A good friend used to live just a few blocks from the Hotsy Totsy, and I wandered in on evening when I was just looking for a beer. With one glance behind the bar I knew I was not going to be ordering a beer! The Hotsy Totsy Club is the oldest bar in its town (Albany California) and has been making a name for itself as a serious contender in the Bay Area’s craft cocktail scene.
So last week when I had the opportunity to interview the owner, Jessica Maria, I was really excited to pick her brain on cocktails, the Hotsy Totsy itself, and her tips for up-and-coming bartenders who want to start designing their own drinks.
Check out the video, or read the interview text below!
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So we’re here with Jessica Maria at the Hotsy Totsy, one of my favorite bars in the Bay Area. It’s in Albany, California. I remember the first time I came I here- I was just coming in for a beer and I started looking around at the back bar and I realized I was in a different place. I was in a place where people really cared about the cocktails and operated at a very high level. Then when I saw their cocktail book, I realized that this was a very special place. So I’m very happy to be here with Jessica Maria to share some of her experiences and tell us about the bar program here.
So as I said, this one of my favorite bars in the Bay Area here and it’s because they really take care of what they do and the cocktails they make. So Jessica, maybe you can tell us a little about the history of the place and kind of what you guys do for your bar program here.
Jessica: Sure. Hotsy Totsy is coming up on its 75th year anniversary—
In a town that’s only a hundred years old that’s pretty noteworthy. In the twenty years prior to the purchasing the bar, it had kind of a shady past. People are afraid of putting their heads through the door for fear of what they might find inside. So we knew what we had was just a neighborhood bar and we wanted to embrace that and give the community something that it was lacking.
And to try to be a hip, “higher than thou” style bar would have been a folly on our part. It’s not going to work. We’re not in Oakland or Brooklyn. So what we wanted to do is create a cocktail program that was non-intimidating and also build a repertoire with the new guests coming in. Having them trust us and taking them slowly on that journey from being a vodka-soda drinker to then trying one of our house cocktails and then drinking gin classics and now appreciating the craft. I’m really proud of being able to do that.
I’ve called myself kind of a “gateway” cocktail bar and I think that’s what we are and I’m happy to be that. You know, I may never be one of those highfaluting cocktail destination bars that are lauded by Condé Nast, but I’ll be damned if you find a better and more thoughtful cocktail program.
I couldn’t agree with you more. Have you noticed transition from your customers? Are they starting to appreciate it and be more educated in cocktails?
Absolutely. It’s like you were saying earlier on. You came in for a beer and was surprised by what we have on this back bar. That happens every day because this place has such a history. People are like “I have been driving by here for so long, I finally decided to poke my head in and… I had no idea!” And we’ve gotten such a great, loyal following because people feel like we were their first in a lot of ways. So we’ve begun such a strong loyalty to that. People are always praising myself and my amazing staff for being able to be the first to turn them on to craft cocktails. Now they go to different bars and they’re like, “How long’s that Vermouth been on the shelf? That should be refrigerated.”
Chris: Well, that’s a huge step. Congratulations. That’s huge!
So your resume reads like a bartender’s bucket list. It’s pretty cool. You’ve worked at some of the best music venues in San Francisco, the Fillmore and the Warfield. You were a bar owner in Thailand which is just absolutely amazing. And now you’re co-owner of one of the best bars in the Bay Area here, the Hotsy Totsy. Can you share with us one of the best experiences you’ve had in the industry over the years?
Jessica: Well, having been in this industry for 25 years—
Chris: Holy cow!
I know! (I started young. I’m not that old.) I’m 65! (kidding!) Eighteen of them having been behind the bar. I’ve had lots of great experiences and it’s hard to just pick one out of that. You know, I’ve met great people along the way. And I’d have to say, for me, it is the creative process when you open and own a bar. You can’t just jam a great idea into a space and think that it’s going to work; you can’t just be a great bartender that makes great cocktails and expect people to show up day after day.
