May 15, 2018

May 15, 2018
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Daniel Hyatt at The Alembic; photo via Facebook by Claypool Cellars.

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You never know when you may be having your last drink with someone. Damn. Photo: © tablehopper.com.

Two weeks ago, San Francisco sufferered the loss of one of its finest bartenders and beloved characters, Daniel Hyatt. His death by misadventure was entirely unexpected, utterly tragic, and has left so many of us reeling. It’s a terrible, heart-wrenching loss. He was one of the city’s cocktail OGs, an incredible innovator and mad genius who was so generous with his knowledge and ideas and skills and neverending talent. So many bartenders came up through working for him at The Alembic, and if you weren’t working there, you were drinking there. I miss my time on those barstools, and hanging out with the fantastic people who worked with him—he had a knack for people.

And it wasn’t just about his cocktails—which were in a class of their own, from their sophisticated construction to their clever names—he was truly the consummate barman. He always made you feel so welcome, that he was happy to see you. He had his special kind of hospitality, one that extended beyond knowing what you like to drink. He was a terrific wit, lord, the zingers and one-liners. Mic drops all night. His intelligence, his knowledge about so many subjects. And his kindness. He was a sensitive soul. Salty, but a sweetheart. And just the coolest of the cool. Exhaustingly cool, on so many levels. He struck that perfect balance of not giving a fuck (so punk rock), and totally giving a fuck (he cared about so many things, so many people).

I attended a memorial gathering for him two weekends ago, and wrote these words about him in case people were going to speak about our friend—because if I was going to attend the memorial of my friend and favorite bartender, the one who really turned me on to the magic that a brilliant cocktail could contain, I better come correct. While we didn’t end up sharing formal remarks, we all shared many memories and hugs and tears and stories. And rye.

So, I want to share what I wrote. It’s a bit personal, and profane. Many of us are mourning right now, so I want to pour one out for this beloved human. He touched so many people. My deepest condolences to all his dear friends and family. Daniel is in a very special place in our hearts forever.

Oh, Daniel.

I remember sitting at the bar at Winterland for the first time in, I don’t know, late 2004? Or early 2005? I was looking at the cocktail menu, which was a rare thing to have in a restaurant back then. I was reading it over, and saw the funniest name for a drink I’d ever seen, and is still my favorite to this day: I Lost My Necktie.

I snorted and asked the intruiging-looking man with glasses across the bar from me, “Excuse me, who wrote this menu?” Mr. Blue Eyes looks over his glasses sliding down his nose and replies, “I did.” I said, “Well, that is the funniest fucking name for a drink I have ever seen and I love it. I’ll have one please, thank you.” And that’s where my eternal crush on Daniel Hyatt began. I think we can all say we had quite a crush on this rare and utterly charming and kind and witty man. What a character.

That’s also where I really fell in love with cocktails: at the bar at Winterland. I’d never had anything like the concoctions Mr. Hyatt was dreaming up. I would just go in there and sit at the bar and order as many cocktails as I could handle, which, back then, was quite a lot. I’d never had anything like them—so fresh, and bright, and nuanced, with exotic flavors from deep within a globetrotter’s pantry. A food lover’s cocktails. And all so brilliantly named. Each one had a story to tell, or would invite you to make one up.

The dishes from the wildly talented chef Vernon Morales were so cutting edge and unique, giving us bacon ice cream before anyone else; the desserts from Boris Portnoy, from the famous caramelized brioche French toast to what was one of the most beautiful cheese plates I’ve ever seen, with carrot marmalade, nougat, and hazelnuts. Those three were powerhouses of flavor creativity, and were so damn ahead of their time, that stupid San Francisco didn’t understand the pure level of deliciousness happening there, and Winterland tragically closed in 2006.

I wanted to confirm the date Winterland closed, and found this post from the one and only Mr. Hyatt, on Yelp, dated July 14th, 2006, in response to a typically frustrated Yelper—Frisco J.—trying to order some drinks at a busy birthday party, but what he “really wanted to do was to slap [the bartender] around and piledrive his ass to the ground.”

Here was Daniel’s retort: “Alright, in all fairness, I work for this place. In fact, I manage it. For the most part, I like these postings but take them with a grain of salt. Everyone is allowed their own opinion, it helps all of us in the industry evaluate what is working and what is not, and do our job better. The reason I even bother to post this is that I find the last few posts to be petty, and really just kicking some very accommodating people around.

“As everyone probably knows by now, we are closing at the end of the week due to lack of business in our location.

“Maybe nobody knows, or cares, what is involved with closing a restaurant, and perhaps it doesn’t matter to you. One thing that happens at slow, and closing restaurants, is that you find yourself short staffed. Especially when the volume of business is four times that of a normal Tuesday or whatever.

