The barman known as H. (H. Joseph Ehrmann) wasn't satisfied with simply running a successful San Francisco saloon, Elixir. He and co-founders Duggan McDonnell of Cantina and Jeff Hollinger of Comstock Saloon spread their wings and launched The Cocktail Bill Boothby Center for the Beverage Arts to serve as the headquarters of the Barbary Coast Conservancy of the American Cocktail and to teach and celebrate bartending's history and skills. It's been open a while now, so we though it might be time to check with H. and see how it has progressed.
Mix: As if running a bar isn't enough, you've taken on the task of establishing a sort of cocktail community center, the Boothby. What is its purpose and history?
H. Joseph Ehrmann: The Cocktail Bill Boothby Center was designed and built as a result of the first three years of success with San Francisco Cocktail Week. We carved out a little corner of a newly rebuilt building and put in a bar so we could continue the mission of our non-profit, The Barbary Coast Conservancy of the American Cocktail. That mission is to preserve and advance the cocktail culture of San Francisco as part of our overall historical and culinary culture. I see it as a very important part of those cultures, one that fueled the growth and success of this city through many eras, especially in the modern day. I want to make the Boothby Center the place where people come to learn more about the drinks, history, people, techniques and more. I want to bring the San Francisco public to a new arena where we can discuss the topics of the day, explore the past and engage each other outside of the bars (so that when we enjoy the bars, we do so in an enlightened manner that enhances the experience).
Mix: Have you been satisfied with the way the San Francisco bartending community has participated?
Ehrmann: Yes, there has been a small group of people that have come out to support this effort, and they have all worked very hard, especially on San Francisco Cocktail Week. And there have been quite a few generous friends that have lent their time, effort and expertise to teaching here. However, I do feel that there is a large majority of the bartending community that is still pretty oblivious as to our existence and purpose, but I aim to fix that in the first half of 2012. With their help, as ambassadors of our message and purpose, we’ll be able to further their careers while reaching their customers and achieving our end.
Mix: What have been the main challenges in getting this off the ground?
Ehrmann: The past (first) year of the Boothby Center, quite honestly, has trickled by as my partners and I were all engaged in other, very time-consuming ventures. I have dropped several of my projects and other plans to personally focus on The Boothby Center and San Francisco Cocktail Week in 2012. It is a challenge running a non-profit and a wholly different experience from running a bar, but the entrepreneurial opportunity is great, and I look forward to that. I love to build businesses, and I love to teach. The Boothby Center gives me the opportunity to do both in a new way, a way that really has not been done before that I know of. I’m excited.
Mix: What will make it sustainable in the long run?
Ehrmann: As with any business venture, it must have a solid financial footing, which will come from the support of those it serves via the events I’ll be programming and a membership model I am designing. The generous support of several companies has gotten us this far, and I hope to see that grow in the future as well. It needs the support of the industry and the city. All of that will come from an improved public-relations effort to make people aware of what it is and excited for what it can be. You were right to call it a “community center,” as that is what I have been calling it since the beginning. As a community center, it is a place for gathering, interacting and moving forward, as a community. If I can foster that aim and make it financially viable, my hope is that it will last beyond my time.
Mix: Now that it's been open more than a year, any lessons for those who might want to try building something similar?
Ehrmann: As I said earlier, the basic principles of good business are key to keep in the forefront. Never take the start of a great idea lightly. Put your whole, dedicated effort into it, and stay true to your goal, and you’ll get there. That passion is contagious and, if the idea is as good as you think it is, you’ll have an audience and success before too long.
Mix: What part of the Boothby program has been most successful so far?
Ehrmann: I’ve started with mostly introductory level classes and they do consistently well, but I’ve begun dipping into some more advanced classes with some success, and I think that will be a good growth area in 2012. What I see at Elixir as much as while traveling, speaking and teaching is still true: There are plenty of people who still need the basics. We, the geeky and consumed, may think the basics to be trite, but they are the key to spreading the “gospel”: fresh and quality ingredients, attention to detail, respect for what works. Tons of people still don’t know that there are many kinds of whisk(e)y or what those parenthesis mean. Hordes of tequila drinkers think the spirit is made from a cactus. We have a lot of work to do.
Mix: As always, what's your favorite drink right now?
Ehrmann: Still a Sazerac.