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Bartending is now big business. Snake Oil Cocktail Co. is good at it.

By Troy Johnson

Bartending is no longer a person at a bar making a drink. It’s a person at multiple bars making a signature line of drinks that embody their brand. When spots like NYC’s Milk & Honey kicked off America’s craft cocktail movement—in which bartenders pay as much attention to fresh, interesting, chefly ingredients as fancypants kitchens do—entrepreneurial “mixologists” (or “liquid chefs,” etc.) graduated from employees to independent consultants. Instead of staying in one place, they contracted themselves out to six, seven places. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to see “name” bartenders open a new restaurant, design the menu and train the staff, and then depart.

San Diego’s Snake Oil Cocktail Company was one of San Diego’s first. Started by Ian Ward and Lucien Conner at La Jolla’s Whisknladle, they eventually brought on business mind Michael Esposito and moved to align themselves with Enlightened Hospitality and its nationally known restaurant, Searsucker.

Then, Snake Oil split up. It was reportedly contentious, the details of which are their concern. Ward and Conner went on to join with Jen Queen to form Queen-Ward-Connor Collective. Feeling the Snake Oil brand still had legs, Esposito bought his partners out. He lost the Searsucker account, but worked with then-George’s by the Cove bartender Frankie Thaheld to create new connections. Now, a fresh infusion of capital and five full-time employees, Esposito and Thaheld have reestablished Snake Oil as one of the top names in the cocktail experience—on both sides of the border.

They’re designing cocktail programs for San Diego restaurants (like the new Tidal at Paradise Point) and Tijuana/Baja spots (chef Chad White’s La Justina, and an upcoming new project at Encuentro AntiResort in Valle de Guadalupe). They partnered with the once-staid San Diego Symphony, designing specific drinks for the individual artists and performances. They also helped launch craft cocktails in Bogota, Columbia and created the drinks menu at Yankee Stadium for the 2012-2013 season.

I spoke with Esposito about what exactly a cocktail brand does, how bartending became a business, and where it’s headed.

You’re expanding into Baja and Tijuana. Why?

I met Rick Bayless at Mision 19—Javier Plascencia’s restaurant in Tijuana. He brought his entire team. I invited him to San Diego, and he said, “Well, I don’t usually stay in San Diego. It’s usually just a stop on my way to Tijuana.” That’s not a slag on San Diego. It’s more just a show of how exciting Tijuana is right now. I’m watching Anthony Bourdain and the hype about (Baja wine region) Valle de Guadalupe. The Mexican government is pushing the culinary tourism. For me, all of the action in San Diego used to be focused near Downtown. Now it’s Mexico or North County—like Carlsbad and Oceanside.

It’s also got to be a lower economic barrier for entry for young, creative restaurateurs who don’t have a ton of capital…

The pricing model and the labor structure is different. Things work way faster in Mexico. They don’t have the same kinds of bureaucratic bullshit. Think about all the hoops you have to jump through in the US—just getting a grease trap approved can take you six months. But it’s also really high end. I went to La Justina and felt really underdressed. People don’t realize that. People have in their heads a version of Tijuana that existed in the 80s.

Encuentro Guadalupe Antiresort is building a new restaurant called Resguardo with local chef Flor Franco. And you’re doing the bar program?

The hotel is so beautiful. Each room is a freestanding pod that’s tucked into nature. There’s an infinity pool tucked into the side of a mountain that overlooks the valley. There’s a wine cave. The architecture is outstanding. They have an outdoor bar that’s going to be turned into a restaurant called Resguardo—the infinity pool has a huge area around there and Flor is going to be the executive chef. They have a farm, so we’ll be working with things they’re growing. Chef Flor has some really fun ideas. The main thing is that it’s slow-food driven. That’s exactly the stuff we want to work on.

What is the Snake Oil experience?

We’re not doing Prohibition style cocktails. It’s based around fresh produce and a culinary produce. It’s about understanding food. That makes a huge difference.

It seems like no bartender is just a bartender anymore. They’re almost cocktail agencies.

Every bartender in America is looking to get a business card and move into the mixology stage. It’s a sort of creative revolution. In the past, it was just understood that a bartender had to be personable and had to make a bunch of drinks.

Why would a bar or restaurant hire you instead of just hiring a bartender and paying them minimum wage?

We’re providing tasty cocktails, and we’re also offering a verification of quality. You also get a team. If you hire one person, you could end up losing that person. You get our relationships we’ve built with liquor brands and distributors.

How does a liquor relationship help?