“Second, if you find yourself standing in a party of 50, waiting for a drink. Hello, you’re in a bar at a birthday party. You are not the only one waiting and nobody is standing around ignoring you.

“Cheap shots may make you feel a little vindicated about the wait for your second round of drinks, but think about the people who walked around the room with your macaroni and cheese, searching for you, as you bounced from seat to seat in that crowd.

“The people that work here care about this place more than any staff I have worked with in years. They have stood through many slow nights, and put in the extra when we needed it. You could find no more knowledgeable or dedicated restaurant staff anywhere, period.

“So do us all a favor and save the complaints for someone that may benefit from them.

“If you want to ‘piledrive someones ass to the ground’… give me a call.”

Boom. Classic Daniel delivery. So much heart, and kindness, and trying to get someone to understand a situation and have some empathy. But also, fuck you and seriously, don’t even fuck with me.

Frisco J, don’t call him.

I found this other gem, from another Yelper:

“The floater (as I thought of him throughout the evening since I couldn’t really tell what his job was) asked us how we were. We replied, Great. We reciprocated, and he said in a very monotone and possibly heroine induced tone, Well. You can’t believe how well I am. We had to stifle our laughter until we were seated. So far, weird.”

Motherfucker! God, he was so droll. It almost wasn’t fair for him to be so funny, like, he took the lion’s share of funny in this world, and now he took it away with him. Snappiest repartee. Comebacks and twists and turns of phrase that would have pleased Henry Miller, with some Bukowski-esque misanthropic observations thrown in, but really, he loved people so hard. I know many of us have been looking back on our texts (comedy gold, I swear), cheeky emails from him, and if anyone has a drawling voicemail from him, I’d really love to hear it.

I’m going to miss his greeting of “Hey mama” or my very favorite, “Hey, lil’ mama” in that trademark lazy twang of his.

He had one of the kindest hearts, a champion of women and his fellow bartenders and misfits and just humanity in general. He knew how to take such good care of people, and connect. It made his already-brilliant cocktails taste even better.

I’m going to miss his smoky-spicy hugs, that hangdog face of his, those electric and piercing blue eyes he’d try to hide under his smudgy glasses and arched brows and mop of greasy hair, those eyes that were all-seeing and didn’t miss a move or a beat. They would sear into you, especially if he looked at you from over them, as he’d tilt his head down. And those eyes were also capable of transmitting the biggest, warmest, toe-tingling smile. If you could make Daniel’s eyes crackle, you’d have quite possibly made a funny joke. Maybe. Perhaps he was just humoring you, because really, he would have said it in a funnier way. But even so, you’d feel love and warmth and connection pour out of them when they’d lock on you. He’d see you. And in those moments of a shared eye lock, I felt like I could see him too.

Our Johnny Cash of cocktails liked to keep his cards close to his chest, the master deflector, but he’d occasionally show you his hand, maybe on a late-night call or at the end of the night at the bar. But really, while at the bar, it was always better to just keep up with the banter, because by the end of a night at The Alembic, you’d have learned about five whiskies, a rare French liqueur, an obscure cocktail book, an unknown blues singer, the origin of some random herb he’d sourced or grown in the back, what goes into his ras el hanout, a great place for dim sum, and then he’d whip up some custom shot just for you before sending you out the door. (In my case, it was The Bone, a spicy whiskey concoction that was always the kick in the ass I needed.)

I loved ordering mint juleps, just to fuck with him. He’d pretend-scowl at me as he’d beat the bag of ice. But it was his fault for making them taste so damn good. Bartender, another faceful of mint, please!

I am so damn fortunate I got to enjoy perching at his bar for so many years. And enjoying some evenings on the same side of the bar too. He was a wicked talent, an inspiration to so many, but also so insouciant, casually downplaying the brilliance of his combinations and inventions and techniques and flavors. Like a jazz musician who made it look easy, although he’d been up chasing a melody for nights. Like a humble rock star…truly a rare breed.

His menus were always my favorite to read, and I’ll be going through my stacks of old menus to find and admire them. Cheeky bastard. He was a bartender’s bartender, a writer’s bartender, a chef’s bartender, and most definitely a drinker’s bartender.

Back in 2013, when Daniel was leaving The Alembic, I wrote: “While many will miss Hyatt’s bluesy cool, quick wit, and wicked dranks, we’ll just need to see what’s next for the man—you can’t keep that kind of creativity hidden away for long.”

And we shouldn’t. Keep making his cocktails, make sure everyone in your life has tasted his Southern Exposure, a proper Vieux Carré. Remember how to treat people, be kind. Take time to talk with them. Check in. Daniel leaves an indelible legacy, one that was uniquely his that was rooted in brilliance and kindness, and it’s up to us to keep it polished and shining bright.

Rest in Peace, friend.

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