A mixologist is more than a mere purveyor of beverages, says John Harris,
master of the craft
By Bruce Bellingham
John Harris is more than a barman – he’s probably the only bartender in San Francisco with a SAG card – yes, as in the Screen Actors Guild. He acquired this rarified credential that amateur actors struggle so hard to get when he was pouring drinks at Original Joe’s in the Tenderloin and Zodiac was being filmed. His extra part became a speaking part. That’s how he qualified for his card. To use John and not use his voice is unthinkable.
He’s a true raconteur.
He took his acting part seriously. He takes his humor seriously. He taking his mixology seriously.
“It would take hours to really explain my philosophy of mixology,” he says from behind the bar in the Butterfly Lounge at the Cafe Majestic in the hotel of the same name on Sutter Street. “Knowledge of a thousand-plus recipes is only the beginning. Love and compassion for your fellow man is a must. I never forget that, in a way, I am a benign drug-pusher. I dispense mind and mood-altering stimulants.”
Martinis, by the way, are made with vodka. Harris doesn’t really understand flavored vodkas. This month a new vodka will be launched out of San Francisco called Blue Angel. It’s the latest invention of Maurice Kanbar, the father of Skyy vodka.
Harris has his mixology heroes. One is Professor Jerry Thomas, the author of How to Mix Drinks aka The Bon Vivant’s Companion published in 1862. It can be found online.
“Professor Thomas held court at the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco for many years after the Gold Rush,” explains John. “He’s credited with inventing the Tom & Jerry, the Blue Blazer and many more drinks – maybe even the Martini.” (Incidentally, another must-read is Barnaby Conrad III’s The Martini published by Chronicle Books.) “Thomas always claimed he did not name the Tom & Jerry after himself, but after his two pet rats.”
Speaking of wildlife, the Butterfly Bar at the Cafe Majestic is quite amazing for its impressive butterfly collection on the walls. When the lights are dimmed, the blue iridescence on the many wings produces an azure glow in the dark. A couple at the end of bar sips martinis and murmur to each other. Above the bar, a television plays movies that were filmed in San Francisco – many are film noir classics. Harris, whose acting name is Jack McShadow, seems pleased by the subdued scene.
“A bartender must be the captain of his ship,” he says quietly. “He sets the tone of the establishment. At times you must put on your tin ear and let your customers vent their frustrations over everything from lost love to the world-at-large. You must have compassion. You must be the keeper of the secrets. You must never violate the trust that you have earned. You must be a conductor at the symphony. You must be the honest and final arbitrator in all disputes. Your word is the law. You must be honest and sober. You must know the best and worst jokes. You must know sports trivia. The list can extend to infinity – and beyond. Finally, you must know the wisdom of George Bernard Shaw: ‘Alcohol is the anesthesia by which we endure the operation of life.’”