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Meet the Bartender: Zack Gray

Bankers Hill Bar + Restaurant's new bar manager guarantees you'll love his cocktails
Zack Gray behind the bar at Bankers Hill. | Photo: Kelly Davis

By Kelly Davis

Whenever I read over a cocktail menu, I look for something new and interesting—something I’ve never tried before. The current menu at Bankers Hill Bar + Restaurant has just that: corn milk. It’s in a cocktail called Cortez the Killer that also includes Old Harbor gin, Ancho Reyes chile liqueur and lime juice. It’s incredibly balanced: a little spicy, a little tart, yet mellow and a little sweet from the corn milk.

Bankers Hill‘s bar manager Zack Gray came up with the idea for corn milk at a trade show in San Francisco.

“Somebody did a Templeton Rye punch with corn in it. That’s the only time I’ve ever seen corn in a cocktail and I just thought it was really interesting,” he says. “It just had this really fantastic kind of round flavor to it.”

Gray moved to San Diego in April with his fiancée, Jessica. A Phoenix native, he moved to San Francisco five years ago to hone his cocktail-making skills at spots like Volta and Perbacco. The city’s high cost of living prompted the couple to consider a move, and San Diego was “just about as close to Phoenix as we’re wiling to get,” he says

I sat down with Gray at Bankers Hill recently to chat about sloe gin, his favorite rum, and what makes San Diego’s cocktail scene different from San Francisco’s.

What made you get into bartending?

I started bartending while I was going to school and just really got into it a lot more than I thought I was going to and found that I enjoyed it more than I enjoyed the classes I was taking. [He was studying to be a teacher.] After working in the service industry for a while, the idea of being at a desk, I just couldn’t imagine it and I really enjoyed what I did. I’ve always been into cooking and, for me, bartending worked in that same creative outlet sort of way. I started when I was 19 and I’ve been doing it for almost 12 years now. I definitely was into it a lot when I was living in Phoenix, but when I moved to the Bay Area, it’s just a different kind of cocktail culture there, that’s definitely where I learned the most.

What differences have you noticed between the cocktail scene in San Diego versus San Francisco?

I feel like people aren’t taking themselves as seriously here, which is really refreshing. You can get away with doing more fun things, I feel like, and not worry about being judged quite as harshly by your peers. There definitely is an air of elitism among San Francisco bartenders, for sure—not all of them. I’ll probably get a lot of angry texts [for saying that]. It’s good to see people having a good time while they’re doing what they like to do.

What’s your favorite spirit to work with?

It’s probably rum, which is kind of a more recent thing, within the last year or so. Tequila was always my go-to because it’s incredibly versatile. I’m just really loving getting more and more into rums. I think there’s a rum out there for everybody. A lot of people think they don’t like rum and that’s probably because they had an episode at some point in their life with Bacardi or Captain Morgan.

Any favorite new discoveries?

Probably Malahat Spiced Rum. It’s buttery and spicy. My fiancée and I went to their distillery and they’re making incredible spirits. They’ve really blown up for a company as young as they are.

Have you used it in anything?

It’s in our Kong Killer, which is a take on the classic Painkiller with Giffard Banane du Brasil liqueur. The combination of the banana and the spiced rum—it’s like banana bread with coconut cream. It’s really good.

You’ve got two cocktails made with sloe gin. That’s something you don’t see too often on cocktail menus.

It was Spirit Works Sloe Gin from Sonoma County, which is the distillery my fiancée works for. They’re gaining ground in Southern California. In Northern California, they’re all over the place. Down here it’s taking a little bit longer. Now that they’ve actually got somebody on the ground, she’s out there trying to spread the word about good sloe gin.

If someone wanted to add sloe gin to their home bar, how would you recommend they use it?

It’s incredibly versatile. It goes really well with rum. It goes really well with tequila. It’s got this kind of oxidized, almost tawny port quality to it, so you can use it in place of a vermouth because it does have a little bit of acidity. And it’s really good on its own. It’s just a great modifier. It’s got a really nice plum-y, stone-fruit kind of flavor.

And a great tartness, like that tartness you want in a berry dessert.

It’s a traditional sloe gin recipe done in kind of a more modern cocktail-minded way. Usually it would be sweeter than this, like a traditional sloe gin you would find if you grew up in the outskirts of London…. I’ll see people who are from the U.K. and they’ll look at the menu and be, like, “Sloe gin? Nobody has sloe gin.”

What your favorite cocktail you’ve created?

I really love the final version of the Bees of Bennett Valley [fennel pollen-infused gin, honey, lemon, lavender bitters]. It’s a cocktail I’ve been working on and tweaking for a couple years, but I really feel like it’s perfect now. There’s one I did at Perbacco in San Francisco called a Fragole y Pepe, which means strawberries and pepper. It was black pepper-infused tequila with a strawberry shrub, lemon juice, and Strega. It was really good. I’ve done different variations on that for a while. The combination was outstanding.

Meet the Bartender: Zack Gray

Meet the Bartender: Zack Gray

The Cortez Killer. | Photo: Kelly Davis

What’s the most approachable drink on the current menu?

Probably the Bees of Bennett Valley. A lot of people get scared away by gin, but everybody that tries it has been really happy with it. And, in any situation like that, I’ll always offer to buy their drink if they’re not happy with it. I’d rather somebody step outside their comfort level a little bit and try something new that they might really, really like and not feel like they made a horrible decision if they don’t like it. It kind of takes the pressure off.

And what drink on the menu would you recommend to someone who’s looking for something challenging?

Something weird and geeky? I’d say the Cortez would be a really good place to start, or the Sucker Punch [rum, oleo saccharum, spices, black tea, clarified milk punch, vanilla bean, citrus].

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

I had a woman, when I was working at the Rokerij in Phoenix, ask me for a Scotch and milk. So, I assumed she wanted Scotch with milk. She actually wanted Scotch with a milk back, which is equally strange.

I see a future cocktail called the Scotch and Milk.

I can make it work.

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

I wish people would stop ordering the drink that they had at some other bar that I’ve never been to that only they make and instead order something that’s on our cocktail list. This just happened last night, so it’s kind of a sore subject.

On your days off, if you want to go out for a cocktail, where are you going?

If we want to go big, probably Cantina Mayahuel. We’re over in OB, so getting over to North Park is a little bit of a trek. Closer, Fairweather, which I’m totally in love with for their awesome tiki-style drinks.

Anything particular you’d order there?

Absolutely a piña colada. Because nobody else has slushy machines for a piña colada. You just don’t get the right consistency at other places.

And when can folks find you behind the bar here?

Wednesday through Saturday evenings and Sunday brunch.

Got suggestions for a future column? Write to [email protected].

Meet the Bartender: Zack Gray

Zack Gray behind the bar at Bankers Hill. | Photo: Kelly Davis

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