So it’s walking into a space and the excitement and the creative juices that start flowing from me. What does this space need? What does this neighborhood need? Having owned two bars—one in Thailand and now this one here in Albany—are vastly different concepts. What I’m doing here will never work there and vice versa.
So, I think, for me, it’s getting in, finding those little touches, what music are you going to play? What’s the lighting going to be like? These are things that are so important but so often overlooked in this industry. And it’s one of those things that I take pride in. You’re grooving at the bar for a really long time, until like six or seven songs later, you’re like, “Where is this music coming from?” That’s really important to me: that I have complete control over what everybody is getting. You know, not just what you’re imbibing, but what you’re seeing, what you’re hearing. It’s all part of the experience.
Chris: Absolutely. So you’re creating that big picture of experience, the identity of your bar.
Chris: Absolutely. It’s one of the harder things to understand.—
It is. And I think people do make mistakes- a lot times they will have a great concept for a bar and they make the mistake of just trying to put that into wherever they can get in. And I think that’s the reason why some bars fail, because you can’t dictate what the crowd wants. You can guide them but you have to be open to what’s needed.
Chris: Sure, absolutely.
One of the things that I think people would really like to know (and some of the questions I’ve been getting from a lot of new bartenders) is, is there a particular creative process that you have in place whenever you design a new cocktail menu or new cocktails?
Nothing specific. A lot of times, I’ll have a name that I like and then I’ll create a cocktail around a name. Sometimes there’s just a bottle behind the bar collecting dust and I take that as a challenge—
Like, “I will move this product.” So you know I’ll start with a base spirit or even a modifying spirit. But I think it’s important to have the blueprint of all the classics. You have to know what ratios work in a cocktail. Is it going to be a 3-2-1? Also knowing what things taste like. So if I’m working with a hot rye – how am I going to balance that out? How am I going to incorporate water or sweetness or fire? So, the process is really just having a starting point and then building from there.
For me, I don’t like to have a final product in mind, like, “I want this to taste like ‘flowers!’” I try to let the cocktail direct itself. And so I’ll usually make six, sometimes I get it right the first time, but it’s not often. But I think the more you practice, and play around with ingredients and you’re always kind of tasting things on their own, your palate kind of tells you “I’m just kind of going to need this much Benedictine” as opposed to “that much Benedictine,” because of what that is going to bring to the other spirits that are going into this glass.
Absolutely, yeah. And I think one of the most important things for any bartender in general—correct me if I’m wrong— is just tasting as much product as you can. Not only one sitting, obviously! Just developing that mental catalog about what things taste like, how they interact with other spirits, and how to substitute out ingredients for other ingredients. Because I think that is something that comes from experience and dedication.
Absolutely. A lot of times beginners can, instead of just using whiskey or rye in their Manhattan, make a Manhattan with rum, or make it with Pisco, or something that you wouldn’t necessarily think of and see what happens. And then you might taste it and say like, “Oh, you know, if I put a little bit green Chartreuse in here, I’ve got a great cocktail!” And you just did something based that blueprint of a Manhattan.
Of course, yeah. So do you have a favorite cocktail ingredient either spirit or otherwise that you like incorporating in drinks right now?
Jessica: Sure. Gin. Next question!
Excellent. Well actually, on that note, what kind of gin? I mean, there’s been a huge movement in the market now with gin and we’re seeing a lot of new gins out. And a lot of old ones are coming back. Now if someone told me that the Tanqueray Malacca (which I’d never even heard of before, from back in 90s? 80s or 90s?) was coming back…
Jessica: It is, yeah—
So, with that being said, is there a particular style or particular brand of gin that you’re really super excited about right now?
I get super excited about gin and I’m so happy that we are in a place we are now. I have 49 and a half gins. (I say half because I’ve got Sage up there and that’s not really gin) — But that’s what I do like about gins is because there’s so much variety.
It’s getting to know each gin on their own which is a lot of fun. And then creating cocktails with them, because each gin brings something completely different to a cocktail.
