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Meet the Bartender: Jesse Ross

Whatever you do, don't ask Sycamore Den's lead bartender for a crushed-ice Old Fashioned
Sycamore Den's Jesse Ross | Photo by Kelly Davis

By Kelly Davis

San Diego is home to some incredible bartenders—folks who are not only talented cocktail makers, but also genuinely good people with an infectious passion for their craft. Each month, I’ll introduce you to a new bartender through a quick Q&A.

First up is Jesse Ross, the new assistant manager and lead bartender at Sycamore Den. It’s a sentimental choice—I’ve known Jesse since he was a senior in high school and interned at San Diego CityBeat, where I used to work. I hadn’t seen Jesse in awhile and, a year or so ago, I went to Noble Experiment to find him working there—and he’d come up with one of my favorite cocktails on the menu, the Ivy League (more on that below). A few weeks ago, he moved over to Sycamore Den. If you’re a fan of a good gin martini, Jesse makes one of the best in town.

Can you tell me a little bit about your background?

I bar-backed at Polite Provisions when it first opened. That led to starting one day a week at Noble Experiment as a bar-back / prep guy.  After putting in my time, I eventually ended up bartending at Neighborhood and then also Noble. It would have been three years for me at Noble this March, but now I’m at the Den.

What’s your favorite cocktail?

This is a question bartenders get all the time and it’s kind of tough to give an honest answer. I’ve heard some bartenders say, for example, “Oh, probably an Old Fashioned,” which is a really great answer if you want to sell a quick, easy cocktail that’s going to end the conversation and get you on to the next guest.

Honestly, it depends on my mood, where I am, who I’m with, what the weather is like—any number of things. I love a 50/50 Plymouth gin martini with a lemon twist, but I wouldn’t order that if I wasn’t confident that the bartender was going to make it how I like it. I love a daiquiri when the situation calls for it. I like tiki drinks when they’re executed properly. I love the Preakness Cocktail (rye Manhattan with Benedictine). I love a Boulevardier (whiskey cousin to the Negroni). And then, honestly, for me it always comes back to a Paper Plane. This is a drink I had for the first time in San Francisco. It’s a four-ingredient, equal-part cocktail by Sam Ross, who’s a big influence and inspiration for me. I don’t garnish it because it’s so evenly balanced and delicate that even a tiny lemon twist can throw it off. Great drink.

Do you have a favorite spirit?

I have my favorite spirits for different applications, and even within singular spirits sometimes there’s not just one I’d choose. Some gins are dope for shaking with citrus while some stand up better in boozy stirred cocktails. Whiskey is a genre that I could talk about for a week and still probably have no clue what my favorite is. You can make a daiquiri with any of my five favorite rums and they would all taste completely different and totally delicious.

I guess if I were stranded on a desert island, it wouldn’t really matter what I was drinking—I’d probably be happy with what I could get.

Gin: Plymouth

Bourbon: Blanton’s, Eagle Rare 17, George T. Stagg

Rum: Banks 5-year

Rye: Willet Reserve, Sazarac 18

Scotch: Aberlour A’bunadh

What’s the best cocktail you’ve come up with?

I’m going to give the super corny answer and say that I’ve come up with most of my best drinks on the spot based on dealer’s choice requests. Sometimes I jot them down, more often than not I don’t. It’s usually a very in-the-moment thing that’s very personal with the bartender and the guest and is one of the best feelings in the world when you nail it.

If I were to narrow it down to one specific printed cocktail, it would be the Ivy League: a gin martini with blanc vermouth, Cointreau and absinthe. Even that’s kind of a rip-off of a Phil Ward cocktail. Most of the best drinks are just slight changes on other, better bartenders’ work.

If you were a cocktail, what cocktail would you be?

Probably some sort of very dry martini variation—or a shot and a beer.

What’s the weirdest request you’ve gotten from a customer?

An Old Fashioned on crushed ice. Heartbreaker. She ended up drinking it, loving it, wanting the same thing again—go figure.

Fill in the blanks: I wish people would stop ordering _____ and instead try _____.

I wish people would stop ordering the same drink every time and venture out of their comfort zone to try something new.

What would you say is the most approachable / drinkable cocktail on the Sycamore Den menu?

Probably the Wolf Ticket. It’s an Eric Johnson cocktail that’s been riding on every menu since Sycamore Den opened. It’s bourbon, peach, and lemon. Refreshing but with a kick. Total winner.

What’s the most interesting drink on the Sycamore Den menu?

Hunter’s Honor. It’s a fairly simple Old Fashioned variation using George Dickel whiskey. In place of the sweet (sugar) and bitter (bitters) we use a blend of Jägermeister Spice and Amaretto. This, aside from being delicious, is kind of consistent with a trend that’s happening in the cocktail community, which is these formerly snooty, uptight bartenders who would scoff at ingredients like Jäger—especially in an Old Fashioned—starting to warm up to these kind of forgotten liquors that until recently didn’t really fit in at a craft cocktail bar.

There’s a new menu coming in March, and all the cocktails are going to be interesting, drinkable, approachable—and life changing!

When can we find you behind the bar?

Tuesday through Saturday, and you can likely find me drinking there on Sundays and Mondays, too.

Meet the Bartender: Jesse Ross

Sycamore Den’s Jesse Ross | Photo by Kelly Davis

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