Marleigh Riggins is a print production artist and cocktail enthusiast in Los Angeles. She publishes the blog SLOSHED!
With the resurgence of classic cocktail culture in America, there has also been a revival of the places cocktails emerged from. Not bars, which we have always had, but speakeasies and saloons—the places where Jerry Thomas, the Only William, their contemporaries and their successors plied the bartending trade.
At this year’s Tales of the Cocktail, modern day saloonkeeper H. Joseph Ehrmann of Elixir in San Francisco has recruited a panel of saloon experts including Dave Wondrich to talk about the history of saloons in America, from the bars of the East all the way to the legendary saloons of San Francisco. Below is a quick conversation with H. regarding his ideas of saloons and the topics to be covered in the panel.
In the official description of this seminar, you are referred to as a “saloonkeeper.” Is that a self-appointed title? Have you always thought about yourself in those terms, as opposed to the more broad connotations of a “bartender,” “mixologist” or “proprietor”?
I always had a fascination for all things “old west” and when I discovered Elixir was for sale I knew that the previous owners had no idea what they were selling. From the moment I put in my bid I planned on a full restoration and “ascending” to the rank of “saloonkeeper”. I see those other three terms you list as separate things, and I am also all of them, but I see the term “saloonkeeper” as an old and distinguished term applicable specifically to the saloon style of bar. I’m very proud to operate not only a saloon that is current and relevant in today’s bar culture, but an authentic and important part of history.
Without going off on a debatable rant, I believe that not all bartenders are mixologists and vice versa. I am both. And not all proprietors of businesses are operators (some just have money and own the place), but a saloonkeeper, to me, connotes having a significant hand in the management, operations and success of that business (specifically, a saloon!). One could use the title for marketing purposes (I use Proprietor as a title, saloonkeeper as an adjective) but I take pride in it being applicable to true saloon operators.
How did you become interested in the history of saloons, and what prompted you to design a seminar on the topic?
As a kid from New Jersey I was very much a fan of the old west. Everything from toys, movies, books and costumes fascinated me. I began to be a bit of a history buff as my education developed and then a big fan of the West as I ventured out of New Jersey. And within all of those old stories of the west (especially the movies), I always saw the saloon scenes as the most entertaining. As I became a bartender, I continued to admire the old outfits and the architecture, especially the ornate mahogany. Finally, when I found Elixir and bought it, I delved deeper into its own history as well as the collective saloon history of the west and San Francisco. I wanted to know how Elixir really fit into the city’s history as well as the development of California. After meeting local historians Jim Jarvis and John Burton, I learned even more about all of that. Lastly, David Wondrich tied it all together for me and I came up with the idea at Tales last year. He agreed that it would be fun, so away we go…
What are a chief attributes that define a saloon as opposed to a bar or other drinking establishment?
A saloon, to me, is a neighborhood bar. It was the evolution of the Pub or Tavern, with its Victorian architecture (as it came to be known), and it moved west with the pioneers and adventurers that leaned heavily on the bottle. Saloons took on focuses such as Gambling, Dancing, Billiards, Restaurants and Bowling. And then there were straight up drinking Saloons, with nothing else. Many had Cigar Lobbies, (Elixir included) and they often served as community centers or meeting halls in the earliest days of some settlements or mining camps, often because they were the largest buildings in town. The evolution of other styles of bars really came from the saloons as styles and interests changed. And of course, Prohibition was a catalyst for so much of that change. Many saloons were converted to “soft drink parlors” (again, Elixir included) while too many more were shuttered or converted to stores or restaurants. And lastly, a good number simply burned down. As cities grew and society changed, people put bars into a wide variety of buildings, put their personal touches on them and the creativity of American entrepreneurs created a wide variety of concepts. And that continues today…
The word saloon itself denotes a very specific image, a symbol of the American West—a den of iniquity with swinging doors, card tables full of gunslingers, dancing girls and barrels of whiskey. Why do you think saloons came to be the representation of westward expansion and why have they persisted so long in American mythology?
Because the reality of the difficulties of life in those days required nothing more than a place to let loose. The image of the pioneers that pushed west was not just myth, but documented reality. It took all kinds of characters to develop these towns, the good and bad. And a good majority drank and needed to socialize to make sense of it all. The excesses of the drunks, the gunfighters and the hardcore gamblers are the stuff great stories are made of, but the balance of the good with that evil is what make the stories of the human condition compelling. The successful saloonkeepers were, and still are, hard working people. Entrepreneurs with a determination to succeed. That is at the core of the “American Dream” and the reality of our drinks-related social structure fueled that passion. The beauty of the most well-carved mahogany is balanced by the reality of tent city saloons that kept miners working, trappers trapping and homesteaders charging west. It’s a visually stunning history filled with tough realities that may be lost on the luxurious comforts of today for some; and a reminder of the difficulties of getting ahead no matter what you do, for others. The legend of the Saloon must be preserved and the reality of its role is engrained in the fiber of American culture!
What were the circumstances of San Francisco in the nineteenth century that provided such a perfect canvas for saloonkeeping? How did that differ from other parts of the country at that time?
San Francisco was the wildest of Wild West cities. It was over 90% men during the Gold Rush heyday by many accounts. The greed of each mining boom was such incredible fuel for all kinds of people to rush in that lawlessness was inevitable. But it was not only here. The protection of the Golden Gate allowed for massive shipping that brought people from far and wide, and that was the key differentiator from somewhere like Leadville, Colorado at 10,000 feet up in the Rockies. But even that didn’t deter thousands from risking death to get up there and find silver. And Saloons. Hundreds of them. Back in San Francisco, the port and the accessibility to everything along the American coastlines as well as Russia and the Orient made it a natural center for everything. If it was bought, sold built or consumed you could find it here. It attracted the best of the region in every trade and art and became the goal of the most determined to arrive and survive here.
Do you have a favorite historical saloon or saloonkeeper? Which one and why?
I became a real fan of saloons in Leadville, Colorado in the winter of 1993 just after moving to Vail. I went up there looking for a part for my truck on the recommendation of a friend and discovered one of the coolest Old West towns I’ve been to yet. The Silver Dollar Saloon made such an impression on me that stuck and I recently revisted it (I’ll have some memorabilia from Leadville with me at Tales). The original mahogany, tile floor, banquettes, cash register and decades of photos spanning generations. A true saloon that retained its character over the years and never got stripped down in the name of efficiency or laziness. After that, I made it a point top stop in every western town that had a saloon to at least take a peek.
The History of Saloons in America panel begins at 12:30pm Thursday in the Queen Anne Ballroom. Tickets are still available, so act fast.