I am... Erik Ellestad

Words by: Ian Cameron
Pictures by: Alys Tomlinson

15:31 GMT // 5 Feb 2013

Erik Ellestad works in IT in San Francisco but has successfully turned a blog about the Savoy Cocktail Book into a second job as a bartender at Heaven's Dog in SoMa. He has just completed a five-year project making and documenting all the recipes in the book and has something of the inside track on Harry Craddock.

I started getting into cocktails in the early 1990s. I started initially by buying a lot of books and reading them, then I began contributing to various online forums, and ended up as the host of the eGullet spirits and cocktails forum. At that point although I had read a lot of cocktail recipes I hadn't made a lot and short of getting a job I thought that making a bunch of recipes from a book would be one way to familiarise myself with the flavour palate.

My next step was to pick a book to work through. I owned a varied selection including The Old Waldorf Astoria Bar Book and the Stork Club Bar Book. Jerry Thomas seemed too hard; Charles Baker, the recipes weren't very good, which is a little ironic as the bar that I work in - Heaven's Dog - bases most on heavily adapted classics from it. With the Savoy Cocktail Book it seemed like there weren't too many ingredients I didn't know and it was easy to read. I think I probably just bought it on Amazon, not an original version, but a Peter Dorelli update.

I've no idea how much time I've devoted to this project. I started with the Abbey Cocktail in June of 2006, and I finished the cocktails and drinks last November. I've usually made drinks in the kitchen, I don't have a home bar or anything. My drinks collection is mostly in the garage. I would come home from work, put together the ingredients for cocktail, set up a shot, make the drink, shoot it and write down the notes, maybe five times a week. I still have the punches and cups to go, but I haven't come across idea for way to tackle them, maybe an event at a bar or punch week. And I think some might be bad. We do monthly Savoy nights at Alembic too so it's still taking up my time.

In terms of what I think are the best and worst drinks in the book, I find the gin drinks that are more subtle are the most appealing. I still really like the ATTY Cocktail, a Martini with absinthe and violette, but not much of each. Some of those are really outstanding. I like the English Rose and the Inca, some of the more aperitivo/half-vermouth cocktails with less base spirits. I really like those before dinner. The Snowball is pretty abysmal, equal parts gin, violette, anisette and cream, shaken. Some are salvageable: I mean instead of adding cream, float it?

To me there's not much of Harry Craddock in the book. I wonder whether the book even came from his index cards. There's the quote at the beginning but I wonder are the other pithy comments actually his, or some cocktail editor? Almost all the recipes in the book are from other sources - we've identified at least four: Jerry Thomas, Harry McElhone, Robert Vermeer, Hugo Ensslin, where recipes appear more or less verbatim. It certainly wasn't edited very carefully. Compared to other sources, it gets things wrong or leaves out garnishes, there are typos. However, I still think it was a good choice as it summarises cocktail culture up to Prohibition, and also includes recipes from what happened in the U.K. and in other places in Europe.

Working through a book like this really helps you understand cocktail culture. If you want to do something professionally you should have a basic understanding of what's gone on before you. The cocktails I created before I started were far more influenced by culinary traditions and my earlier experiences as a chef. They weren't amazing though some were pretty tasty - there was a Mojito Sorbet and a Blood Orange Old Fashioned.

Having finished making all the drinks in the book, and with Anistatia Miller having discovered Harry Craddock's grave, it felt like a proper culmination of many years work. It was really touching to see the other bartenders give tributes to him and express their admiration. If you look at his career, in terms of starting the U.K.B.G. and the number of bartenders he influenced at Savoy and other places then it's obvious why there's such devotion.

I think Erik Lorincz and the current bar team have reinvigorated the whole cocktail enterprise at the American Bar at the Savoy. I was there before they remodelled the hotel and to be honest it felt like it wasn't a bar I would go to, very upscale and stiff. I think they have loosened it up a bit now. I would still really like to meet Joe Gilmore, a real Harry Craddock protégé and to interview all the other surviving Savoy bartenders.

Working through this project has changed my life. Initially I thought I was going to work full time in the bar. It's the closest thing to being a rock star and it's a lot more fun than sitting in an office all day. I do three nights a week and I'd definitely like to spend more time working in bars as a late-in-life career - and working in IT has an expiration date, after all. But I'm 48 now and I don't want to go without health insurance.

I remember my first shift and it was pretty terrifying. I'd memorised the cocktails and made them all at home, but of course what I know now is how little that is part of the job. More important is talking to people, making change, setting up the bar well, cleaning up. But I think that I'll maybe always feel half in and half out of the industry. I don't have aspirations to be a bar manager or a brand ambassador, plus I'm older and married.

One of the most satisfying things about my Savoy project is getting praise and validation from people like Dave Wondrich and Dale DeGroff, that it's really cool how my little obsession is an accomplishment. One thing Dave complimented me on was the way I included the original and the modifications I had done rather than just publish the new take. He does that now.

My wife's been encouraging me to write a book but the whole Julie and Julia thing doesn't really appeal. One that's kind of interesting is a classic cocktail companion about interpreting classic and anecdotes from the research. If I was to do a similar project again, I'd pick a shorter book.


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