Food coverage is supported by a generous donation from Susan and Moses Libitzky.
After 23 years in the theater, Jared Hirsch, 44, found his calling at the bar. These days, the former New York actor is bar manager at Sidebar in Oakland, where he’s worked for seven years, as well as the co-owner of Nickle Dime Syrups, a cocktail syrup company. He lives in Oakland with his wife and 5-year-old twin daughters.
J.: Your Jewish background sounds similar to many in that you come from a family of “culinary Jews.”
Jared Hirsch: Yes, I grew up on Staten Island, I had a bar mitzvah, but we were mostly secular. We attended a Reform congregation that my father called “Our Lady of Perpetual Simchas.” I was immersed in the culture, but the religion was mostly removed. Like many Jews of my generation, we learned “They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.” My grandfather was a taxi driver, and before I was born, he worked as the driver for Mr. Katz of Katz’s Delicatessen. On Sundays, we always had bagels and the whole appetizing spread. My favorite is whitefish salad. I now make my own.
J.: You were a child actor and then had a great career in theater and set design. What changed?
JH: I was production manager at Cal Shakes in Orinda and then was associate production manager for A.C.T. I worked with some of the greatest directors and designers in the world. But at some point, I realized I hadn’t seen a play in an entire year; I was burned out. A friend was a manager at a fancy Mexican place [Colibri] right across from A.C.T. and I asked if he’d give me a job. I went from being a production manager for one of the largest arts organizations in the country to a busser and I loved it. That’s how it started.
J.: How did you get into cocktails, specifically?
JH: Colibri had an opening at the bar. They had a wall of 300 tequilas. I didn’t understand why you could have 300 of them, or what a 100-percent agave spirit even meant, but I was in Union Square during the birth of the cocktail renaissance surrounded by some of the best bars and bartenders in the country. I started to taste my way through various places. I also learned all about distillation and classic cocktails. A book on artisanal cocktails made me realize I was looking at alcohol all wrong, and that cocktails are really food. I learned that cocktails could have fresh and seasonal ingredients in them, which was a lightbulb moment for me. I started folding in ingredients like epazote and chilis, and it turned out I was really good at it. Before, I was working collaboratively on large art projects that would take months and years to create. Here I would create something myself and hand it to a guest, and they’d have a lightbulb moment right then. I was expressing myself through my drinks and inspiring other people, and that’s the mark of good art: helping someone have a realization about something or helping them think about things in a different way.
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J.: You hardly drink yourself — odd for a bartender.
JH: Yes, I have a condition known as “Asian flush” where I lack an enzyme that the body uses to synthesize ethanol, so I get hungover before I get drunk. Of course, I taste everything and need to know what’s new and interesting to expand my own knowledge base and for inspiration, but I never drank much myself and still don’t.
J.: Tell me about Caged Heat.
JH: Caged Heat is a cocktail syrup that I invented. I started by going to Oaktown Spice Shop and being inspired to create something with tamarind paste and their wonderful chili selection. I thought of the Mexican hard candies. I added cardamom because I wanted something aromatic, and tamarind is also used in Southeast Asian cuisine. My mom has always put the Indian spice mix garam masala in her matzah ball soup, so that actually influenced me a bit as well. When making spicy cocktails, peppers vary so much, and you don’t know how spicy they are until you cut them open. I wanted to make something that would have consistent heat. I created the syrup and it quickly won a competition, and we soon couldn’t produce enough to keep up with the demand. Now I have a partner in the business, Absinthia Vermut, and a copacker is making it for us in Irvine. We also have three new syrups about to launch.