A natural communicator and community-builder, Erick Castro has become as well-known for his work outside of bars as within them.
Born in Hemet, California, and raised in San Jacinto, two scrappy towns situated between Los Angeles and Palm Springs, Castro grew up in a gregarious Mexican American family where parties were weekly affairs and generous hospitality the norm. After starting work in the hospitality industry at the age of 14, he first made a name for himself at San Francisco’s Bourbon & Branch and Rickhouse, then went on to work as a brand ambassador for Plymouth and Beefeater in 2011.
After leaving his post, Castro moved to San Diego and opened Polite Provisions (a bar inspired by 19th-century soda fountains) in 2013, then Raised by Wolves (an opulent cocktail lounge near-hidden in a swanky suburban shopping mall) in 2018. In between, he collaborated with the team behind Cocktail Kingdom on the opening of New York’s Boilermaker. More recently, his work has taken him out from behind the bar: He created and hosts the Bartender at Large podcast, which he turned into a road-tripping documentary in 2017.
His experiences in virtually every facet of the industry have underscored Castro’s commitment to the bar as a community, not just a business. Even when talking about the drinks themselves, he’s drawn to the human element—what a given drink says about the person who is making or consuming it. It’s little wonder he describes the Old-Fashioned as a particularly revealing drink. “The Old-Fashioned is essentially the window into the bartender’s soul,” he says. “It can tell you all about a bartender and their philosophy.” It also happens to be his favorite cocktail.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Castro’s focus on community is top of mind, which is why one initiative from the upcoming Old-Fashioned Week (October 16-25) has resonated with him. This year, Elijah Craig will be donating up to $100,000 to the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation; funds raised will go toward direct financial assistance, grants to nonprofit partners working to address the needs of restaurant workers during this crisis, and to a zero-interest loan program for small businesses starting back up.
Lessons learned during the shutdown
When his bars closed for the pandemic, Castro was braced for the long haul. “I had been reading dispatches from China,” he recalls. “I knew the shutdown would be at least three to four months.” While that may have prepared him better than others who anticipated a return to normal after just a few weeks, it has nonetheless been a challenging time.
Erick Castro: If there is one thing that I have relearned during the shutdown, it is just how much we hunger for social interaction. While we can make incredible cocktails and food at home, you simply cannot replace the spark of energy that you get from being in a great bar with other people who are having a good time.
I like to think people come to my bar for fancy ice cubes and fancy cocktails, but the largest reason people go to bars is to connect with other people.
It’s important to keep that front of mind as bars start to reopen, and even post-reopening. Even after we get a vaccine, it’s important for bars to remember as they try to survive and start to pay off bills from the last nine months, a year, whatever, is that we need to make sure we’re focused on that human element. [Otherwise,] it’s going to make it that much more difficult for your bar to rebound and get that strong support.
Going above and beyond, for the sake of community
Looking ahead, Castro is adamant about taking all necessary steps to reopen his San Diego bars safely, for the sake of staff as well as guests: “We want to do it right, and go above and beyond the guidelines.” The same applies for going the extra mile in terms of hospitality.
Castro: Going forward, it is going to become even more important for us to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to make sure that guests feel welcome with the warmth of hospitality. We should never underestimate how far a little kindness and goodwill can go when taking care of folks at the bar.
When Polite Provisions and Raised by Wolves [re-open], we want to do it right, and go above and beyond the guidelines. We want our staff to feel safe, and for people to know we are doing everything we can. We’re picking up dividers for bar seats, glass for the bartenders. We’re going to do everything we can to keep it beautiful with the aesthetics we have.
But I think even bars with very limited capital can find ways to protect your staff and guests and show that they care: dividers can be as inexpensive as PVC plastic and 2-by-4 plywood. Masks for your staff. Windex and soap and water. It doesn’t have to be expensive.
Regarding hospitality, it’s more important than ever as [bars] reopen, that guests feel they are in a haven where they are being taken care of. That means healthwise, as well as in regards to empathy, and having a tasty beverage.
The Old-Fashioned as “the ultimate chameleon”
“A window into the bartender’s soul,” the Old-Fashioned can reveal how a bartender approaches cocktails at large, Castro says. Over the years, he estimates he’s created dozens, possibly even hundreds of variations of the classic. “It all hinges on your choice of spirit, sugar and bitters,” he says, so “it can perfectly illustrate a given bartender’s philosophy to drink-making.”
Castro: The Old-Fashioned is my favorite cocktail. It always will be, just because it’s an exercise in economy. It shows how you can create wildly complex flavors with an absolute minimum of ingredients. It’s only three ingredients, but it’s open to endless permutation because you can constantly rotate any of them out. It’s the ultimate chameleon. As cocktails become more elaborate and more extravagant in presentation, it’s important to remember the roots.
It’s great that there is a charitable component [to Elijah Craig Old-Fashioned Week] this year. The industry, and the people who make up our industry, are in a dire situation. 2020 is shaping up to be one of the toughest years in my lifetime, if not in our republic. It’s good that we can celebrate a piece of Americana as well as do good for the community.