In the Company of Gin

by Mark Brown

01/25/2012

Barnaby Conrad III pointed out the home of the Mai Tai, its entrance obscured by palm fronds and banana trees.

“That’s the old Trader Vic’s room,” he said, handing his keys to a parking attendant. “It’s now a pretty popular Vietnamese restaurant.”

Le Colonial, it’s called, and it manages to fit. When it was Trader Vic’s, the area known as Cosmo Place, between Downtown and Little Saigon, was a nightlife destination. According to a website that tracks tiki culture, Queen Elizabeth II experienced her first- ever anywhere restaurant meal at Vic’s in 1983, as a guest of the Reagans, no less. She drank a Tanqueray martini. That Vic’s closed in the early ’90s.

We walked up Taylor Street to the Bohemian Club. It was Thursday—bohemians’ night out. Before dinner, we drank a No. 209 martini at an oak bar long and polished enough to have 10 pins at the end of it, surrounded by large oil paintings and the soft roar of men not at work. I stole a couple of paper napkins off the bar, the club’s owl logo teetering across them.

I’d spied the No. 209 tucked among the other gins. It’s a newish brand, produced locally in a distillery down at Pier 50, very near the spot where Barry Bonds Jr. used to plunk homeruns into the bay. A couple of sips in, I spotted the bottle next to it: Junipero, a small-batch offering from the folks who also brewed Anchor ale, another San Francisco product.

“Hmm,” I said. “Maybe we ordered in haste.”

“I know Fritz,” Barnaby said, referring to Fritz Maytag, who’d resurrected the old Anchor brewery and then sold it after an award- winning run. “He’s 75 and in great shape. Beefy, not obese, you know? You know, like he could have played quarterback at Cal-Berkeley back in the day.”

He suggested a trip up the coast to meet Maytag, but I suggested we drink a Junipero instead, as an after-dinner nightcap. The club ranks were beginning to thin and last orders were being taken. I wondered if anybody would awaken the older gent I saw napping earlier in the library, his body sunk into the puffy, tan leather of a club chair. I thought of him being left there, like Corduroy, to be discovered in the wee hours by a security guard making rounds.

“Next time,” I said about Fritz, sipping the Junipero and making a mental tasting note I soon forgot.

“Anyway,” Barnaby said, chinking glasses, “welcome to San Francisco.”

* * *

He’d grown up here, in the shadow of his writer saloon keeper father, drinking ginger ale at one end of the bar while the likes of Tyrone Power and Ava Gardner drank gin at the other. Dad Conrad named his bar El Matador, after a novel he wrote on bullfighting called Matador became a surprise bestseller. He chronicled those days of wine and roses in a delicious tell-all, Name Dropping: Tales From My Barbary Coast Saloon. (A dozen years before, though, he’d published a memoir of a different sort—Time Is All We Have: Four Weeks at the Betty Ford Center.)

With writers and drinkers, the olive often doesn’t fall far from the tree. Conrad III followed in his father’s footsteps with a fistful of books. One of them, The Martini, published in 1995, caught the front end of the wave that stranded ’tini menus across American bartops, recipe books in the stacks at Borders, and faux-vintage cocktail shakers on the shelves of Pottery Barn. It was my martini manifesto, a reference guide and devotional in ice-cold words and pictures. Its cover—a tightly cropped photo of a martini glass, its bowl glistening with the droplets of mid-chill—was the model of perfection I pictured when shaking at home during what historian Bernard DeVoto called, and Conrad quoted, “the violet hour.”

The same year he published The Martini, Conrad met Maurice Kanbar, who couldn’t drink more than two martinis without getting a headache. (Conrad’s own theory, from page 120: “Even if there’s no driving to be done, two’s a pretty good limit.”) Having the wherewithal and now the need, Kanbar invented SKYY, the quadruple-distilled, blue-bottled beauty that overran the vodka market in the 1990s, in large part because of that cobalt bottle, which he had to get produced outside the country because, he explained, “making glass is a dirty business. You have to have smoke and glass and ovens. Americans don’t want to do that. They want to sit at a computer.”

