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  • Writer's pictureJarnard Sutton

Behind the Stick with Sami Saltagi of Et Voilà! French Bistro

Sami Saltagi, master mixologist at Et Voilà! French Bistro in Normal Heights, is creating some delicious cocktails utilizing syrups and nectars that are infused in-house. On the next 'Behind the Stick,' we chat with Saltagi about his journey in the industry and how to make his Huckleberry Bourbon cocktail.

Huckleberry Bourbon


1 oz Huckleberry-Agave/Maple-infused nectar .75 oz lemon juice 2 oz Old Forester bourbon Dashes of orange bitters Garnished with lemon twist Garnished with infused huckleberries

What's the story behind the Huckleberry Bourbon?

A coordination/effort between kitchen and bar. Started as an enhanced syrup for our Pain Perdu (French toast) and discovered during a sample tasting. It was spring, and the process of creating summer drinks was in play at the time, but being a whiskey aficionado, I wanted to incorporate it both as a whiskey forward drink and refreshing feel with some depth. So first came tweaking the nectar recipe to bring out both the maple and huckleberry flavor, with varying attempts at quantity, simmering temperature and time, and the process and stages of adding the ingredients. Not to mention the testing with different kinds and types of syrups, nectars, juices and sugars. The end result was so balanced and perfect, surprisingly, little more than bourbon, a squeeze of fresh lemon, and a couple dashes of orange bitters were needed to complete and perfect this cocktail.

Describe the taste.

A spirit forward, maple enhanced cocktail with refreshing hints of lemon and subtle sweet berry flavor.

What's the key component of this drink?

The in-house made and infused Huckleberry-Maple syrup.

What's the process of infusing maple-agave and huckleberries?

We reduce a balanced mix of certain organic juices and different types of sugar, at different quantities, levels of heat and times then incorporate the nectars and Huckleberries and let infuse for a specific time frame.

Do you have any other infused or house-made products at Et Voilà?

We have been testing a few different recipes and concoctions over the months, and will be featured in our next cocktail list. But currently all our syrups and nectars are made and infused in-house. We have a house-made Persimmon Shrub which we incorporate in our PBH cocktail (Persimmon, Bourbon, Honey...served with a lemon twist and grated nutmeg).

What reactions are you expecting to get from customers when they try this cocktail for the first time?

A very pleasant and positive surprise. It satisfies various palates, and most get a highlight of what they like and/or are seeking. Whether it be the distinct Whiskey taste, the warmth of the maple, the sweet of the huckleberries, or the subtle tartness from the lemon with hints of orange, it's a crowd pleaser. It's an overall simple and very enjoyable drink, that really transcends gender, age and culture, at least from we've seen at our establishment.

If you had to pair this cocktail with a dish, what would you pair it with?

I would do more so with an appetizer, like the Croustillant Chaud de Reblochon, Fourme D'Ambert and Reblochon cheese, the Poitrine de Porc Braisee, and the Salade de Betterave Rouge à la Burrata.

What kind of experience can guests get at Et Voilà! French Bistro?

I think they'll both get the experience they expect and one they didn't know they wanted and needed.

About Sami Saltagi

Are you from San Diego?

I was born in Florence, Italy, to an Italian mother and Syrian father, but was raised in Damascus, Syria till the age of 20. I then moved back to Italy, served in the Italian Army, obtained a degree in Graphic Design, and started work in the industry. In 2004 I left Florence for San Francisco, where I spent near a decade in the emerging craft cocktail scene. I moved to San Diego in September 2014.

How did you get into bartending?

It was a fascination since I was young, and having been in Florence with an international vibrant night night life, I was extremely drawn towards it. I initially started as food prep in an Irish pub in Florence, Italy (The Old Stove) to pay for school, and get a foot in the door. I quickly moved up the "chain" and became the lead bartender and supervisor within 6 months. A few moths later, I took up an offer to lead a team at a second location, The Lion's Fountain, managing all events, promotions, and menu creation, while working behind the bar in the evenings. A series of events that a year later, propelled the bar to its maximum profits ever and cementing it as one of the most known and frequented bars in the city, a staple among myriad of venues, bars, and watering holes.

What's your favorite thing about bartending?

I don't know if I have a favorite thing in particular. I'd say, in general, I like the exposure to various people and situations, the challenge to be creative and innovative, the constant learning and personal and professional challenges to overcome. But overall, I thrive in the social and interactive nature of the job.

What's your least favorite thing about bartending?

The fact that it's viewed, by some, as a glorified position. Which is a mistaken connotation, for a bartender, as opposed to many if not all other roles in the industry, has a myriad of responsibilities and duties. We set up, prep, create, produce and serve. We interact with guests on a more intimate level, but we also need to manage our bar, it's patrons, and the assisting staff. We also have to break down our work stations, restock, do inventories, manage costs and the expenses, thoroughly clean and sanitize. So, in essence, a bartender appears as a superior role, but behind the scenes, before the curtains open, and after they close, is where the real preparation and work lay.

What's your favorite cocktail on the menu?

The Huckleberry Bourbon.

What's your favorite spirit?


Define the perfect cocktail.

It's very subjective, but in essence, I'd say it's all about simplicity and quality. The quality of attention and care put into creating and balancing the drink, the quality of the ingredients from spirit to mixer to ice and garnish. Perfection is in the eye of the beholder, or his/her taste buds.

Any local bartenders you look up to?

Unfortunately, I haven't had much time to explore and experience what my peers have been individually and collectively up to, but I do appreciate the cocktail scene expansion in general and the attention to the quality and detail of cocktails and service.

If you're going out for a cocktail, what are some spots you like to go in San Diego?

I have very little free time, I work the bar a minimum of 6 nights a week and 2 brunch shifts, and I volunteer at the IRC helping with the resettlement of refugees twice a week. So that leaves little personal time, but I do invest my little free time and a good effort to try new establishments, new bars and places with inspiring cocktail lists and innovative recipes and approaches. So, in full honesty, I'm still searching for my local personal favorite spot...but I'm out there!

What do you love about the cocktail scene in San Diego?

The fact that it's a nascent and pioneering scene in a dormant and laid back town.

What do you do in your spare time when you're not creating cocktails?

I always keep up with current national and international affairs, I enjoy volunteering, cooking, reading and discovering something or somewhere new in San Diego.

What's next for you?

In general, I live in the now, but I'm quite sure that whatever "next" is, will be along the path I've taken, doing what I love and am passionate about,; creating drinks, experimenting with new flavors, techniques and trends all while socializing and growing both as an industry professional and as an individual.

Et Voilà! French Bistro

3015 Adams Ave #103, Normal Heights. (619) 209-7759 or

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