A bit on the outskirts of North Park, San Diego, lies URBN Coal Fired Pizza, home of gourmet, thin-crust, fresh ingredient pizza, and Jason O’Bryan, head bartender. The easy pace of O’Bryan and URBN Coal Fired Pizza belie the excitement that starts outside the door when customers get a first glimpse into the light-filled space through large glass garage doors. Spacious, with tall vaulted ceilings, unfinished wood and an industrial fan that covers half of the ceiling, the restaurant and bar feel relaxed and free.
O’Bryan takes time with each customer to provide a higher quality product that may take a few moments to make. Well-studied and excited about the sheer depth of flavors and sensations found in the cocktail world, O’Bryan’s easy charm warms up the crowd. His oft-repeated goofy quotes bring a ready smile to the regulars who feel they’ve found their new best friend next door. In the words of a co-worker: “Don’t you just love to sit in front of Jason at the bar? He’s always mixin’ up something clever.”
Dana Fares, Quady Winery’s company mixologist in the San Diego – L.A. area, found him ready to open up about the many joys of making cocktails. Originally from Chicago, O’Bryan moved out to Southern California to study at UCLA and after a one or two cross country moves decided west was best. DF: How did you get into mixology? O’BRYAN: It was a long road. I knew less than nothing until I graduated college and moved to Boston. I was lucky in that the closest bar to my apartment was a cocktail dive called Green Street Grille, where an annoyingly talented bartender named Misty Kalkofan made me my first rye old fashioned. That was it for me. It was in October of 2007, and after that drink I never went back. DF: How long have you been mixing drinks? O’BRYAN: My manager Nick and I like to invent fake biographies for mixologists, like “at age 6, he mixed a suicide at the McDonald’s soda fountain that was so transcendent as to bring the other children to tears.” But practically, my first bar job was as a barback at a tequila bar in Venice Beach when I was 21, which was 7 years ago. My first job actually tending bar was 5 years ago, but it wasn’t until the summer of 2008 that I could say I was an actual, honest to god bartender. DF: What are some of your favorites? O’BRYAN: I’m particularly fond of whiskey. The Old Fashioned is the drink I have the most respect for, but probably my favorite drink is a slight variation on a Fort Point, the house cocktail of a bar called Drink in Boston. It’s rye, Punt e Mes, and a little bit of Benedictine, with the variation being a smokey scotch rinse on the glass and a flamed orange peel. Now that I think about it, that was a Misty Kalkofan invention as well. DF: What do you love most about your job?O’BRYAN: I love the cocktails part of it. Drinking well, like eating well, is a moredeliberate way of living life. Tending bar is not an inherently cerebral activity, but when you step into the realm of craft cocktails and craft spirits, you undertake a debt of knowledge that you can never really repay. If a decent definition of knowledge is understanding the scope of your own ignorance, I know a little about a little. The vodka sodas get old, the cosmos and lemon drops get old, even the money gets old, but in learning about cocktails and spirits, I feel like there’s no ceiling. There’s always more to know, always room for improvement.
DF: What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of your job? O’BRYAN: It’s a strong field, but I’d say my least favorite thing is being forced to make things that I know are terrible and not to roll my eyes or sigh or affect some other form of pretentiousness in some kind of silent protest. My restaurant is vulnerable to accusations of hipsterdom, so we have to try twice as hard to make sure we don’t act that way. And when – like tonight – someone asks me for seven Three Wise Men shots, probably the hardest part of my job is to not just look at them and say, “….. really?” DF: What is your opinion of vermouth?O’BRYAN: Vermouth is lovely. In general, vermouth is hugely useful – particularly sweet. Sweet vermouth is best friends with American whiskey, and as a whiskey drinker I frequently find it awkward to invite one and not the other.
DF: How do you feel the new premium vermouths on the market are changing cocktails? O’BRYAN: It’s forcing people – me included – to examine the category a little more. It’s tempting as a non-dominant ingredient to just choose the “best” one and use it for everything, and the proliferation of new, excellent vermouths challenges that. Carpano Antica is a wonderful sweet vermouth, and for a while was my catch-all, impress-people vermouth, but things like Vya and Dolin challenge that. Now I have to think about what I want the vermouth to do, and then I can choose the right one.DF: What are the qualities you look for in a good Vermouth?
O’BRYAN: Identity, complexity, and balance, which all sounds a bit abstract, but you know it when you taste it.
DF: Has Vya adjusted where you stood on vermouth?
O’BRYAN: When a new quality product emerges, particularly in a frequented category like vermouth, you have to reassess everything. Say I know 50 recipes with sweet vermouth – with something like Vya, it will fit better (or interestingly different) with some of those, so you follow your intuition and experiment until you get it right.
DF: What imagry does Vya evoke for you?
O’BRYAN: The word “Vya,” it sounds to me like a Greek goddess with blue-ish silver robes. Maybe someone Odysseus would’ve run into.
DF: What’s your favorite Vya cocktail?
O’BRYAN: It’s pretty great to drink straight, though I like it a lot in a Negroni and it is divine in a Don’t Give Up The Ship.
DF: What’s the inspiration behind your East of Martinez?
O’BRYAN: I wanted something vermouth forward, and what better than a Martinez? The Martinez is from the close of the 19th century, and traditionally calls for gin, sweet vermouth, and maraschino liquor. The Vya Sweet has such a
strong cherry essence that I wanted some spice for balance, so I subbed Canton ginger liqueur for maraschino and angostura for orange bitters, and the bright fruits and spice just called for tequila. I threw in just a bit of lemon juice as well. The fruit in the Vya is wonderfully bright, but I like how it wrestles with acidity.
DF: What is special about Vya?
O’BRYAN: I like how bold it is. How fruit forward and robust. I like the bitter edge of Carpano Antica, but sometimes it’s not necessary. But even more than that, I like that quality wineries are getting into the vermouth game. Every time a new high quality product comes out, I get a whole new set of “what’s that?” And when people demonstrate curiosity, especially about things that are delicious, that’s it. I’ve got them.
Bright fruit and spice come out to play in this lively adaptation of the Martinez by Jason O’Bryan of Urban Coal Fired Pizza in San Diego. Try it and let us know what you think.
East of Martinez