But the SKYY wasn’t the limit. With his non-compete clause expired—he’d sold SKKY off to spirit conglomerate Campari in 2001—Kanbar now peddles Blue Angel (in a clear bottle of brushed glass), another ultra-distilled spirit in a market he helped saturate.

Kanbar’s inventiveness manifests itself in all manner of productions— Hoodwinked!, the animated hit film; an 85-cent pair of eyeglasses he wants to distribute pro bono in third-world nations; Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil; Zip Notes, in which he put the adhesive in the middle so the paper wouldn’t curl—but, in 2005, it ran to a few square blocks of downtown Tulsa. Kanbar now owns 16 buildings worth of it.

Always a bookish sort, Kanbar’s properties have included, almost since its inception, Council Oak Books, the Tulsa publishing house struggling to make it in the world of Kindles and downloads. (As of December, the firm had relocated to San Francisco.) With Conrad, he’d launched a new imprint on Council Oak, Kanbar & Conrad, though he couldn’t remember when or how he met his new partner.

“San Francisco is basically a small town and he’s a writer. I like writers. If Barnaby Conrad is a writer, then I immediately have a compatibility with the man. Writers are my guys.”

Mine too, especially when they fall in with guys who buy up downtowns in their spare time. You know, when they’re not distilling spirits and publishing books. I’d been looking for a reason to get back to San Francisco. Now I had a couple.

* * *

“You know he was a tumler?” said one-time columnist Bruce Bellingham.

I pictured Maurice in circus tights, floating beneath the big top. I wouldn’t put it past him. I shook my head.

“Not a tumbler,” he said, reaching for something to write on and finding it in his breast pocket in the form of a sealed envelope.“It’s one of my many medical bills. I had a heart attack in June 2010 and now I have $94,000 in medical bills. And there goes one of them.”

Bellingham took another sip of wine, scribbled something on the envelope, then handed it to me.

“A tumler, for you Gentile boys, is a man who’s hired in the Catskill Mountains to break up the party before an opening act. So, he’s really like a clown. Like Jerry Lewis. It’d be like me going from table to table, ‘Hi, ya, how ya doin’!’ It’s a Yiddish term for a troublemaker. Someone who stirs it up.”

Barnaby took a sip of his Blue Angel martini—a gin man seguing into vodka out of homage, I assumed, given that we were in Perry’s on Union Street, Maurice’s favorite spot, and he was to have been here with us. Kanbar calls a Blue Angel martini a “BAM,” believing that a drink without a name is a bottomless well. (“The key to the business is a call,” he said. “Like a Cosmo.”) Barnaby downed his in an effigy-like salute to its absent inventor, while I paced myself with a Sierra Nevada.

“He wasn’t a kid—maybe 19 or 20—and he’s been a tumler ever since,” said Bellingham. “But, he’s cultivated tumling into a finesse. Of course, no one around here knows what a tumler is.”

Bellingham wrote columns for the San Francisco Examiner, and with San Francisco newspaper icon Herb Caen.

“I wrote jokes for him. I’d send him jokes everyday by fax. Puns, political metaphors. I sat in Herb Caen’s office while he was ill and went through 59 years of his column, all gathered in leather-bound books. The Chronicle owns them. I thought, ‘Where am I going to begin?’

“They had so much fun. You and I cannot imagine. Barnaby can tell you.”

Caen and Conrad Junior inhabited a time in San Francisco when the word saloon was a term of endearment. When books were books and men were men and martinis were gin. You can still get a drink there, but the way the old boys—and their sons—tell it, things have all but dried up.

“Single women with dogs and fast-food restaurants and nothing else,” Barnaby says of the future city by the bay.

