Some jobs let you learn a craft. Others allow you to express yourself creatively. If you’re a very lucky guy, you get to combine both of these notions into a single pursuit that pays the bills.
San Diego’s affable Eric Johnson has reached that hallowed place in the newfangled profession of mixologist, crafting his own cocktails rather than reading them out of a book. And he must know what he’s doing, as earlier this year, The Daily Meal named him one of America’s 25 Best Bartenders.
After enjoying a Thrillist party weekend where he was one of the main attractions, we looked him up. Johnson was kind enough to school us on his path from Spokane, Washington to cocktail curator at Sycamore Den—and why an obscure Brazilian style of rum is set to be the next big thing.
“The best explanation I’ve ever heard of the difference between rum and chacaça is that chacaça is more funky. It’s almost like they put sweat into it. It’s got a really raw taste.”
How did you end up becoming a mixologist?
I always kind of knew I wanted to work in hospitality. I started out bar-backing when I was 18, but I also worked in hotels. I did everything from bellman to front desk to sales. I ended up going to school to become a teacher and I did that for a year, but it just wasn’t for me, so I retired from teaching. By the time I was 21 I was bartending. I partied a lot, so I figured why not put the bartending thing at the front?
When did you get serious about it?
I’ve been bartending for about 13 years. But it was only six years ago I moved to San Diego and started doing some more serious training. I got to study under guys like Phil Ward and Sam Ross, which was huge for me.
Why didn’t teaching work out for you?
I enjoyed the kids, a lot actually. Still, I figured that if I kept teaching I wouldn’t want my own kids after a while. I feel like teaching is one of those jobs that you have to absolutely love what you do and not be able to imagine doing anything else. I just wasn’t there. I thought the kids deserved more effort than I was willing or able to give.
Do you still party a lot?
Not really. I got married a year ago. I’m more of the storyteller at the bar now. I live vicariously though the guys at work [laughs].
You recently told Eater that you think mescal is the hot spirit at the moment. What do you think the next one is going to be?
Mescal has totally had a huge surge and I’m a big fan, but lately I’ve been playing around with Agua Luca chacaça. I feel like people are becoming more and more acquainted with foreign spirits.
Isn’t that kind of like Brazilian rum?
Kind of. It’s made from sugar cane juice rather than molasses. But yeah, it’s kind of Brazil’s version of a rum. People are always looking for new stuff as the craft cocktail culture develops. People are starting to learn more about different spirits and try new stuff. I mean, Agua Luca has been around forever in Brazil and the World Cup definitely [caused] a little spike in chacaça sales.
How does it taste different from rum?
Rum is made from molasses and obviously there are a lot of different kinds of rum. They all taste different. The best explanation I’ve ever heard of the difference is that chacaça is more funky. It’s almost like they put sweat into it. It’s got a really raw taste.
Getting back to mescal: Why do you think it’s having such a moment?
It’s really only been in the states for about 20 years now and it’s still fairly new. There’s a lot of new villages and single village mescals are making their way up here. I went down there recently to watch the process. It’s pretty amazing to see these small families making these for the USA. It’s like wine. People respect it and it has such a dynamic taste that’s different from most spirits.
What’s behind the craft cocktail craze more generally?
People are educating themselves more on how people are making them. Its becoming like food, the culinary side of cocktails. People want the best ingredients. They’re health conscious. They want the best flavors possible. Once you have a cocktail with fresh juice, it’s hard to go back to something that has cheap juice in it.
Wanna fly in the face of fall and whip up these tropical beauties? See below.
No Cane, No Gain
1 ½ ounces Avua Cachaca
1/2 ounce Yellow Chartreuse
1/2 ounce Fresh Lemon Juice
1 ounce Fresh Pineapple Juice
½ ounce Cane Syrup Mint
Glassware: Rocks glass
Method: Shake all ingredients and strain onto rocks. Garnish with pineapple leaf.
2 ounces Malibu Black
¾ ounce Fresh Lemon Juice
1/2 ounce Orgeat Syrup (Almond Syrup)
2 dashes Barrel Aged Whiskey Bitters
Glassware: Highball glass
Method: Combine Malibu black, fresh lemon juice, orgeat syrup and whiskey bitters in a highball glass and stir to combine. Add ice. Sprinkle with a dash of nutmeg. Enjoy!