So, in making one of my house cocktails that might have a light, sweet gin and then I take that out and replace it with a London Dry or a Plymouth style gin- Completely different cocktail. So that’s why I just said “gin.”
Chris: Right. Do you have a specific gin that you find just absolutely amazing?
I think my desert island gin, like, if “I could only have one gin for the rest of my life,” it would probably be Plymouth.
Chris: I couldn’t agree with you more. It’s so good.
So you recently competed in La Diablada Pisco’s “Become Shaman” drink creation contest and you actually won in the Bay Area here which is no easy feat, considering that there are some amazingly talented mixologists and drink creators here. From there you went on to Peru competing against some of the best bartenders in the country. Can you tell us a little about that experience and some of the things that you have learned along the way?
Sure! You know, anytime you do a competition, it’s nerve-wracking. We had the added twist of having to incorporate Quinoa into our competition cocktail—
Chris: The grain.—
Jessica: The grain. And we had a week to figure that out.
Chris: No pressure.
Yeah, no pressure! And I was up against destination bars: The Aviary in Chicago and Nomad in New York City, the Spare Room at the Roosevelt in LA. And I was shaking in my boots. This is stiff competition!
But what I found was a very talented group of mixologists that are truly versed in hospitality. People lending tools, offering suggestions, helping you set up and break down your station before and after the competition, translating for those of us that didn’t speak Spanish. Just a great bunch of people. And I’m so honored to have been a part of that. It just really took the edge right off. I think we all also knew what we already won. We were here, we were in Peru together having this great experience. And so to treat each other with other, in any other way, it’s silly.
Chris: Absolutely. Very cool.
Jessica: It was a great experience.
So our audience is made up of bartenders that are trying to make that leap from bartending to more drink creation, bar managers, and lead bartenders. So is there any advice you would somebody working their way through the industry to help them make the leap?
So first and foremost, be the best bartender that you can be. When I hire new employees here I always look for a bartender over a mixologist. I can teach people how to make drinks. But I look for someone who knows how to move behind a bar and they can move with another bartender behind the bar—they’re moving with purpose. I look for someone who is looking up and greeting customers- that kind of owns the room, who has a presence in the room. And these are always things you can always be working on and getting better at. Minimizing the amount of steps you take is very important. I think that a good bartender is kind of like a great chess player. You’re always thinking three or four steps ahead. You’ve got to be able to multitask. I can’t be able to teach you how to multitask. You’ve got to learn that yourself. So that’s something I’m always working on. I know I can be better.
Chris: Sure, to grow as a bartender and drink creator – anything like that.
Exactly. The first thing you can do at and become better is be the best bartender you can be.
Secondly, I would say technique is something you can be working on. Knowing how and why we do the things behind the bar. Why do we shake over stir a cocktail? How do you get a cocktail chilled without incorporating too much air? These are all things you can be working on and finding your own personal pizzazz – finding your personal flair. But know why you’re doing it. Everything from the way you pull a peel off a lemon to rimming a glass. These are all very important things that happen and should look seamless. You know, you should just be moving like a swan behind the bar. And that’s something else you can work on.
Another thing that’s going to help you progress is just to know your classics. Get those down. Because as I said earlier, they are kind of the blueprint for everything else. So perfect your Sazeracs and your Old Fashionds (pre- or post-prohibition.) Know a great Daiquiri, know how to make a great Sidecar. These are all super important things that are going to elevate your process in creating.
Absolutely. Now do you have any personal favorites in the classics that you use to test bartenders?
Oh, yeah. A Manhattan. Manhattan is the first one. People have taken some serious liberties with that one!
Yeah, one of the things I’ve found, just going out and drinking throughout San Francisco and some other places is that, that is one of the most butchered cocktails—
Jessica: It is!
Chris: It’s so simple.
Jessica: It is.
