From coffee barista days to bartending his first gig at San Diego’s great Craft and Commerce (www.craft-commerce.com), Leigh Lacap is schooled on balance and technique, but also imparts a playful, feel-good approach that many a bar manager could learn from.

As bar manager at Coin-Op Game Room (http://coinopsd.com)—a spacious bar with 30 pinball machines and vintage 1980s games—he keeps the vibe all rambunctious fun, set to feel-good tunes from the likes of Bon Jovi, Paula Abdul and Def Leppard. Posters of 1980s film classics (think Ghostbusters and Three Amigos) line the walls and it’s clear every night here is a party.

And yet… Lacap subtly ensures quality tastes with balanced cocktails, a strong craft-beer draft list (this is San Diego, after all, where beer is king) paired with gourmet hot dogs like Wild Style, a wild boar dog under a fried egg, crispy onions and mustard aioli. But spirits geeks will stop in their tracks with an unexpectedly thoughtful spirits selection—including a range of small-batch, craft spirits and even an eaux de vie section—especially for such a casual bar.

In his own words, Leigh (pronounced Lay) informatively shares with us how he got into bartending, what is exciting him now in craft spirits, and how he gets guests interested in new spirits they haven’t tried before.

What led to your path as a bartender?

I worked several years as a barista so I already had sort of an affinity for the bar mat and putting drinks in people’s hands. I always liked to think I could steam milk or pull a better shot than my comrades. I took a lot of pride in my cappuccino, which turns out, wasn’t very awesome (haha). At the same time, I was in school and work was kind of like, my side gig. It wasn’t until I stepped foot into Craft & Commerce back in 2010 and caught the [cocktail] bug. I wanted to slap mint beneath the glow of Edison bulbs in a taxidermy zoo. Needless to say, the owner must have noticed the twinkle in my eye. He offered me a job that night.

What do you consider your bar style and how does living in SD determine or affect that?

In San Diego, cocktail culture is relatively new. A lot of us don’t know what we want; we want what we know, so I like to be able to tell my guests that a product or a cocktail has a very familiar flavor. I don’t mess with crazy infusions or far out produce too much. I want people to be able to identify and relate. They should enjoy their drinks, not guess what they are drinking. You’re also very likely to find a bar with a patio or big open windows and doors here in SD. There is much more to enjoy than just a view of the bar and a bartender rambling on about Japanese shaking techniques and sous vide cocktails, which are both really neat.

What is your philosophy on deciding what brands to stock at your bar, and what mix do you prefer of large and small brands?

A back bar should reflect your personal tastes while attempting to accommodate the clientele your bar attracts. For every category of liquor, I like to have something recognizable, like looking at a Chinese food menu and seeing Kung Pao chicken or something. There’s comfort in knowing something. Be able to serve someone what they ask for, or something damn close. Then, introduce them to the handmade, pot-still, cask-strength thing you’ve been hyped on after they’ve settled in.

How do you educate customers on brands they might not have heard of?

Offer up the guests’ cocktail of choice with an unheard-of brand. As a bartender, you should know which different brands will make great substitutions or additions to the guests’ favorite style of cocktail. A sample of straight liquor or rattling off a flavor profile you read online isn’t going to help someone that probably doesn’t spend time sipping spirits neat.

What advice would you give to distilleries looking to be represented in quality cocktail bars?

Distill whatever the hell makes you happy, but find passionate people that love your product to work of you. If a brand rep can’t tell me how something is made and has to grab the bottle to answer a question, the product must not be good enough for them to have taken the time to know what it’s all about, or you don’t care enough about your product to educate.

What are some U.S. micro-distillers/small-batch brands that are exciting you right now?

Unfair question. I definitely have a hard-on for anything from St. George. Clear Creek eau de vies and Balcones single malts also turn me on. But biggest shout out to my boys at Old Harbor here in San Diego!