes peach bitters
  • 2 dashes absinthe
  • Short 1/2 oz house-made curaçao
  • 2 oz Sazerac Rye
  • Lemon Twist garnish
The Poet's Dream  Cocktail - Photo by Shawn Michael

The Poet's Dream Cocktail - Photo by Shawn Michael

The Poet's Dream - On the Polite Provisions Happy Hour Menu during the first year - the drink that got Frankie into gin cocktails.

  • 2 dashes orange bitters
  • 3/4 oz dry vermouth
  • 1/4 oz Benedictine
  • 2 oz London Dry Gin
  • Lemon Peel Garnish

Frank with the Wingman Cocktail Spoon - Photo by Shawn Michael

A Busy Little Bee...

It had been in the works for a while, and we were eager to see what drinks had made the cut. With 51 cocktails to choose from, The Lion's Share just released the largest cocktail menu in San Diego.  Touching all sorts of spirits and all ranges of complexity, the craft cocktail lounge & restaurant is opening its arms wide to all who imbibe--and after perusing the menu ourselves last week, we're pretty sure you'll find something to love.

Tye on Menu Concept and the BAR 5-Day Experience

Photo by Shawn Michael for Standard Spoon

Photo by Shawn Michael for Standard Spoon

The man behind the menu is The Lion's Share Bar Manager David Tye, who's been curating the collection for the past six months. He describes his intention for the menu was to hit the bell curve of cocktail tastes in San Diego. By providing many options, from easy, approachable flavors to more challenging, obscure spirits, anyone who walks in the door, whether beginning imbiber or seasoned bartender, should be able to orient to an area of the menu that speaks to their sensibilities.  

In the midst of putting the finishing touches on the menu, Tye attended the rigorous BAR 5-Day Certificate Program in New York in September. Not only did he have to wake up before 8 am for 5 days in a row (something he hasn't done in a decade), but  he faced 12-hour days of testing, tasting, and advanced memory recall that pushed his knowledge of distilled spirits and mixology to the limit. Working alongside some of the top bartenders, national brand ambassadors, and corporate mixologists in his class, and visiting some of the renowned high-end cocktail bars in the city gave him a refreshing perspective after the grueling hours of menu testing and creation in San Diego. 

Photo by Shawn Michael

Photo by Shawn Michael

Tye said the experience helped to eliminate some of the crushing weight of self-doubt he'd dealt with in the past, and he's much more comfortable taking criticism.  In fact, he observed that San Diego's bartending community is almost too nice and quick to complement. When a new cocktail is mediocre, he feels many peers shy away from offering honest feedback and constructive criticism. Sounds like he doesn't want manners to get in the way of the meat of the matter - so speak freely, my friends!

The "Kitchen Boss Lady" Cocktail is spritzed with coconut mist. Now doesn't that look like sunny southern California?

The "Kitchen Boss Lady" Cocktail is spritzed with coconut mist. Now doesn't that look like sunny southern California?

After returning from the BAR 5-Day, Tye reported he also felt more comfortable working with ingredients that he personally doesn't care for. Are you in love with Ancho Reyes? David can't stand it. But he can appreciate how to use it in cocktails for people who love that earthy, peppery spice. Two things you will NOT find on the new menu: Sherry Cocktails and Blue Curaçao. While Tye feels San Diego isn't really ready or interested in Sherry, he draws the line at blue drinks. In his opinion, San Diego should have a lot of light, refreshing drinks on menus - bring out the citrus, the ice, the tiki, and stuff with mint in it.  We have basically summer all year long, and a daiquiri or a margarita is appropriate for our warm climate.  But, in his words, "F*** Blue Curaçao."

Ok, it's a good point he makes about those refreshing cocktails. Cold, cement cities like New York should be stirring up dark boozy drinks all day, while we should be sipping something topped with a lime wedge when the weather warrants short sleeves. What else did David Tye bring back from his trip? An intense and immediate need to increase the efficiency of making drinks at the bar. After observing some of the high-end and high volume cocktail establishments in New York, he knew he needed to dial in the bar setup and work with staff on a new routine for building drinks.

Syrups at The Lions Share Bar and Restaurant in San Diego. Photo by Shawn Michael of Standard Spoon

We were curious not only why the menu was so large, but how the bar is able to navigate making all of those offerings, which require 115 unique ingredients (and a bit more memory recall!). Bar modifications included making more room for syrups, a meticulous color-coding and labeling system, and a bit of re-organization to set up a circular flow around each bartender's station. Bartenders build cocktails first by starting on the upper right with bitters and fruit, moving to the left where the syrups are lined up, and then down into the well for citrus, spirits, and liqueurs.  While a few cocktails have some pre-batched components, surprisingly few of them have much make-ahead preparation.  