You have three ingredients. (Four if you count ice or water.) But the product that comes out of that can vary from one end of the spectrum completely to the other. And it’s one of those classic cocktails that shows that you care and that you know your products and you know what you’re doing being the bar.
Exactly. So that’s another one I’m going to test you on when you’re applying for a job here, is to make a Manhattan. And…
Chris: It better be damn good.
Chris: You have to get it right!
Excellent. One of the bartenders I worked with in the past worked in London and had thirty or forty years’ worth of bartending experience. He told me that there are three cocktails that any great bartender can be judged upon and one of them was a Manhattan. The other one is a Margarita. And the last one is an Aviation. And I never understood why those three but he said that historically, when he was tending bar, those were the three core cocktails that people would use to judge a bartender’s skill level.
Yeah. Well, I get it. I’ve never heard Aviation before but I understand because that is such a subtle cocktail that you can blow that with too much Maraschino or too much Violet.
Chris: Absolutely, it’s a fine balancing act.
It is. So I get that. That’s a good one. I’ve done Margarita in my past as well as a test for bartenders. Just because you want to see how they shake. And do they shake it? Or are they going to build it in the glass? Are they going to ask me all the right questions? Do I want it up or over? Salt, no salt? So those are very good… So I’m actually going to adopt the Aviation into my test.
Yeah. Absolutely. Like I said, he had a ton of experience and he taught me a lot about just tending bar and doing the right, proper sequence of services and techniques and stuff. I don’t think he tends bar anymore, but he’s kind of one of the people that put me on the path, doing what I do. He’s a great mentor in general.
And finally, I would say homework. And it’s fun homework, because you’re a bartender and you’re doing research. So go out and sit at other people’s bars, watch bartenders work, look at their bottles behind the bar, ask questions, try things that you haven’t tried, let a bartender create a cocktail for you, and learn from that bartender what questions he or she is asking you. I think that’s super important.
Finding the right words to describe what you are tasting is very important. It’ll help you elevate your palate and your understanding of what your tastes are and how your taste is going to be different from my taste. One of the most used descriptive words in this industry is “sweet.” Like, “I don’t like sweet cocktails.” Or “I do like sweet cocktails.” And if someone tells me they don’t like a sweet cocktail but their favorite drink is a Last Word. That’s pretty valuable information, because by my account, I think the Last Word is kind of on the sweet side. So now I understand how I can dial in a cocktail for you. You actually do like things sweet, but not sugary or, you know, they might not like a flavored vodka cocktail.
Chris: Sure. So maybe more balanced.
Yeah. And that’s another word that gets used a lot. I use it a lot here too. I don’t serve sweet drinks– all my drinks are balanced. There will be an element of sweetness but that’s because that’s what the cocktail needs. That’s one of the great words that is hard to understand, what people mean when they say it.
So any other last words?—no pun intended! Any other words of wisdom? Or anything you’d like to share with anyone?
Well, just get out there and do good job! Remember that this is the hospitality industry and that is the most important thing and mixology is a great part of hospitality that we get to embrace and be able to part of right now.
Jessica: Yeah. And if you keep working, you’ll get there.
Chris: Thank you so much, Jessica!
Jessica: Thank you!
And you’ve had so much a beautiful bar, and you have an amazing reputation in the city. When I told some of my other bartenders that I was going to be interviewing you, they knew you not only by the Hotsy Totsy, but they knew you by name. Your reputation is sterling in the beverage industry.
Jessica: Oh, that’s lovely. Thank you.
Chris: Yeah absolutely! It’s a pleasure to meet you.
Jessica: Very pleased to meet you!
Chris: Yeah, absolutely. So cheers, everyone! Have a great shift!
Special thanks to Jessica for taking the time to meet with us and give her thoughts!
I really loved her focus on understanding the classic cocktails – something I agree is incredibly important for up-and-coming cocktail creators.
If you’re ever in San Francisco, don’t forget to hop across the bay and stop by the Hotsy Totsy Club for a fantastic cocktail. If not, definitely visit them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter!