Running a bar of their own was an enduring goal for Jenna and Randy Elskamp. Both veterans of the local bar community, Randy was a fixture at Cantina Mayahuel, and Jenna the longtime bartender and manager at the Hopping Pig.
Last December, the couple had the opportunity to take over the Gaslamp gastropub, turning the Fifth Avenue tavern into Métl Bar & Restaurant, their ideal neighborhood hangout. Designed to be a haven from downtown nightclubs and tourist traps, it described itself as “not too fancy, not too divey, and little bit rock and roll.” The drinks included craft cocktails contributed by their fellow bartender friends and the menu of burgers, tacos, appetizers, and salads featured family recipes. Live bands played on site several nights a week.
Just a few months later, the COVID-19 pandemic hit with full force, and San Diego County shut down on-site dining in mid-March. The bar stayed open, going into takeout mode and implementing a free meal program for the unemployed that has donated thousands of meals in recent months with support from some of the liquor brands it works with. When a rep from one of those liquor brands dropped off a batch of free eight-ounce paper cups, an idea sparked: they were the perfect size to fill with ice cream and, with plenty of spirits on hand, might as well put booze in it. Ice cream-making had always been a hobby for the couple: they’d had a mezcal-infused peanut butter ice cream on the menu since Métl’s opening, and Jenna had once created a Fernet ice cream to enter into cocktail competition. But she began to make boozy ice cream in earnest in May, mostly as a creative outlet to distract from the tenuous circumstances.
Based with an eggy custard (the dairy-free version uses homemade cashew milk), which helps mellow the flavor of the alcohol, the ice cream is made in small batches in the bar’s kitchen in a process that takes two days from start to finish. Each eight ounce serving contains about two ounces of booze; not enough to get you drunk, though some have undoubtedly tried. By summer, the menu had grown to offer 32 different flavors; Elskamp creates her ice cream concoctions by riffing on popular drinks — the White Russian and the Mudslide are two bestsellers — and uses alcohol to boost traditional flavors, like a Cointreau-infused creamsicle or strawberry cheesecake spiked with gin and strawberry liqueur.
Though some well-known brands, including Salt & Straw and Jeni’s Ice Cream, occasionally release seasonal flavors with alcohol, Elskamp says that Brooklyn’s Tipsy Scoop, sold online and at retailers like Whole Foods Market, is one of the only companies that focuses solely on boozy ice cream. It’s a sector of the national market she hopes to join.
What began as a diversion has turned into a robust revenue channel, with boozy ice cream sales accounting for at least 25 to 30 percent of the bar’s total business. Now dubbed Métl Cocktail Creamery, the line has expanded from its original ice cream pints to include custom ice cream cakes, sundaes, ice cream sandwiches, and even push pops; Elskamp loved the handheld treats as a kid, and their smaller size enables customers to taste multiple flavors since samples are currently restricted.
Though she says she’d like to add more catering and wholesale clients, and has been approached by investors, Elskamp says taking the creamery to the next level is all about time, or lack of it. The bar is getting by with expanded outdoor dining and what indoor capacity they can manage, but with a reduced kitchen staff she’s now cooking on the line four nights a week. With all the wrenching blows the bar industry has taken lately, Elskamp and her husband may decide to give up the bar life they dreamed of to concentrate instead on ice cream full time. “If I only have to make ice cream and do nothing else, I would be very happy,” she said.
They also hope to open a dedicated location, maybe in North Park, that would be both a production hub and retail store for Métl Cocktail Creamery. Since the future of traditional bars is so uncertain, maybe a boozy ice cream parlor is just what San Diego needs: sweet comfort with a dose of something stronger.