OK, so tell us about the MENU already!

Alright, alright! Technically the menu consists of 49 permanent drinks. Number 50 is the revolving Homegrown Cocktail, a monthly featured recipe by a local bartender (benefits to charity too!), and 51 is Dealer's Choice.  Not quite enough? Don't forget the $6 Happy Hour menu, a 12-drink list available from 4-6 pm which includes 6 classic cocktails not listed in the master grid. These guys have been busy.

"Mr Gnome It All" features locally distilled Old Harbor Gin. The strong cilantro notes in the gin pair well with the basil, lime and, of course, the green bell pepper cup (eating your cocktail vessel is encouraged here). Photo by Shawn Michael

"Mr Gnome It All" features locally distilled Old Harbor Gin. The strong cilantro notes in the gin pair well with the basil, lime and, of course, the green bell pepper cup (eating your cocktail vessel is encouraged here). Photo by Shawn Michael

The 49 featured drinks on the main menu are laid out in a 7 x 7 grid, so you can scan and select a column that appeals to you: whiskey, juniper, agave, tiki, fruit/grape, grain/sparkling, and more whiskey. The seven rows in the grid help a guest navigate through the menu by categorizing the drinks into 4 categories: House Favorites, 28 original Lion's Share recipes that make up the bulk of the menu, Classics, where you'll find the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club (a tropical drink that pre-dates tiki!), Safe Bets with easy, approachable flavors (your French 75 and Pisco Sour are here),  and the Research & Development menu, which highlights cocktails with more complex flavor profiles or that use obscure spirits and liqueurs, such as the coffee & cigarettes rum from New Zealand used in the "Hell of a Morning" cocktail. 

The "Yucatan" Cocktail is topped with a bit o' bubbly. Photo by Shawn Michael

The "Yucatan" Cocktail is topped with a bit o' bubbly. Photo by Shawn Michael

Many of the cherished cocktails of The Lion's Share loyal patrons made the crossover to the new menu, including the all-time favorites Federal Buffalo Stamp (bourbon, lemon, ginger, maple syrup) and St. Elizabeth Sexy Party (bourbon, cinnamon, allspice, chocolate bitters), which occupy the coveted No. 1 and No. 2 spots in the book.  David Tye's personal favorite at the moment is the Blank Shooter, which started out as a daiquiri variation, evoking a porch hangout in the humid south, with a refreshing tipple of peach and mint to make the afternoon pass more pleasantly. 

Live within a day's drive of San Diego?  We highly recommend taking this menu for a spin in person.  If you've got to book a flight and bide your time, dream and drool a little over the full menu at www.lionssharesd.com, and in the meantime consider mixing up one of these menu favorites:

Yucatan: 1 oz Guanabana liqueur, 3/4 oz orange juice, 1/2 oz lime juice, plum bitters, shaken and strained into a chilled coupe glass and topped with champagne.

"The Blank Shooter"

"The Blank Shooter"

The Blank Shooter: 2 oz Rittenhouse Rye, 1 oz lemon, 3/8 oz cinnamon syrup, 3/8 oz honey syrup, 1/4 oz fernet branca, peach bitters. Serve in a chilled coupe glass with a lemon peel garnish.

"Mr Gnome it All"

"Mr Gnome it All"

Mr Gnome It All: 2 oz Old Harbor gin, 1 oz lime, 3/4 oz simple syrup, 3 basil leaves, shaken and strained into a green bell pepper vessel, and garnished with the best basil leaf you can find. 

"Kitchen Boss Lady"

"Kitchen Boss Lady"

Kitchen Boss Lady: 2 oz tequila, 1/2 oz kiwi puree, 1/2 oz banana liqueur, 1/2 oz lime juice, 1/2 oz agave, shaken and strained into an old fashioned glass. Mist with Kalani coconut liqueur and garnish with a lime wedge.

"Cannon-Rider". Photo by Shawn Michael

"Cannon-Rider". Photo by Shawn Michael

Cannon-Rider: 2 oz Goslings Black Seal rum, 4 whole raspberries, 3/4 oz lime juice, 3/4 oz cinnamon syrup, 3 dashes absinthe, 2 dashes angostura bitters. Muddle & mix & serve in a chilled coupe glass with a lime wedge garnish.

Looking to up your drink-making game? Check out our pair of super high quality bar spoons. The AERO is a solid, seamless, straight handled bar spoon that will last a lifetime. The WINGMAN is the only spinning barspoon on the market, sometimes a little TOO fun to use... Buy online now at the Standard Spoon Store.

And... thinky pains... article end done. XOXO Rachel Eva & Shawn Michael.

All photos taken by Shawn Michael for Standard Spoon