Brent Butler is one of San Francisco’s most talented taste makers. He helped turn one of San Francisco’s leading bars, Black Bird, into what it is today and has proven to be a vital addition to any establishment looking to serve high end cocktails. I met up with him one afternoon while we watched a gigantic fire burn from his window… here’s how it went.
Lackluster Life: Drink making seems like it could be something that gets old really quick since you’re dealing with so many people you may or may not care about, but I’m guessing you don’t care about since you deal with so many. Why do you do it?
Brent Butler: Haha, hmm… why? Well you know, drink making started as just a job but then it slowly started to become a craft. It was always a means of paying the bills but then the climate sort of changed or there was a return to having a little bit of pride in it rather than just banging out drinks and I just happened to be interested in that aspect of it. So once my prospective changed, it didn’t feel like so much of a job anymore. The negative or annoying aspects got quieted down once you could be creative with it. More and more I’ve been able to do what I want to do when I go into work.
LLL: When did it start being like that for you?
BB: I guess right when Gina and I went to go work at Black Bird. That was kind of the first chance that she and I had to put our stamp on something and that worked out really well…So that was about 4 or 5 years ago.
LLL: Yeah… and Black Bird’s one of the cities top bars. Do you think you had an impact on its success?
BB: I would have to say that yeah, both Gina and I did because initially the concept of that place was kinda up in the air… it could have gone either way. Gina and I both felt that specifically 15 Romolo was what a bar should be now, with all the cocktail stuff coming on strong. So when Black Bird was being built out we both saw it as an opportunity. There were no modern cocktail bars in that area so lets learn all we can, real quick and try to fake it til’ we make it with this. The neighborhood responded and still today it’s know as one of the better cocktail bars.
LLL: What do you think was your best drink that you came up with at Black Bird?
BB: We had a drink called Leather Bound Book. It was basically a Manhattan with a marrow instead of vermouth and at the time there was this company making tobacco bitters and there was absinth in the glass. It was all like old fashion tasting… manly whiskey tasting.
LLL: What was your worst drink you did there?
BB: We did a barrel aged martini that was terrible haha
LLL: Haha Yes!
BB: We started doing these barrel aged drinks after reading about this place up in Portland that was doing them and it became really popular but we just really quickly ran out of ideas. We changed the menu every three months so it was like…”Ok, what are we gonna do…?” and to be honest, we didn’t really put that much effort into it so that’s why it was prolly so bad. It was like, “lets throw a martini in there and see what happens.. we need another drink for the menu.”
LLL: So you’ve moved on from Black Bird and you’re now at West of Pacos. Things seem to be going well.
BB: Yeah it’s worked out great to be honest. It’s been the best for what I want to do. They basically hired me saying, “hey, we want you to do what you want to do…”
LLL: You’ve had a couple of recipes published in magazines and cocktail books. How does one stay original in the world of tastes? It seems like only certain things can and will work and everything has been done.
BB: Well you look at what works and and you know that these kinds of ingredients work kinda work like these [other] ingredients and you just experiment and after enough time you start picking up flavor notes and building familiarity. But I don’t think anyone out there would say that they are being 100% original and I don’t think that’s the goal really, it’s not for me. My goal is: Does it taste good?
LLL: I really don’t understand why people are so interested in cocktails. Why does a person like me need to know everything about what’s in their drink? Why do you think people seem so fascinated with it?
BB: There’s so much “one-ups-mans-ship” going on in todays culture everybody wants to have this hyper specialized knowledge about everything. I’ll have people come in… it’ll be two of them. They’ll sit down and one will instantly start explaining the drinks to the other one when the other one is just there to have a good time…. and it seems strange because it’s like, “just let the person explore for themselves. And I don’t know where that comes from. It could be a competition thing… it’s annoying.
LLL: Yeah. It is.
BB: It’s a tough balance because you want to put enough information out there so that people know what they’re getting but not so much that a person who just wants a drink doesn’t get bored. But it also could be that restaurants and bars have kinda become a hobby for a competition for people. These people work 60 hours a week, they’re not gonna goin their free time and do archery but they’re definitely going to go to some bars and restaurants. So they’ll go and try to hit ever bar around and maybe it’s just fun for them to nerd out about it.
LLL: Have you noticed any thing different about having mostly “tech people” at the bar compared to 5 years ago?
BB: People are more experimental with what they are willing to drink. I mean we have a drink right now that has carrot juice and turmeric in it. Five years ago I couldn’t have done that. It’s kinda like a social experiment.
LLL: Haha! What. will. they. except?[spoken in a robotic voice]
BB: Hahaha! Yeah. But for better or for worse the restaurant industry seems to be thriving because of the tech industry and its been good for me but I don’t know if I can speak if it’s [tech] good for the greater skeem of things… I still don’t understand what anybody’s doing for a living haha!!
LLL: Haha! So what’s next for you man?
