In this week's Appetite food and drink column in the paper, I relished the opportunity to return to a time of delicious handmade fountain drinks at Cole Valley's new Ice Cream Bar (albeit with some innovative contemporary flavor twists). In between sips of wild cherry phosphate, I got to talk to Russell Davis, the bartender who developed the fantastic soda fountain program, about the soda jerk revival -- and got him to share some of his sassafras secrets.
SFBG Why is Ice Cream Bar different from other soda fountain revival spots in the US?
Russell Davis There are a few spots in the country supporting the "revival" of the soda fountain and its lost drinks, but none take it to the extent and level that we do at Ice Cream Bar. From top to bottom, our menu is not just based on using quality ingredients and refined processes, but also on its inherent historical value. Our syrups are all fresh, cold agitated and our ice is all hand cut. Even our floats are built to the same specifications as they would have made them in 1894 Chicago. We are not playing around.
SFBG What connection do you see between classic and creative cocktails, the world you come from, and old fashioned soda fountain drinks?
RD Many bartenders who didn't flee the country during Prohibition to practice their craft became soda jerks. There was a beautiful way of mixing that was refined during this period. Also, the techniques that we apply to soda fountain drinks can, and I believe will, be used in the crafting of a refined cocktail. What I've noticed as the biggest difference between mixology and soda jerking is that whereas bartenders focus on using fresh fruits and other seasonal ingredients, soda jerks try to capture flavors (in a tincture or extract)....
SFBG Tell me about the sassafras root beer featured at ice Cream Bar. How is this different from other homemade root beers?
RD First, it's made using fresh sassafras and a house built sassafras extract, something that you do not find in mass-produced root beer because, by USDA standards, it is illegal due to its slightly carcinogenic properties. But, there is nothing to be afraid of: it's about as dangerous as cinnamon or nutmeg. Most people use wintergreen, spearmint, and licorice or anise to replicate that sassafras flavor that was in the original old school recipes of root beer, but nothing compares to the flavor of the true stuff. Next, I use black and jasmine tea as a base combined with a variety of other herbs, then cold brew it with ground marshmallow root to create a thick creamy texture and give it head. Lastly, I add a little bit of St John's Wort in so, hopefully, it will put you in a good mood as well.
SFBG Given more than 75 tincture options and house-made extracts, what crazy concoction would you order if you wanted something unusual?
RD [Laughs] You'll just have to wait and see when the next menu comes out!
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