San Francisco’s Elixir Saloon Celebrates 165 Years (at Least)


November 13, 2023

Elixir Saloon San Francisco exterior night

Elixir, the Mission saloon dating to at least 1858, announced a yearlong program of celebrations to celebrate the bar’s 165th anniversary.

“When I bought the bar in 2003 it was a run-down dump that the owner’s weren’t paying attention to,”  proprietor H. Joseph Ehrmann, who took over the bar 20 years ago, said in a news release. “I saw that beautiful mahogany bar and stepped across the street to look at the building and realized that this was a real deal old west saloon, and nobody knew it. Over the last 20 years I’ve dug up tons of history and developed the theme of the bar around its own history, turning it into a bit of a museum.” 

That history is long and includes at least 13 different owners (and names), surviving multiple 19th century fires, the 1906 earthquake and fire (it was rebuilt in 1907 by the same owner) , two World Wars,  the Spanish flu, the Depression, Prohibition, the recent Covid-19 pandemic and government mandated  closure, and the current economic downturn in San Francisco. It is the second oldest saloon location in San Francisco, after The Old Ship Saloon (1851) and just before The Saloon (1863), both in North Beach. Where many historic saloons were held by one family and retained one name, this bar went through change after change, yet always remained a bar (including being a “soft drink parlor” during Prohibition). In December of this year Ehrmann anticipates achieving Legacy Business status through the City of San Francisco. 

After years as a mid-century cocktail club, a working-class merchant marine bar, a gay Latino club and a trendy craft beer bar, Ehrmann’s proprietorship took the bar in a new direction. 

“After working in 18 different bars and restaurants around the country, I just wanted a simple neighborhood bar, but that wasn’t making me money, so I took a chance on cocktails,” Ehrmann said. 

In 2005, just before nearly dying from a pulmonary embolism, he started to change everything. With unpaid MBA debt, a bunch of investors and medical bills, he came home from the hospital with focus and determination.  

Within six months, the bar turned around and started getting local press. Local press led to national press and the bar, and Ehrmann became a pioneer in what evolved as the modern day cocktail revival.  Awards, press, and continued hard work mounted and Elixir produced some of the finest bartenders in the city, including Alicia Walton (owner, The Sea Star), John Ottman (owner, Holy Water), current Lead Bartender Nick Madden, the two barmen who continue to this day, into their 16th year with the company, as managers at Elixir, Shea Shawnson and Nick DesEnfants. 

As one of the first bars to create what became known as “the California style” of cocktails, utilizing farmers’ market ingredients, culinary techniques and obscure ingredients, Elixir was named to the “Best Bars in America” lists in GQ, Esquire, Food and Wine and more. Ehrmann himself was named a“Rising  Star” by Cheers Magazine and “American Bartender of the Year” by Nightclub and Bar Magazine. Today, it continues such accolades and with over 600 bottles of whiskey in its collection it has added “America’s Top Whisky Bars” and “Best Bourbon Bars in America” to the list. 

In 2005, it became the first bar in America to achieve any kind of government-backed green business certification when it was named one of the first 50 “Certified Green Businesses” by the San Francisco Department of the Environment.”

It is still certified today and will soon be one of the first bars in the country to employ a new technology called ecoSPIRITS to reduce glass bottle usage. In 2013 it was named a Legacy Bar by San Francisco Heritage and in 2018 the bar was “plaqued” by historical drinking society E Clampus Vitus. 

The next year is all about evolution and celebration. Plans are in the works for a national bar and festival  tour, a new menu format, and expanded “no-low” alcohol drinks program and even a food operation. 

Having taken his team to “pop-ups” in famed Louisville, Kentucky bar The Pearl of Germantown and  New Orleans, Louisiana’s top-rated Jewel of the South this past year, Ehrmann plans to continue the 20th  Anniversary Tour with stops in British Columbia, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Boston and more.

“We’ve been invited to pop-up at some of the best bars and festivals in the country,” he said, “and I look forward to getting the current team out there for some great experiences.”

For more information, visit