BB: Well Gina and I started a little company with our other partner, one of the owners of West of Pacos, called Sip Craft. So we’re trying to see if there’s something that can exist outside of a [bar]. And see if there is an event/catering arm off of that thing. We did a wedding a couple of months ago and it was a ton of work but it was fun to be out in the world doing something rather than behind the bar.
LLL: Sweet man! You wanna get some pictures real quick now?
BB: Yeah, sure!
So this band, Foxygen, let rock n roll out of the box last night at a show that the drummer invited us to. The night really couldn’t have been better, went to the show with two super hot ladies who were the connection to the band, didn’t get drunk, and smoked some pretty fun weed. I was so relieved after talking with Shaun, who’s the drummer of the band, because he’s a really cool guy and we shared a lot of the same care and understanding for music. So when his band didn’t suck, I was really happy. It’s the worst when you meet a cool person and their music, art, or whatever is horrible… it’s like trying to date a really good looking girl with bad breath.
Flying through the clouds with so many things to do the sight of a plane always leaves me feeling depressed and alone. I’ve had that feeling about planes ever since I was a child. I love how Lane Coder captured that exact feeling for me in this photo from his RIIS Park series.
This is a photo by Terry Barentsen that instantly caught my attention. I can’t figure out if those glasses are a reflection or some sort of coating on the lenses. To me it looks like a nuclear bomb explosion inside her eyes or once again, a nebula forming it’s stars. Either way, it lit my curiosity.
This is some footage of Tony and me playing at the Stork Club in Oakland. It was a really fun place to play because it’s right on the strip and has ok sound. We love to spend time designing our sets because we feel that playing music is only half the battle of bringing people into our world. This set is supposed to look like a Nebula giving birth to stars.
This is the first song I ever recorded. I was 16 years old and my friend, Aaron, was 14. We recorded it his house which backed up against a trailer park that was known for having one of the worst child abuse cases on record. Staring directly into the cemetery from his bedroom window, it’s strange to think back on how dreadfully haunting a night can feel in the middle of America.
This is some funny stuff from Mike Poore and “The Capitain & Casey Show” with some solid skating. I’ve loved skate videos for as long as I can remember. They are absorbently nostalgic. They remind me of how I always want to be in motion; it’s my nature and my habit. The flow and rhythm of a skate film makes me remember my natural gravitation towards the study of music and science.
Six Wolves is a creative agency out of Australia. One of it’s co-owners I use to spend a great amount of time with. Running from here to there in a world of whatever we wanted. This picture is reminiscent of the times we’d lay and day dream, for what was an entire day.
This video moves slowly but just watch the amount of tricks Alex Carolino bangs out for this Mike Poore piece that was shot way back in 2008. I met Mike while he was filming this dude skating these stairs at Dolores Park one day. He later ended up doing a piece on me and the music I was making at the time and then eventually ended up editing my first music video for this song called “I am Gangster, I am Monkey”. He’s now prolly on tour somewhere with DC Shoe company living that good life!
We had rode our bikes up to this really nice place called Lafatette Park. We smoked some really heavy chronic and coasted down to the movie theaters. The Budapest Hotel is a good addition to Wes Anderson’s catalog. We walked outside and the world felt still, I looked up and saw these oh so strange clouds and couldn’t help but think, “did the cavemen see clouds like this ever or are we a special form of new witness?”
This video is by a dude named Sole. We use to play the same venue every now and then and after a couple of times of speaking he gave me this Noam Chomsky book from his on road collection. He asked me to read it and let him know what I thought next time we ran into each other. That night, playing in this tiny low ceiling venue people were electric, I still have goose bumps from that energy. I never ran back into him but, I loved the book.
If you’re interested in the background to today’s news over the arrest of State Senator Leland Yee and notorious Chinatown gangster Raymond ‘Shrimp Boy’ Chow, check out some of these links on the background of the story.
The Ghee Tung Tong goes back to the earliest days of SF’s Chinatown and was closely related to Sun Yat Sen’s fundraising efforts for the 1911 revolution of China. Click here to read more on Chinese Secrete Societies
Chow came of age in the Chinatown gang wars of the early 1970′s and was even present at the legendary Golden Dragon Massacre. How he ever got out of jail is an issue that surely will be discussed in the coming weeks:
Finally, consider this article from 2006. Are today’s arrests tied to this killing? (notice Shrimp Boy showed up to the funeral in white):
This song was recorded circa 1998 in Lafayette, Colorado. I grew up with this dude named Aaron, we both were pretty reclusive kids always messing around with any sort of instruments we could find. There was a second hand store called Sister Carmen that was hidden within a mass of trailer homes in the shittier part of town. We would both dig for records there and eventually ended up sampling them to make our music easier. This is one of my favorite songs that came from that time of my life, we were about 16 years old when we were making this type of music just for fun and for something to do on a Saturday night since we both typically weren’t invited to any of the parties going on.