On a recent Saturday night, I caught up with Keli Rivers over a foggy quantity of cocktails and a rotating cast of obscure spirits at the newish Oakland-based Plum Bar. Keli is the bartender and manager of the Hotsy Totsy Club in Albany, CA, who has been there for a little over three years now. A few things happen when you drink with Keli, one being that it doesn't matter who you are or where you bartend, she just might ask you to remake a drink if it's not to her liking. The other is that your tolerance is nowhere as high as you thought it was. But really, Keli isn't just a bartender, but a librarian of libations, and the Hotsy Totsy is her library. In a lot of ways, it is the perfect bar. It's old, it has history, and it has retained that casual, worn-in-in-a-good-way vibe that still flirts with a divey history from years past. Yet somehow, the Hotsy Totsy has adapted with the times in all the right ways. It's well-known to restaurant industry types as one of the best bars on either side of the bay, both for their detailed approach to classic cocktails, the aforementioned vibe — and even the taco truck in their parking lot (more on that later).
Tell us a little bit about the history of the Hotsy Totsy. I know it has a reputation that precedes itself in the Bay Area.
It's been around since 1939 and it's the longest running bar in Albany. And one thing you've got to understand about Albany — it's been a city for just over 100 years. It's a small town that's literally about 7 blocks long, in between Berkeley and El Cerrito. What ended up happening was that the L train — also called the Lincoln — which went from cross country from the east coast to the west coast, went through what ultimately became Albany but wasn't at the time. It went down San Pablo Ave, where the Hotsy Totsy is. At the time, the strip that is now Albany had like 20 bars, 10 juke joints, a whole bunch of whore houses. The police forces, etc., had no idea what to do about it, how to handle it, etc. So since it needed it's own individual policing kind of thing, the state government decided to make a city out of it. And they got this guy from Albany, NY, to come out and be the first mayor. Hence the name. And since then, almost all of the bars disappeared. But the Hotsy Totsy is one of the 4 remaining. It used to be called Mike & Wanda's Hotsy Totsy Club.
It used to be a dive bar though, yeah?
It's gone through about 7 or 8 different owners by now. When Jessica Maria (one of the current owners) bought it… total dive. We're talking everything in cans. Blood stains on the ceilings. Bikers. A mess. But, what it did have was charm. A lot of it. And Jessica wanted to keep that intact somehow. Lots of great, loyal regulars. So the changes they made were subtle but smart. They made it look better without gutting it, they got better spirits, they started doing classically made drinks. Changed the music slightly. The beer selection, that kind of thing. And over the course of time, it became a cocktail bar. But they kept the neighborhood feel of it. And a lot of the regulars, and of course what became new regulars.
Does that delicious taco truck still park outside?
Every day except Tuesday, since they wanted one day off. So Tuesdays we do something called Stewsday. Basically, since we still need some late night food around, I'll make a stew, put it in crock pots, and just have it there for free and available to anyone who is at the bar. Until it's gone.
Wait. Free stew made by you on every Tuesday?
Yeah. It changes every month. This month is Marrakech veggie stew over cous cous. Roasted cauliflower, squash, green beans, garbonzo beans. But I can do everything from thai curry, to spaghetti & meatballs, to pozole, to an Ethiopian lentil stew. Been doing that for 3 years now.
Impressive. But moving on, I have to ask — Mixologist. How do you feel about the term? Is it some bullshit, or is it actually what you do? Or are you a bartender?
I am not a mixologist. I am a bartender. Straight up and down, I make drinks for people and get paid for it. I can mix things, sure. I have an insane amount of recipes in my head, yes. But when it comes down to it, I work in hospitality. I'm there to facilitate. I wouldn't say it's bullshit since, people can call themselves whatever you want. At the end of the day though, what we do is not rocket science. A lot of people can do it. Maybe you care more than other people do, but once you start thinking it's super difficult and that you're a star behind it, the ego gets in the way and it takes away from what you're supposed to be there for.
Do you have peers who think of themselves that way?
I mean… you have understand, that term… part of it is media driven, part of it is meant to pull apart what dive bar bartenders do compared to those who work with fresh ingredients, etc. I know some people who can let their ego get a little puffed up from, you know, winning whatever award, being recognized, etc. Again, nothing against the term. Someone like Scott Beattie — very humble guy. I don't think he calls himself a “mixologist.” He's just like, “I'm just here doing my job.” And the other thing — there's a time and a place for everything. Whether it's a Miller High Life and a shot of Jameson, or a well-made cocktail. They can co-exist.
Ingredients, let's talk about that. How vital are they do what you do?
Well the Totsy doesn't have a kitchen, so we while do make most of our own juices in-house, we can't really do things like make our own syrups, things like that. We have to use what's already there. So it makes more sense to do classic cocktails, or riffs on classic cocktails, versus new & innovative cocktails. So the most important thing for me, in terms of ingredients, is knowing the product.
Give me an example.
Take citrus. Lime juice should be able to oxidize for 24 hours, to give it the true flavor. Like Gimlets for example, were originally made with lime cordial, which essentially is lime juice with sugar that's able to sit on the shelf. When you make a Gimlet with fresh lime though, it's sharp. Bitter. Too acidic. It's unbalanced. It's kind of weird. That's why a traditional Gimlet is made with lime cordial, which is essentially is slightly cooked lime juice. I initially was opposed to having lime cordial, I wasn't interested in it. But when I finally tried a Gimlet made with it, lightbulbs went off in my head. That goes back to ingredients. Knowing the limitations, knowing that fresh lime juice squeezed fresh compared to juice that's been sitting for at least 20 minutes will be different, and that it will effect a drink differently. What kind of ice, how long you stir, all of those kinds of things.
