San Francisco

Meet Maven's Kate Bolton, Bartender of the Year

Last week, Eater named Kate Bolton of Maven the Bay Area's Bartender of the Year. A few days ago we caught up with Kate and discussed everything from her secrets to making balanced cocktails, to the "Lower Haight aroma," to the one ingredient that's the bane of her existence.

Kate Bolton: I grew up in a town called Palos Verdes, that's in the beaches south of Los Angeles. I've just always been drawn to restaurants. I started hostessing when I was 15. All through college I waited tables, and as soon as I turned 21 I got put behind the bar. It was just a very natural progression from waiting tables to bartending. And I just kind of fell in love with being behind the bar, and being a part of people's experiences. People who sit in bars, there's a reason you're there. Are you celebrating a birthday? Are you reuniting with a friend? Or do you need a place to come and sit and be comfortable and just unwind? Just being a part of those experiences really turned me on. I moved around a lot after high school. I waited tables and worked behind bars in Costa Rica and South Dakota and, I mean, everywhere. I landed in the Bay Area around six years ago, and managed Oliveto, and bartended at Va de Vi in Walnut Creek. Then I finally made the move over to the city from the East Bay. Got put behind the bar at Wexler's when that place opened. That was the first opportunity I had to create cocktails. They did a program where he wanted me to do two specialty cocktails a night, which was really fun and really challenging. In the beginning I made some really atrocious stuff. I used avocado. I made these horrible gastriques with blackberries and balsamic vinegar. It's been quite the evolution to realize, "Oh, it's about balance, and about finding something that's beautiful, and works, and is not so esoteric." Haighteration: Do you think you've developed a signature style as you approach these drinks? Or is every one different from the last? KB: I feel like every one is different. I base most of my drinks off different models of proportions that have proven to work over time. And balancing acidity with sweetness, sometimes adding a little salt or something like that — it's a lot like a pastry department, where you're balancing all these different flavor components. H: Has there ever been a drink that you thought worked really well, and you put it on the menu, and then it turns out nobody wants it or people don't like it? KB: Yeah. My feelings about certain cocktails evolve over time also. I might really like something in the beginning, and then a month in, I'm tasting it, and I'm like, "This is just weird," or, "This doesn't work the way I thought it would work." Like I was doing a tarragon-infused tequila with cantaloupe. And in my mind, that worked really well. And it was an OK cocktail, but in the end I was like, "Just get this off the menu. I'm so over it." [Laughs] H: How long did that one last on the menu? KB: It was a couple months. A couple months too long. H: So you were at Wexler's, creating cocktails... KB: Yeah, I left there, and then I was sort of the right-hand man at Michael Mina, when Michael Mina opened the new spot down on California Street. Carlo Splendorini was the bar manager there and I kind of worked right underneath him. So it was definitely his cocktail program, but I did a lot of the syrup creations and things that helped me develop my own style. So I had some freedom there, and I think he really especially liked the syrups I was doing, kind of complex, not just blending sugar and fruit but adding spices and herbs and stuff like that. And that program has definitely transferred over here. I'm really happy and proud of our syrup program. We make our own pineapple gum, we make our own orgeat, which is a really difficult almond syrup to make. We make our own hazelnut orgeat which nobody does, we do ginger syrup which is also difficult to make (and we have a really good one), apple chestnut just went on the menu — that's a great syrup with all types of winter spices, it's really homey and comforting. H: So you were at Michael Mina. How long were you there? KB: I was there for a year and a half. And David Kurtz, who is the owner here, was one of the managers at Michael Mina. So he and I met there, and when this deal came through for him with Maven, he asked me to come along to head the program here. H: Was there any hesitation? Or were you just like, yes. KB: There was a little hesitation to be quite honest. I was a little nervous about the neighborhood, because there was nothing like this here. But they had a really interesting point. Jay used to manage Beretta, and he was like, "Kate, when Beretta opened, there was nothing like that around there. And look how much that neighborhood has evolved and changed." So, that was a good selling point. And I really liked the space. I liked the size. Michael Mina was obviously a huge operation with a ton of people. [At Maven] we're like a family. There's not very many of us. We work together all the time, we work really well together, we have a lot of fun. So there were a lot of things that I really liked about their business plan, their model, about the space itself. Once I got in here, while we were under construction, I just sort of took root. I was like, "I can see myself here." And of course it's so nice not working downtown anymore. Being in a neighborhood is really cool and really fun. I think people were nervous about us before we opened, and it seems to have really