[Mark Marowitz is a special correspondent for the Museum of the American Cocktail, and continues his series of bartender profiles with this look at Jose Ancona]
Some two hundred years ago four brothers set out from Ancona, Italy for the New World and during the voyage assumed the surname of the place of their birth. The voyage fraught with hazards and the brothers laden with the guilt of leaving home but filled with anticipation and excitement of the unknown, seeking luck and good fortune in their new venue, arrived at their general destination. Two brothers set out for New York City, a third brother set his sights on Buenos Aires, and the fourth Ancona brother chose the Yucatan to find his future. Why the Yucatan? An environment so different than the ones his brothers selected? Like the biblical Joseph and his brothers was the Yucatan Ancona, who inspired jealousy in his brethren, forced into a life of hardship in the jungles of nineteenth century Yucatan? Or perhaps the spirit of adventure and golden cities of long ago enticed the dreamer to seek his fortune amongst the Noble Savage. More likely young Ancona was attending to the "head" when a sudden lurch cast him naked into the sea, lost to his brothers and carried by Jonah’s sea creature to the safety of a lost world where young Ancona thrived and his seed was strong, as many generations of Yucatan Anconas’ can attest to. The journey of the Anconas’ was hardly over, for about a century and a half later Jose Ancona made his way to the United States for similar reasons as his ancestors’ had before him.
Today, Jose is a Master Bartender, in a venerable tradition spanning back to the first single-lot saloons of ancient Samaria and taking his place in the pantheon of civilization’s oldest professions. For almost fifty years Jose has been a bartender and he’s still pluggin’ away!
California, 1960; Jose assumes the duties of dishwasher. For a man of his caliber two weeks was a lifetime but with a wife and parents to send for, Jose had powerful forces compelling him; he approached his boss suggesting that busboy was a more suitable job. His boss, knowing a hard worker when he saw one, at first refused, but a strong business acumen gave the boss pause and he suggested that if Jose could find an acceptable replacement then the job was his. The following day Jose was a busboy. This position lasted ninety days before Jose espied Head Bartender, Sammy Mays’, from Kentucky, at work. Jose had found his vocation. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking can Jose make a mint julep? Well, the answer is does a Bear live in the woods? You bet Jose can make a mint julep. Jose remembers that his first prepared cocktail was a Beefeater Martini, poorly executed but it tasted good (eds. note: Sammy was close at hand). Sammy moved on to become Bar Manager of "The Hunting Horn" in Palos Verdes, California and Jose became his head bartender. Pousse Cafe was Jose’s specialty and customer’s lined up ten to fifteen deep for the chance to hold one. It got so that Jose could prepare two Pousse Cafes per minute. His technique was to tilt a pony glass further and further into the horizontal as he free poured the ingredients and built the drink. Wow!! If he recalls correctly, after all this was a quarter century ago, but remember Jose is a Master Bartender and he has an Elephant’s memory, he built his Pousee Cafe as follows:
- Bols liqueur
- white crème de menthe
- dark crème de menthe
- triple sec
- green crème de menthe
- green Chartreuse
He then served the drink flamed!!
For the last twenty-eight years Jose splits his time between the Santa Anita racetrack and the Hollywood Park racetrack but with attendance declining he told us that it used to be more fun. Screw Drivers were the most popular drink a quarter century ago, today it’s the Margarita. Jose always inquires of his patron’s how they would like their Margarita presented, on the rocks? Sweet, medium or dry? Jose has found that being a Master Bartender qualifies him as a chemist; a chauffeur; an accountant; a lawyer; a psychologist; a referee; and a funny guy. Customers want to talk with Jose and sometimes he even has the correct answers.
It was in 1961 when Jose first applied to join the United States Bartender’s Guild (USBG), but he would have to wait four more years before he could get in. The reason? Back in those days, the USBG limited their membership to only eighty-six members. Why eighty-six? Because this number was the slang for refusing to serve a customer. And once a member, always a member, so it wouldn’t be until 1965 that Jose would be able to fill one of those precious eighty-six slots. Once in, Jose proved his worth, and from 1986 to 1995 he served as the president of the USBG. Then in 1995 he stepped into the position of being the Vice-President of North and Central America for the International Bartender’s Association (IBA), which is the world-wide organization that the USBG is a part of. Jose says he has no interest in being the President of the IBA because he’d rather be a bartender. "It’s a great feeling to be behind the bar", Jose added.
We finished this interview with Jose quoting the legendary Argentinean bartender Pichin: "don’t ever serve a drink without a smile."