A Drink With… Erick Castro, Polite Provisions

12th April, 2013 by Becky Paskin

Erick Castro is head bartender and proprietor of the new Polite Provisions cocktail bar in San Diego. He tells Becky Paskin why the 19th century soda fountain is starting its renaissance and why fame is “a load of hooey”.

Erick-Castro Polite Provisions

Erick Castro, head bartender/proprietor of Polite Provisions

Why model a bar after a 19th century pharmacy Erick?
The town pharmacist used to be a jack of all trades. They rectified alcohol, they made medicine, paint, beauty products, and pretty much everything that had to do with chemicals. One of the things they also made back then was soda pop. America hasn’t contributed that much to the culinary world really, but two things we can claim to have created the culture for at least is soda pop, and cocktails.

So soda pop in the 1800s must have been a popular drink to recreate it now?
Actually it wasn’t necessarily the crisp, refreshing drink as we are used to now. Back then they all had medicinal properties. People were really suspicious of pills so in order to trick them into taking medicine they would make carbonated beverages with all the medicine they needed in the actual drink. Tonic water is a perfect example. No-one wanted to take quinine on its own so in order to get people to take it they had to make a pop out of it. The same with 7Up – it used to contain lithium hence the ‘up’ part of its name.

They don’t sound too appealing for today’s consumers. How have you modernised the drink?
Not all our drinks are medicinal but we do make a lot of our own soda pops from scratch inspired by the traditional flavours. Instead of doing a cola or lemon-lime soda you can buy from any store, we decided to go back and find a lot of these lost ingredients and make sodas using esoteric flavouring agents. I make a soda pop and put it in a five-gallon keg with a whole bunch of liquor, then hook it up to CO2 for a couple of days. When I pour it off it comes out like a fizzy alcoholic soda. They’re really tasty. We have a rose petal soda pop that I’ve blended with a Beefeater gin infused with strawberries, which is one of my top sellers. We wanted to revitalise the marriage between spirits and soda pop and we feel like the highball is a perfect way to showcase what we do.

So are your soda pops better than something PepsiCo and Coca-Cola can create?
The state of soda pop in this country is absolute garbage. You’re getting high fructose corn syrup mixed with fizzy water and they’re charging you for it. It’s nice to be able to go back and revitalise aspects of the culinary world that normally gets short thrift and actually do it properly.

You must have to do a lot of research to get inspiration for your drinks?
I feel like myself and a lot of other bartenders are like time travellers. We go and immerse ourselves in the old books from the 1800s, kind of get lost in them and come back with all these different techniques and recipes. It’s the closest I’ll probably get to travelling through time.

You have a lot of non-alcoholic drinks on your menu too. Do you place as much importance on those as your cocktails?
Every bar should have several non-alcoholic options, it’s not only responsible but everybody, for some reason at some stage of their life, cant drink, whether it’s medical problems, medication, school or work business, even pregnancy. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t put just as much care into a non-alcoholic drink as we do a regular cocktail – especially in Southern California where everybody drives. If you don’t have a wide variety of non-alcoholic drinks on your menu you’re doing your clientele a disservice.

One unique aspect of Polite Provisions that sets you apart from your peers is this bartender’s/chef’s table. What exactly is it?
We wanted a community table where brand ambassadors can come in and do training and teachings during the week but on weekends we can have guest bartenders come and showcase what they are doing and drinks they are working on. Like a sushi chef they can mix something bespoke and have a conversation with the customer. It’s worked out really well so far.

Guest bartenders? Would you say they are becoming as famous as chefs these days?
I’m sceptical of the celebrity chef and bartender thing; it’s a bunch of hooey. Celebrities get a big head and ego but they need to remember that they are in the customer service industry and here for the guest. They are here to provide hospitality, not to have people stroke our egos for us. We are here for the guest; the guest is not here for us. As long as people keep that in mind I don’t mind the various degrees of fame people achieve, more power to them. But as soon as they start to forget that, they need to go back and retrace where they came from.

What’s the best thing about San Diego’s cocktail scene right now?
My favourite thing is that it’s not jaded or corrupted like in some markets. Sometimes it’s gone past the tipping point when you get tons of people who aren’t really into cocktails or have any love for it, and are just trying to make money. Everyone just wants to be a brand ambassador or be on TV and that to me is silly. They aren’t even driven to make the drinks anymore; they’re driven to get their face in the paper. It’s a big enough market where we get a good influx of cash and support, but small enough that we can do our own thing without being bothered. Everyone here is doing for the love of cocktails and takes pride in making good drinks.

What’s your favourite cocktail to make?
One of the drinks I’m happiest to make is an Old Fashioned. To me it’s such a beautiful drink – it’s so complex in its simplicity that I’m always really proud to make one for somebody. The simpler the cocktail, the easier it is to mess up because there’s no room for error. If you’re making a drink with 10 different ingredients, sometimes one ingredient can mask a mistake you make with another, but with something like an Old Fashioned, if you mess it up by over diluting it, making it too sweet or too alcoholic, the whole drink falls apart.

And your favourite to drink?
I drink a lot of Negronis. I like a Plymouth Negroni, on the rocks with an orange slice.

Leave a Reply

Subscribe to our newsletter