changed. People have really opened up to us, and are really happy we're here, and excited about brunch, and excited to have a spot like this for food and cocktails. H: Has there been any part of it that surprised you in a negative way, or things that you weren't expecting, either about this neighborhood, or... KB: I don't think so. At least once a night the whole room fills up with the aroma of Lower Haight. H: Can you describe that aroma? KB: [Laughs] It's not a bad aroma, it's a good aroma. But you're just like, "Yep, I know exactly where I am." There's that [Haight Street] sign right there out the window. But no, I've had a really good experience here. I was a little bit nervous when there was all that stuff going around about people getting mugged. But that can happen anywhere. You've gotta watch your back no matter where you're working. No, I've had a good experience, for sure. H: Do you live in or near this neighborhood? KB: I am in Lower Pac Heights at this point, so I'm just a quick mile down Fillmore. I usually walk it. Not at night, but during the day I walk. H: Had you spent much time in the Lower Haight before Maven came together? KB: Yeah, I used to live right on Page and Laguna, so right on this side of Hayes Valley. I spent more time in Upper Haight before I moved to the city. I hung out at Kezar Pub a lot. Dated a guy that worked there, so I was definitely up there quite a bit. H: So you're here now, things are going well.. Do you feel like you're in a groove now, or are you still finding your footing? KB: I think the groove is definitely happening. I think we're riding that wave. H: Brunch is stable? KB: Brunch has been really great. I've been hearing awesome feedback. I'm actually probably happier with the cocktail menu at brunch than I am with dinner. H: Why is that? KB: Well, it rotates less. So it was easier for me to put staples on the brunch menu that probably weren't going to change very often. Whereas dinner cocktails constantly change, so I have to stay on my toes more with dinner. But there's just six cocktails at brunch, and each one of them I'm super content with. They're all really good. H: Do you ever share recipes with other bartenders, or is that a no-no? KB: People definitely share, borrow... I won't say "steal." I've never felt the need to be protective of my recipes. I think there's nothing new anyway — everything's kind of been done before. So it's just a matter of, "What do I like best? What is the best expression of this spirit or this cocktail?" Like a Pimms Cup, you can make two dozen different ways, so what's the way that I think is best, that's unique, that stands out? H: And how often are you adding new cocktails to the menu? KB: At the moment there are three out of ten cocktails on the dinner menu that haven't changed since the beginning. They've just kind of become staples, people love them, people come back for them. The dishes that are seasonal on the dinner menu are the spots where my cocktail changes. So that happens every couple of months, just like the seasons. H: Do you think one cocktail specifically has emerged as the most popular one, or the one that you would say is Maven's signature cocktail? KB: The Global Warming is probably the closest to a signature. The absinthe sorbet is awesome. That one's been on the menu since the beginning and it probably will remain on there. It's delicious, it's light, it's refreshing, it's citrusy, so it's palatable for many people. It's still complex though, with the sake and the riesling that goes in it. And the absinthe sorbet, as it melts over time, it's just a cool drink. It kind of evolves the whole time you're drinking it as the sorbet melts in. That one will stick around. H: How much of your bartending is making cocktails that are not on the menu? Do you still find that people order off-menu items? KB: Not very much. Last night we didn't pour a single beer until 8:30 at night. If anything, occasionally a Manhattan, or an old fashioned, or a martini. Dirty martinis, that's the one drink I will never understand. I hate olives. Those are like the basic classic cocktails I'll make on occasion. But the heavy majority is our house cocktails. H: You say you hate olives. KB: That's the bane of my bartending existence. H: You hate eating them? Or just handling them and being near them... KB: The handling of, I've had to get over. Because it's not going to go away. The olives that we get come in jugs, like huge jugs of olives. And having to open that, and the juice spills on your hands, and it's kind of oily so it sticks... I've gotten over having to put them on a pick for a drink, but in mass quantities... Yeah. And I do go in and try an olive once a year, just to make sure that I still don't like them. Because everyone loves olives, and I'm open-minded, and I know that tastebuds change over the years. So once a year I go in and make sure that I still hate them. Nothing's changed yet. I was teaching my bar back to make a dirty martini. And he's straw-testing it, because we straw-test things. And he was like, "Try it. Is it diluted enough? Is it cold enough? Is it the right proportions?" And I'm like, "Nope. I'm not gonna try it. I watched you make it, I think it's probably good enough, but I'm not gonna taste it." H: What's your favorite cocktail? Not just at Maven, but if you had to have one cocktail, what's your go-to? KB: OK. I'm going to answer this two ways. There's the cocktail that I will make for myself at home. The only cocktail that I'll make for myself at home is an old fashioned. It's