Writer Rebecca Solnit, in her Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, plots 21 bars on a map of the city’s legendary “6 a.m.” saloons, so named for the hours they kept in order to better serve the dock workers leaving the graveyard shift. Service and software have replaced shipping, but the bars remain.

Beyond the living proof, there are the dead. Novelist Jack London had a San Francisco saloon mix vast quantities of martinis and ship them to his getaway in Sonoma. “Professor” Jerry Thomas, hands-on author of The Bartender’s Guide—an 1862 classic that predates them all—made his mark at the Occidental Hotel on Montgomery Street. Thomas makes a good case (particularly for a deceased) for inventing the martini, or at least being its missing link.

Bellingham was in purgatory when Kanbar bailed him out. A local charitable house received a big gift for taking care of Bruce between gigs, courtesy of the man with the golden arm.

“I’ve not been upset with one gift that I’ve ever given,” Kanbar told me. “But if you asked me about business deals, oh God, have I met snakes.”

* * *

We left Bruce and Perry’s for Bix, next stop on the “martini safari” I’d been promised and was doing my best to make a good show of. We drove up Laguna, jumped over to Broadway, and headed downtown.

Gold Street hides between Sansome and Montgomery, a few blocks in from the Embarcadero. It was called Gold Alley back in the day, when the burlesque clubs and watering holes of nearby Broadway teemed with all that was then rustic and possible about San Francisco. When Streisand was playing the Purple Onion before she was Streisand, and newsmen like Caen had the equivalent of 10,000 Facebook friends, all of it earned in the saloons and restaurants and nightclubs within earshot of here. It’s around the block from City Lights Bookstore on the diagonal at Columbus. Chinatown is near, as is American Zoetrope, Francis Ford Coppola’s headquarters, where the ground-floor café proffers Coppola’s own wines at a relative steal, and tempting plates of radicchio Treviso, spaghetti carbonara, and pizza quattro formaggi.

“This is Gold Alley,” Barnaby said, pulling into a lane too tight to turn around in, and promising to tell me later about the time he shot a .44 out into the bay standing right here. I looked up over a warehouse roof to see the white apex of the TransAmerica Pyramid. That, the neon of Bix, and the headlights of the sedan were the only lights glowing.

We crowded around the bar at Bix, a restaurant I’d known only from an image in The Martini—of other people crowding around the bar at Bix. In the book, author Conrad, proprietor Doug “Bix” Biederbeck, painter Mark Stock, art dealer Martin Muller, Herb Caen, and others smile over a caption labeled “Neo-Martini Culture in San Francisco.” In the foreground sits a very large bowl of crushed ice sprouting chilled cocktail glasses like so many spring crocuses.

Biederbeck likes his martinis cold, versus large, and to that end he serves them in small, tulip-shaped glasses, the gin cold enough to induce shock. “Here,” he said, retrieving my cocktail from the bartender. “Drink that and I’ll get you another.”

I sipped, squinting at the peal of competing conversations, and a piece of the city’s still-strong drinking culture revealed itself to me. Towering shelves of spirits glistened from the backlit bar. Fit, robust men in white jackets shook and poured in a dizzying blur of glass and ice and steel. The musty smell of Argentine Malbec forced its two scents—strawberry and spice—on an air already perfumed with heavier tincture. Older, moneyed-looking women brushed skirt hems with young, honey-eyed vixens while their collective men pushed empty glasses back for refills.

“You about ready for another?” Biederbeck asks me. “No, wait … Let’s have a punch!”

Like a good barman, he’d recently found Amer Picon through a London purveyor and purchased a case. Its orange essence and dry bitterness begged for a punch, the definition of which varies, even among liquid historians. Two non-wavering components tend to be the presence of fruit, and the mixing of batches versus glasses at a time. (Esquire drinks writer David Wondrich outlined all the tasty possibilities in his 2010 book, Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl.)“When the case showed up,” Biederbeck said, “there were only 11 bottles in it. My tariff, I guess. Here …”

He handed me a glass of punch and I turned to watch the band, all ivory pings and bracing snares and throat. The bigshots of old- school jazz play here, not that I’d know them by sight or sound. But Biederbeck, true to the name, is a student of both jazz and the drinks that tend to mingle in its presence.

