Eater recently caught up with Polite Provisions' proprietor and resident cocktail guru, Erick Castro to talk cocktails. A former spirits brand ambassador, Castro was an alum of several notable San Francisco bars before he partnered up with CH Projects to open Polite in February 2013, which was was just honored by Imbibe Magazine as Cocktail Bar of the Year.
Now that the bar's been open for a year, what are some of the big differences you've noticed about the cocktail culture in San Diego versus San Francisco?
One of the things about Southern California is the driving factor; public transportation is difficult. In San Francisco and New York, you can have as many drinks as you want and hit up bars all around town. But I feel in San Diego, we've turned that into our benefit; if you're only going to go out for a couple cocktails, people are going to make sure that they're really good ones. People might be drinking less, but they're drinking better.
What are some things that San Diego bars do better?
I think the youth culture is more pervasive than in other cities; on a Friday night, there's young college kids in here drinking sazeracs and classic cocktails. You don't really see that in other cities; the crowd at cocktail bars in other, really advanced markets is usually more on the older side. I feel like in San Diego, things are more casual and everyone hangs out everyone. That's the part that I think San Diego does that better than anyplace else. Our cocktail bars look like San Diego; they don't look like an advertising demographic or a targeted market, they look like the city.
When you opened, were there specific things you wanted to introduce to San Diego?
When I was a brand ambassador and traveling for two years, I was going to 20 cocktail bars a week and I took notes the entire time. I didn't want to compete with the San Diego bar down the street, I wanted to compete with the best bars in Europe and America.
Do you think San Diegans have particular tastes?
The cocktail scene here owes a large debt to the beer scene. Brewers have been making incredible beer here for 15 years; they're been training palates, getting people to try IPAs, sours and more esoteric beers, so people are more receptive to all kinds flavors. Because of that, I feel like people are very receptive and open-minded to trying different cocktails. In a lot of cities, you have to do training wheels on people but I feel like in San Diego, you can just skip that entirely and not coddle them.
Are people are more open beverage-wise than food-wise?
There are definitely some incredible restaurants in San Diego; I'm a really big fan of Bankers Hill and Prepkitchen, but the food scene in general isn't nearly advanced as the beer scene or the cocktail scene.
Where's the spirit trend going next?
San Diego's still a whiskey and tequila town. We sell a lot of gin but not a wide variety; I'm hoping that gin will get more popular here.
I think the guys at Ballast Point are blazing trails right now. If there's any trend that I hope takes more of a foothold in San Diego, it's more emphasis on local spirits. And I do see that happening.
Is there anything you wish people here would be more open to?
Something that's already taken hold in places like San Francisco or in Europe is lower ABV cocktails. I really like the idea of day drinking; nobody really gets drunk, you have a couple of lower alcohol cocktails but you're still sober enough to go back to work. We sell a pretty fair amount of Aperol and sherry cocktails, but I wish people would be open to it more. But I have faith that it's going to take off over time because session beers are becoming more popular.
Which other local bartenders are driving the scene forward?
I think Eric Johnson at Sycamore Den is great and Anthony Schmidt makes incredible cocktails. He's someone who I'm always learning from. What Christian Siglin is doing at Bankers Hill is really important and I think he's raising the stakes for other restaurants in town.
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