simple, it's delicious, it's hard to mess up. If I was out at a restaurant that knew how to make it properly, or a bar, a Remember the Maine. It's a 1933 cocktail, Charles Baker discovered it in Cuba. It's named after the U.S.S. Maine that sunk. That cocktail is my all-time favorite. H: Would you ever want to add that cocktail to the menu here? Or because it's a standard cocktail it doesn't go on Maven's menu? KB: No, I like adding standard cocktails. When we opened we had the Widow's Kiss, which is a little bit of an obscure cocktail, but it's more of an old classic cocktail from the 1890's. Right now I have a paloma. And the Pimms Cup — those are pretty standard classic cocktails. So I definitely do not mind filling a slot with something that's classic, as long as we're making it really well. H: Is there a cocktail that, when someone orders it, you just want to shoot yourself in the head? That's really difficult to make, or time-intensive? KB: Everyone says that they hate making mojitos. I don't really mind. A sazerac is definitely a drink that requires more steps. If you're going to make it well, you'd better know what those steps are. Or if you want the respect of anyone who knows what they're doing at your bar. Or sometimes, I have to go in the back to get crushed ice for a mojito. So that can be a little bit off-putting. But for the most part I really love what I do. I'm more interested in making a drink the best that I can. I want it to be beautiful, I want it to taste delicious from start to finish, I want it to look beautiful from start to finish, and I want to use the best ingredients. I want to do it right. H: Do you have any unusual or hard to get ingredients or spirits here? KB: There's some stuff back there that's more obscure than others. But no, we don't have anything too off-the-wall. There's stuff that we're making here that nobody else is making though. Like the hazelnut orgeat, the black pepper and pistachio bourbon, no one can figure out how I do that. H: Do you want to tell us? KB: [Laughs] I will tell you. It's not a secret at all. People want to try to make my drinks at home, and some of them would be easy. But some of them, you should just come here for them. Let us do the work for you. Because this is an intensive process. Like with the pistachios — I first put them in a robot coupe to break them up into little pieces, so you get more surface area, so you can pull out more flavor. Then I toast the pistachios with the black pepper. Then that goes into a big vat of bourbon, and that sits for ten days to two weeks. Then I go in and test it, kind of decide when it's ready. And then the straining-off process is just really physical, getting as much of the bourbon out that's soaked into the pistachios as possible. And then you strain that again. So it's not something that you can just whip up at home in ten minutes. It's a process. H: How did you come up with that process? A lot of tinkering? Or did you learn it somewhere? KB: That one was sort of tinkered. The kitchen was going to put a broccoli pasta on the menu. It was a broccoli agnolotti from last spring. And when I worked at Oliveto I remember having a dish there that was a romanesco broccoli side dish. And the kitchen had used an orange pistachio sauce over the top. It was mind-blowing for me, this little side dish. So, when they told me about the broccoli pasta, I remembered that pistachio orange flavor combination working so well, so I was like, "How can I put pistachio orange pepper into a drink?" So, it was a challenge figuring out how to take whole pistachios and get it in there, but it worked really well. H: And what drink does that go into? KB: That's the Hometown Vixen. It was off-menu for a while, but I just brought it back. But that's a drink that people keep coming back for. H: Why did you take it off? KB: Because broccoli went out of season. We switched the pasta. But that's also the challenge of our program. Sometimes I'm not ready for a drink to go. The Hometown Vixen, I was like, "That's a good drink! I don't want to take it off the menu!" But that's our process. That's our business plan. That's our model. H: Are there any other new cocktails for winter that you're excited about? KB: Yeah - we just put the Fireside cocktail on. And I love that name, I feel like it automatically makes you feel warm and cozy. In that one I'm liquifying chestnuts that have been roasted with syrup, I add fresh apples that have been cooked down, and then there's a spice blend of chestnut, cinnamon, clove, long pepper, and star anise. So a nice winter spice blend goes into that syrup, and then that syrup is paired with rye and lemon and egg white. And then I grate a little nutmeg on top. It's really good. The What Ale's You — I'm really happy with that drink. That's the first time I've done a beer cocktail, and it just came together really well. Sometimes I have to really work a drink to death to get it balanced and perfect, and other times magic just happens, and it's like, "Yes! It's there! First try!" The Maven's Milk Punch is really wintery. I'm really happy with that drink also. In that one we're using our Evan Williams selected Maven barrel. We're using Appleton rum. I infused gum syrup, which is like a really viscous simple syrup, with vanilla and a malt powder, and then I just add that syrup with the liquor to milk, and then we just shave hazelnut over the top and a little bit of nutmeg. A milk punch is traditionally a Christmas cocktail, so this is our take on that. H: So do you try the dish first