Over the piano, singing a tune of its own, is a painting from Mark Stock’s “The Butler’s in Love” series. It’s the first thing you see when you enter Bix and the last thing you take in before you pass the velvet curtain on your way out. It dominates the space the way the Eiffel does Paris, no matter the vantage point.

In “The Butler’s in Love–Absinthe,” the butler—a barely veiled Stock—leans into a jade-green wall, gazes at the lipstick staining an empty absinthe tumbler, and resigns himself to a life of subjugation and unrequited love. He hangs with his back to the crowd, which likewise pays him little heed.

Between Picon punches, Barnaby showed back up from somewhere down the busy bar. I’d been trading John McEnroe stories with a tennis fan named Renee Richards (not the U.S. Open Doubles finalist of sex-change fame)—she knew him in high school, I peed next to him in a New York theater. Anyway, I’d lost track of him.

“Here,” he said, handing me yet another punch, “I got you another drink. We should probably eat something. I realized I hadn’t eaten anything all day except a piece of lemon meringue pie for lunch.”

I stood two-fisted with my back against a marble pillar that stretched to the second-floor ceiling. A single window in a whole ceiling of them was opened to the late-January night. Oh, to be a bat in that belfry. Caen is dead, and Biederbeck a little thicker through the middle, but Bix is about as much like a photograph in a favorite book as a place can be, meaning every bit as good as you prayed it would be lest you feel your faith wavering. Of course, it could have been the cocktails. It always can.

Earlier, I’d asked Barnaby where Team Martini held court before the days of Bix. It was Alfred’s.

Forgotten, but not gone—having moved from its original location over the Broadway Tunnel to Merchant Street, in the shadow of the Pyramid—Alfred’s is a steak joint in the pre-Fleming’s sense, meaning ripe, aged cuts smoked over mesquite and big martinis and Manhattans cold and keep-’em-coming. Kerouac ate there (and knowing him, drank) and wrote about it in The Subterraneans. Among old souls, Alfred’s was the nostalgic choice in an environment of New Age imbibing.

“Everybody was drinking white wine and then going to the bathroom to do cocaine,” Conrad said. “Well, we didn’t want that. We wanted to do our thing out in the open.”

There was a time when Barnaby Conrad III was among San Francisco’s most notorious bachelors, eligible and elusive at once, as likely to be in his attic painting, or at the bar drinking, as he was being seen on somebody’s arm. (A lot of that time is scheduled to come out in April, in a book titled The Bachelor’s Progress, which his editor called “a sort of Tom Jones romp.”) But then he married Martha Sutherland, an authority on contemporary Chinese art and a CIA operative of 18 years—two passions that must have played out strikingly when she found herself in the midst of Tianmanmen Square in 1989. But then she married Barnaby Conrad.

Of the lumber Sutherlands, she is, whose TV ads once employed country comic Jerry Clower in all his big-bellied bluster. Playing the Kevin Bacon game, that put Clower and Conrad at too close a remove for my comfort and taste. Yes, I had done the fanboy thing and chased my favorite writer (on ice-cold gin drinking and absinthe’s “green fairy” wings, anyway) all the way to the top of Pacific Heights, sometimes called “Specific Whites” for the exclusive group that dwells there.

I’d chased him to a watering hole in a book where writers and drinkers mixed like vermouth and gin (or more likely vodka) in my mind. Yes, I was ashamed. But I was also on assignment.

“San Francisco is a drinking town,” Conrad said, balancing a glass of Amer Picon as he might a combustive nitrate or some tonic of eternal youth.

I drank to that.