Imbibe Magazine’s 2014 Cocktail Bar of the Year isn’t in New York or San Francisco, it’s in sunny San Diego, California. Polite Provisions in Normal Heights harkens back to the golden age of the drugstore with a marble topped bar, vintage lampposts and pre-prohibition style drinks like the Misty Mountain Buck with rye, fresh lime juice, organic pineapple juice and homemade ginger beer.
The man behind the phenomenon, Erick Castro, has headed up the spirits programmes at famed Bourbon and Branch and Rickhouse in San Francisco and has travelled the world as a brand ambassador, but he decided to come back to San Diego (where he went to college and poured his first drinks in La Mesa) to open Polite Provisions. Since it opened in early 2013 it’s been earning rave reviews and Castro has pioneered new trends like one of the most extensive draft cocktail programs in the country and a bartender “chefs” table where the best bartenders from around the world hold seminars and tastings. He’s clearly on fire but he says he’s really just a bartender at heart.
Cocktail bar of the year by Imbibe Magazine – that’s huge! Were you surprised?
We were surprised. We feel like it’s hard to get people to come see us. Here in San Diego we get picked over on a lot of things since we’re not New York or San Francisco. We don’t pay attention to all that stuff though, we just make good drinks and take care of people.
You’ve travelled all over the world. Why did you decide to open a bar in San Diego?
The opportunity was perfect, plus, having lived here before, I knew the food scene and the beer and cocktail scene were evolving. The beer scene here has been so good for so long and people’s palates are so developed. Even if they haven’t had a Sazerac before or a Southside, their palates are primed. They have good palates in this town.
There are lots of great bars in San Diego. What makes Polite Provisions different?
This bar is dedicated to the craft of bartending. Cocktails are just one aspect of bartending. It’s about taking care of guests making sure everyone has a good time and playing host. We also make soda pops that don’t exist anymore like maple soda mixed with bourbon, cinnamon soda pop mixed with Jameson Irish Whiskey, rose petal soda mixed with strawberry gin. We have drinks that you can’t get anywhere else.
The Bartender Chef’s Table is a great idea. How is it working out?
It’s been great. We try to have two a month. Some highlights were Bowmore Scotch (the second oldest distillery in Scotland), who did a tasting from around Scotland, and Don Lee, who used to run the bar program at Momofuku. He used to be an engineer and he did a science of cocktails. We had 50 people for that and we usually have 30.
Where is your favourite place in San Diego to throw back a tipple?
We taste cocktails here all day long so I actually go for beer more. I like Blind Lady Alehouse (in Normal Heights). It’s great! I love the rotating taps. We have rotating taps but he (co-owner Lee Chase) gets beers you won’t see anywhere else from places like Alpine Brewery. That’s an incredible brewery that doesn’t make that much beer. They typically just bottle it but somehow he gets kegs.
What is special about San Diego’s Craft Cocktail scene?
As a scene it’s so untainted and everybody is in it for the right reasons because they care about it and they love it. It’s so passionate and there’s no attitude.
It’s also blowing up right now. You can’t go out without hearing about a new place with new cocktails. My favourites are Noble Experiment, Craft and Commerce, Lion’s Share, and Coin Op. We’re at this point where lots of cocktail bars have different genres like Coin Op is an old retro arcade with cool bar snacks and video games and then you have Seven Grand, which is a whiskey lounge.
Do you have a favourite drink right now at Polite Provisions?
I’m really in love with our Old Fashioned. We buy our own private barrels of bourbon from bourbon suppliers and we sell an old fashioned on a hand cut piece of rock (clear ice) using different private barrels for $8. It’s Evan Williams single barrel this month. The flavours are a little bit of vanilla, oak, butterscotch, and orange peel.
Give us a peak into the cocktail trends for 2014?
I’m going to say it again – hospitality, a couple years ago when there were only one or two good bars in a town the level of service wasn’t that good. Cocktail bars will have to offer more than good drinks if they want people to come back. Incredible cocktails is the bare minimum. Also, our focus will be more on high balls. Old drinks like rum and coke, gin and tonic, 7&7, when made properly, are just as good as an Old Fashioned but they’re usually made with hi-fructose corn syrup and bad whiskey so in 2014 we’re making sure the high balls will have a place back at the table.
What’s next for you and Polite Provisions?
We’re just focused on building the neighbourhood and making good drinks for people, taking care of guests and making sure people leave with a smile on their face. I still love being behind the bar a couple nights a week, because you get a different conversation going with guests. At the end of the day, I love doing what I love.
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Have you ever been to Polite Provisions? Which do you think is the best cocktail bar in San Diego? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.
Written by Casey Chiotti