Brian MacGregor learned the art of hospitality at a very young age from his father, a career bartender in his childhood home of Milwaukee, WI. And like so many in the food service industry, MacGregor started out washing dishes his freshmen year of college at Ciati’s
in St. Cloudd, MN.
Since making the move to San Francisco and a career behind the bar, MacGregor has honed his craft with the help of some of the Bay Area’s top mixologists. He first worked under Jeff Hollinger and Jonny Raglin at Absinthe
. He credits his evolution from a bartender to a mixologist when he started working behind the bar at Absinthe
and fiddling with some of the old cocktail books. Soon, what began as an interesting exercise for MacGregor to learn the classics turned into a career obsession and deep-seated mixology philosophy.
, MacGregor worked with Thad Vogler, who was designing the cocktail list at Traci DesJardins’ Jardinière
when MacGregor started in 2007. Since taking over as Jardinièr
e’s bar manager two years ago, MacGregor has been building an extensive collection of rare and fine spirits and using them to create a varied and classically-inspired cocktail list.
“We should constantly be challenging ourselves to produce a better drink,” he says. MacGregor, always on the hunt for obscure classics and even more archaic spirits, likes to push the mixology envelop—and his customers’ tastes—by blending ingredients like Scotch, chamomile liquor, and Peruvian bitters, as in his Scorching Banshee.
Interview with Mixologist Brian MacGregor of Jardinière – San Francisco, CA
Katherine Martinelli: What drew you to restaurants and, in particular, to mixology?
Brian MacGregor: I’m a second-generation bartender. My dad was [a bartender] for 25 years, so I had the draw of the restaurant, because I grew up around it. A couple of years ago when working at Absinthe,I started working behind the bar. I would go through three old cocktail books and every shift, pick out three cocktails to make, and started learning. Two years ago I started creating non-stop, to find new products, and to try to use interesting product. When I started at Jardinière there was a ton of bizarre stuff that the bar managers brought in over 13 years. That's how I got into using random products, like Malollo-infused grappa—and I was like what do you do with that? So that’s how the whole thing happened.
KM: Where have you worked as a mixologist?
BM: I bartended other places, but nothing on the creative side until Absinthe and Jardinière.
KM: Who are your mentors? What have you learned from them?
BM: Jeff Hollinger is definitely someone who over the course of the years has been a mentor to me and very good friend. Thad Vogler, too—I only worked with him for a few months but he taught me a lot.
KM: What is your philosophy on mixology?
BM: In general bartenders and mixologists, we should be producing stuff that is drinkable and we’re going to like. When I’m creating cocktails, just because I like it, it doesn’t mean everyone else is going to like it. Try to make those drinks for the masses. Make a drink you can serve to 100 people 100 times and hopefully 95% of them will like it. If someone doesn’t like anise they won’t like absinthe and that’s okay, but drinks should be well-liked. That comes from a customer service point of view, but other than making a well-balanced drink, it’s about making something that can appeal to a lot of people.
We, as mixologists, also need to keep pushing forward and make stuff tricky but delicious at the same time. I think that’s really important. There’s nothing more frustrating than going to a bar that has a mojito or cosmopolitan. That’s too easy; we should constantly be challenging ourselves to produce a better drink.
KM: What goes into creating a new cocktail? What inspires you?
BM: A lot of times it’s just dumb luck. Either I’ll try a new gin or new whiskey and say “that’s interesting,” then stop thinking about it for couple of days. You have a Eureka moment. When those moments happen, it’s great. Other times you could spend five to seven weeks, three or four days, five shifts, whatever, tweaking or perfecting it to find that right balance of flavors, that isn’t too sweet, too sour, too bitter, when it hits your palate; it encompasses the whole tongue. New products that are fun and interesting [inspire me]. Whatever contest you’re entering, that’s always a way to push yourself, you want to be the winner. I’m not a big farmers’ market guy. I love going to farmers’ markets, but in cocktails it’s not something I’ve turned to. Brooke [Arthur] over at Range, her farmers’ market stuff is some of the best in the city, it’s just not my style.
KM: What is your favorite cocktail to drink and to make?
BM: It changes with the seasons. Right now the Tradewinds over at Smuggler’s Cove is hands down my favorite drink now. It’s dark rum, light rum, apricot liqueur, coconut cream, and lime juice, I think. It’s served long in a tall Chimney-style [Collins] glass. Super refreshing, not too sweet, great complexity, it’s just awesome. It’s an old drink from a Jamaican resort in the ‘70s.
My favorite to make? I really like making a Sierra because the way I build it and make it is always a conversation starter. It takes a little longer to make, but the effort to produce it pays off. To start, fill a low-ball with ice. Take a bar spoon of absinthe, and chill it down. Take a demitasse spoon of sugar, angostura bitters, and rye whiskey, and whip it up for 30 seconds. Then you add the ice, and the aromatics release. People are smelling the aromatics and they like it if they like absinthe. It’s a big conversation over one little drink. Then you add ice and stir for a chilled cocktail with a long piece of lemon zest. It takes minute and a half to do, and people really appreciate the effort that goes into it. That, or a shot and a beer, because it’s so easy.
KM: What ingredient do you feel is under appreciated or underutilized?
BM: Eau de vie, Framboise, stuff like that. You rarely see those in cocktails—they’re such cool spirits and bring out a lot of other flavors in other [cocktail components]. In my experience, you don’t see a lot of that. I think eau de vie is totally underutilized. The general public still isn’t educated on what they are, and any time you have that, it’s tougher to put on your menu.
KM: How are you involved in your local culinary and mixology community?
BM: Definitely more at the local level. Any time there’s an event at farmers’ market, I’m always involved with it. I try to make myself available for self-promotion and for the promotion of Jardinière.
I found out recently that younger bartenders look up to me—it’s really weird. I’m 30. A couple of weeks ago, this kid told me he respects what I say. I think I’ve come into maybe a little bit of a teaching or mentor role. Daniel Hyatt, Erick Castro, Brooke Arthur, all draw that same kind of respect from other bartenders. That’s something I didn’t see two years ago. It comes with doing a lot of local events. Running a bar like Jardinière, I think I’m well-liked, I’m safe with that statement.
KM: What is the cocktail clientele like at Jardinière?
BM: We’d like it to be people coming just for the bar. Thad [Vogler] took over the program three years ago and I took it over two years ago now and it was never seen as a place to get a cocktail. Absinthe was always the place. A buzz went out that we were a place to get a drink, but all of these other cocktail bars have opened up since. It’s not at the top of peoples’ lists, but you can get a drink as good as anywhere else in the city. We’ve started seeing more people coming in for the bar, and drinks specifically. A lot of it is our regulars who go to the opera or ballet. Seventy-five percent of [our customers are] people drinking at the bar. It’s great when we get some young kids in who are cocktail-driven young folks or just [here] to have a good time, next to the old guys in tuxes, next to the musicians—those are the coolest nights at Jardinière. It makes it fun. It gets more people talking. You get a small sense of community and that’s really cool.
KM: What does success mean for you? What will it look like for you?
BM: I’ll probably be running my own bar, I’d imagine. My girlfriend owns a bar nowwe’ve talked about opening one together. That’s what I envision, a couple years from now. Opening is a potential somewhere in the city, and having a good time with it.