and then figure out what cocktail to pair it with? KB: Normally the chef or the sous chef will come to me with an idea, and they'll give me the main flavor components of whatever dish they're dreaming up. And then I go into my head or into the recipe books in the back that talk about flavor affinities, and I'll research the ingredient lists that they give me. So then I figure out a way that I can find those flavors. H: And then once the dish is created, do you ever find that the drink doesn't quite work? KB: Oh yeah. Sometimes it's a long process, with a lot of debates and disagreements. Occasionally it just works, and that's awesome. But most of the time we get pretty deep into it. Not just the sweetness and the acidity, but the weightiness of the cocktail. Is it too thin? Is it too heavy? And then the presentation. Do you want this on ice? If I want it on ice, why? There's always purpose. There's a purpose to each thing we do. H: I notice that you use a lot of different ice cubes — different sizes and shapes. Beyond aesthetics, is there a reason why you would use one big ball of ice versus cubes, say? KB: With the two-by-two cubes and the spheres, it's mostly just about the aesthetics. Some people would argue that a sphere is going to melt differently than a cube, just because of how it's set up spacially. But for me the bigger thing is, do I want something that's going to melt quickly, or something that's going to melt slower? Obviously a two-by-two cube is going to melt and dilute your drink at a slower rate than a bunch of little cubes. And sometimes that dilution is a good thing. Like if something is a little bit stronger, not in alcohol percentage but, like, a lot of lemon juice, or a lot of sugar, those flavors can be overwhelming. So you sometimes want something to get a little bit more watery and mesh everything together. Whereas with an old fashioned, I want that to melt slower, to maintain that rich bourbony goodness and not get all watered down. H: Oversized ice cubes aside, are there any other hot trends in the bartending world right now? KB: Whiskey's been going on for a while. I wish people would get more into rum. I think rum is the next whiskey. With the bourbons and the ryes, not only do they have aging requirements — so they tend to get bought out, so they can't meet the demand, so the price goes up — with rum, there's a lot more people making it. There are less strict requirements, and it's cheaper to get. And I feel like there are rums that will satisfy the whiskey drinker. It has that same woodiness. Bourbon has that vanilla caramel thing — rum has those same qualities. I feel like people just don't know it, but they could find a lot of rums that they would like to sip on. Everyone thinks of rum like, blended piña coladas, and the nasty Chili's blended daiquiris, but it doesn't have to be that way. H: I assume you've been to Smuggler's Cove? KB: Oh yes. H: When you go to other bars, can you just be a patron? Or are you always in bartender mode? KB: If I go to a bar and I'm just by myself, I'm usually watching. Because this is my world. So I'm paying attention. Especially if the bartender is someone I respect, they're probably a better bartender than I am. So I'm usually watching. H: Do other bartenders come in here and watch you? KB: Uh huh. Last night I had the owner of Bloodhound, the owner of Churchill, the owner of Citizens Band, and one of the owners of Uva Enoteca, Boris, all here. I get a lot of industry staff in here. I think when we first opened I was a little more intimidated, but as the months have passed, I'm more comfortable behind this bar now. H: Do you have any go-to bars in San Francisco, or bars where you really respect the cocktail program? KB: I definitely do. Bar Agricole, Smuggler's is great, Heaven's Dog was great but now it's closed temporarily, hopefully... I love going down to Churchill after work and just getting a drink. If I'm going out I'm not usually going for the whole cocktail experience. I go to bars where I know the bartenders, but a lot of times I just go out and have an old fashioned, or just a beer and a shot. Keep it simple. H: One last question: for people who want to be better at making drinks on their own at home, do you have any quick tips? KB: Sure. If you're making a citrusy drink, you always want to balance however much acid you put in with that much sweetener, unless you're a person who doesn't like sweet things. If I was going to make a sidecar or something, I'd use two ounces of brandy, three quarters of lemon juice, and three quarters of cointreau or triple sec. So you're always using a three quarter to three quarter ratio of sugar to lime juice or whatever. That would be one of the simple tricks. For sazeracs or old fashioneds, most people use two ounces of whiskey. But two and a quarter is where it's at. That little splash extra is one of my secrets. Also, salt is one of my secrets. If you use a little salt in your negroni, it balances the bitterness really well. Salt is a good secret for syrups or balancing bitterness. A little pinch. H: Is there anything else you would want people in the neighborhood to know? KB: We just want to express thanks to the neighborhood for all the support. To everyone in the neighborhood who comes by, which is just amazing to see, we're just excited to be here, and super grateful.
And thanks to Kate for chatting with us. Be sure to swing by Maven (598 Haight, at Steiner) and say hello. Oh-- and try a cocktail or two, too.

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