So then, what's your favorite ingredient to work with? Many options I'm sure. But pick one.
I'd say amaros.
Interesting! I thought you'd say like, gin or something.
An amaro is a digestif. They can range from things like Averna, to Fernet, to Sweet Vermouth… sweet, bitter, dry. Lots or range, so they work well with other spirits. They have a lot of character to them, and tend to be lower proof, so you can add them to higher proof stuff without overwhelming the palette.
When did you realize you loved working with those?
Well, drinking them of course. I was at the CMJ conference in New York one year, maybe '06 or '07. I ditched day parties and instead went to a liquor store called Lenell's in Red Hook. I get there and there's a lady with a shaved head and a little pink mohawk who works there. She had a bathtub in the front window filled with gin. I have other stories about that place but, the one thing I always go back to… is the huge tower of amaros in the middle of the store.
Wait. A bathtub of gin and a tower of amaros? That's serious.
She was amazing. She loved all things liquor and was a force to be reckoned with.
What was your first experience with an amaro?
Well I was always around alcohol at a young age, but not like in a bad way. I was born in Oakland but I grew up in Germany, Belgium, and Italy. My parents drank beer & wine around me, so there was always a familiarity. No sneaking around or anything like that. But what happened was that I learned how to make an Manhattans and Old Fashioneds with my Great Aunt Liz… when I was 7.
Whoa. So you basically learned to bartend when you were 7?
Correct. And my Uncle Buddy, her husband, drank so much bourbon and with the right people in Kentucky that they made him an honorary coloniel. I have the certificate framed in my place. So it's always been around. I always knew a lot about liquor.
Amazing. And so how did you bridge that to amaros?
Aside from that, when I started working in the bay area, everyone was drinking this thing called Fernet. And I tried it… it was okay, kind of bitter. I liked it enough but didn't really understand it. I started working at a place called Fonda and the chef there, David Rosales, got the San Francisco Chronicle Rising Star Chef award in 2003, and to celebrate, all of the cooks and chefs rented a private room at the French Laundry. So it was an expensive meal yes, but it was with all industry people, all of which who brought two things: a bunch of weed, and a flask of Fernet. So what ended up happening is that after every couple of courses, everyone would get up and go outside to smoke. I don't smoke weed, so I was handed the flask of Fernet over and over to sip on. And I'd been to this restaurant before, but it was the first time I realized that I wasn't overly full somehow. And I realized — Fernet is a digestif, and I now understood one of the reasons why people drank Fernet — one of the most well-known amaros.
Sounds like that got you hooked.
Got me hooked. Had to research it. I started to have certain bars make me drinks with it. And that led to other amaros, that led to me discovering Lenell's in Red Hook, etc etc. The rest is history.
Has your relationship with Fernet changed since you've gotten into other different kinds of amaros?
My relationship with Fernet has changed because of the amount of times I've been drunk and woken up feeling really shitty about drinking so much Fernet.
Definitely have been there, too often unfortunately. What's the best cocktail you make at the Totsy with an amaro in it?
We make lots of Manhattans and Old Fashioneds at the Totsy, but people will inevitably ask for a suggestion that's similar to those but not actually those. One of my favorites is the Brooklyn, and it only has a tiny amount of an amaro in it called Amer Picon. Very well-balanced, it's pretty, and classic.
So then where do YOU drink, and where have you had a memorable amaro-based cocktail?
For sure Honor Bar when I'm in the East Bay. Alex there knows my tastes and he makes great drinks. A classic drink with an amaro is the Hanky Panky. Gin + Sweet Vermouth + Fernet. So amazing. So well-balanced. One of my favorites.
And what makes a great cocktail?
That's easy. Would I actually want to order it again — that's what. Would I truly want to sit there and enjoy it again?
Do you try to push boundaries when making drinks?
Well — let's say this. Let's say someone broke into your house and stole all of your music. Your laptop. Your personal belongings, your cds, your vinyl. And now all of a sudden, you have to start new, start all over again. Well, you kind of want to buy all the old stuff again, but then you also want to keep buying all of the new stuff. But you have a limited amount of $. What do you do? Same with cocktails. All of the history that precedes what you're doing, stuff that is classic, etc. But you also have new stuff, new tastes, evolving palettes. So you want to do a cross of both the old and the new in a way.
Speaking of cds, vinyl, etc. If an amaro made music, what would it make?
Hmm, interesting question. I'd like to think it would be something like Stars of the Lid, or something like that. Like the song “December Hunting for the Vegetarian Fuckface” in particular. [The second part is here.] It's like a 17-minute piece, with strings. The song is amazing. Epic, fucking unreal. That's what amaros are. Explosions In the Sky, that's another one. It's so many things in one — mellow, erratic, droney, explosive, it's three drum kits on stage at once. It's what you think it is, but actually becomes something completely different.
And what kind of music do you listen to when you bartend? What gets you in the zone?
Well one of the greatest things about the Totsy is the music. We have a free jukebox, that plays 45s. It's an original Wurlitzer. It's free and I encourage people to play around 10 songs per turn. The more people playing a lot of songs means that I don't have to go over there and push a whole bunch of button while I'm bartending. A lot stuff is put in there by one of the owners. Lots of 50s and 60s stuff, and it's all really really good. There's even some Donna Summer thrown in there. So it's always awesome. And plus, we dance behind the bar & stuff too.
One last thing — the Hotsy Totsy sign. It's pretty awesome.
It's been there since the beginning. It's very iconic. It was even used in a rap video fairly recently.
Rap video? No way. Which one?
E-40. No joke.