A lot of restaurateurs look at it the liquor industry as a financial resource—they want to get stuff cheaper, or get freebies. But we look at how you tap into the full resource of someone like Bacardi. They have X amounts of millions of people on their Facebook pages. We can get restaurants to be part of their special events, and use their social media to help local restaurants. A perfect example is when we do Aston Martin events. All of the owners of hotels and restaurants are there looking to buy an Aston Martin. We bring our clients to those events, and relationships are made. We’re putting ourselves in a network that everybody benefits from.

And you help in branding?

It’s the first thing I do. I have a team who works on the Facebook and social media side for all of our clients. We take all the photos of the drinks. That way when people like you call asking for a photo, the restaurant has it. We’re also doing it from an angle that’s responsible. We have full insurance. We’re a full LLC. We’re not just two bartenders—and there’s a lot of risk in the alcohol industry that needs to be managed.

What’s the advantage of having multiple bars under your direction?

We realize what’s profitable and what sells. Most bartenders don’t have a sense of what works across restaurants, in different parts of the city. What works in North Park isn’t necessarily going to work in Del Mar. Someone will come to us and say they want whiskey-heavy cocktails. We can say, “That’s really awesome, but that’s not right for your clientele.” We look at the bottom line of the sales of the restaurant. We don’t come into it and say every bartender should be wearing a bow tie and suspenders, or all of your cocktails should all have Frenet Branca in them. Take Neighborhood’s policy of not offering vodka. That works perfectly for them, because customers understand it’s a cocktail experience of classic cocktails. But I can’t export a concept like that to the Symphony. We’re elevating the Symphony’s experience through the culinary side of it with fresh juices and ingredients—but we can’t ignore vodka. Sales of vodka are almost double what they are of whiskey. And I can’t look at Cinepolis and say we’ need to make this more bitters forward.

What trends are you seeing in cocktails?

A lot of stuff with gins right now. It’s a little more approachable. Also a lot of focus on Mezcal. Obviously with Mexico right here, that part of it is no brainer. But liquor reps are also pushing it in an innovative way. On its own, Mezcal can be hard to take. But it can give a cocktail this great smokiness. Also seeing a lot of Manhattans. Whereas before it was only high-end, classic cocktail places where people ordered them—now you can walk into a bar in PB and see people drinking them.

Your partnership with the San Diego Symphony was kind of inspiring, and odd. I pictured it to be much more of a beer/wine/Cape Cod crowd.

The involvement with the Symphony has been amazing. They got $100 million endowment from the Jacobs to build and renovate the hall. They want to change the way people experience the Symphony. On the one hand they have the charter that’s about preserving this incredible classical music tradition. But how do they bring new people into this fold?

You customized drinks for performances?

We have a different cocktail for each performance. The most recent one was Dave Mustaine (of Megadeth). He completely sold out the Symphony. We found out he was working with the Fallbrook Winery for his own wine. We bought some of their wines and made some cocktails with them. We showcased his wine with his performance. The name of the wine was Symphony Interrupted. One of the cocktails was Symphony of Destruction.

I hear you’re giving away free Uber rides?

I just really love what Uber’s doing—promoting safe rides and safe responsible drinking. People not to get in their car. So we have a VIP black card that we can give out to guests. They have a code that says Snake Oil. They’ll give you a free $20 ride on your first ride. We don’t over-serve anyone. But we can’t control what people are doing after they visit the bar, or what they sneak into an event. Whenever anyone uses our black VIP card, Uber gives us credits back. I get a commission as a company. Then that allows me to give it to my employees as a perk. Every bar in San Diego should do this.

I also heard something about Tron, Columbia and craft cocktails. Tell me a story.

So we’re at TED Active conference in Palm Springs last year. We’re making these cocktails allowing people to choose all the ingredients. Every night you’d get a totally different cocktail. This guy comes up and the third night and says, “I really like what you’re doing I’d like to take you to our country.” Two weeks later we’re on a plane to Bogota. He owns over 200 restaurants—including this series of high-end Buffalo wings restaurants. We get down there, he opens this secret door and there’s this room where he’s created a totally 1980s restaurant. Servers are wearing LED Tron suits. They didn’t have craft cocktails in Bogota at the time. They had flair and bartenders who could juggle, but no craft cocktails. So we taught this guy. And now he’s in the bartenders around the world contest he’s one of the finalists.  It feels great that we were able to help empower that.

What’s the future? You don’t get capital investment without having some grander plan…

We definitely want to get a retail product on the shelves. But it definitely won’t be alcohol. We’re working on a few things now.

Snake Oil co-founder Michael Esposito

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