The barspoon was originally meant to crush pills, not stir an Old Fashioned. This is one of the historical nuggets barman Erick Castro tells me he uncovered while poring over vintage pharmaceutical books packed with soda, syrup and tincture recipes.
“There’s such an overlap between cocktails and soda fountains from one hundred years ago, with so much inspiration to draw from that era,” Castro says. “Drinking soda was a big event then; you didn’t just go to the store and buy a crappy can.”
Best known for slinging drinks at San Francisco hotspots Bourbon & Branch and Rickhouse, as well as serving as the West Coast brand ambassador for Plymouth and Beefeater gins, Castro these days runs the bar program at San Diego newcomer Polite Provisions (it’s opening in the next few weeks in tandem with adjacent eatery Soda & Swine) in the Normal Heights neighborhood. At his establishment—part of Consortium Holdings, the group behind local hangouts including Neighborhood, UnderBelly and Craft & Commerce—Castro is revitalizing and modernizing the drugstore soda counter.
His authentic beverages incorporate what he calls “simple, elegant, purposeful” ingredients, plus a range of spirits. For example, the Johnny Utah features tequila, lime juice and his celery soda, and the Mr. Brownstone, which is pre-batched and dispensed from a tap, calls for Jameson Irish Whiskey and his Indonesian cinnamon soda. Castro also stocks an array of exotic house-made syrups, such as rose petal, lavender and vanilla.
The setup couldn’t be more different than his original bartending gig while a college student in San Diego, fixing Lemon Drops and Cosmopolitans for hordes of thirsty drinkers. He went on to work at a Sacramento tequila joint, where, “for the first time, I had all this fresh fruit in front of me,” he recalls. That job then led to his stint in the Bay Area.
Now, the Riverside County native is thrilled to play pharmacist back on familiar turf. The bartending community there, he says, is “easygoing but super-passionate.” I think he’ll fit right in.
Alia Akkam is a New York-based writer and managing editor of Hospitality Design.