Article

Sipping on the dock of the bay

San Francisco has become something of a landmark on the global bar scene – so what’s inspiring the city’s bartenders right now? Clinton Cawood headed west to find out


The melting pot that is the city of San Francisco is home to an energetic bar scene, vibrant and varied, characterised by both history and innovation. This scene exists among the city’s other equally varied attractions, from the Golden Gate Bridge to clam chowder, from Alcatraz to the literary scene centred around the City Lights bookstore, and the alternative cultural centre and birthplace of the hippie movement, Haight-Ashbury.

Jasper’s Corner Tap & Kitchen

Bars and drinks are a priority on this section of the Californian coastline. Tourist attractions include The Buena Vista’s Irish Coffee (a drink the establishment claims to have introduced to the US), and Tosca Cafe’s brandy-laced house cappuccino, purportedly a favourite during Prohibition, when it was made using the city’s first espresso machines.

Many of San Francisco’s more serious cocktail venues boast a rich heritage too. Take the Comstock Saloon, for example, a venue that has been a drinking establishment since 1907. Among the most established of Prohibition-style bars is Bourbon & Branch, located on a site where a speakeasy operated between 1921 and 1933. It has been a pioneer of this style of bar, with its list of house rules for customers (‘No cell phone use’ and ‘Don’t even think of asking for a “Cosmo”’ among them), a password required for entry and an impressive list of classic-style drinks. One such cocktail is Owen Westman’s The Laphroaig Project, combining Green and Yellow Chartreuse, Laphroaig Quarter Cask, maraschino liqueur, lemon juice and Fee Brothers Peach Bitters.

Bourbon & Branch is a block from Jasper’s Corner Tap & Kitchen, in the city’s edgy Ternderloin district, a good example of the more modern, and laid-back style of bar that this city does so well. Quality food, made with homemade ingredients, is served alongside a selection of 18 beers on tap, and an inventive cocktail list, with beer incorporated into many of them. The list also includes a Boilermaker menu, with beers matched to an array of spirits, like Lagunitas IPA with Buffalo Trace, or Tecate with Del Maguey Vida Mezcal.

Kevin Diedrich, the man behind the Jasper’s list, sees this style of bar as an emerging trend in San Francisco. ‘You see more divey bars and more accessible bars making more awesome cocktails than the hidden ones,’ he says. Diedrich recognises other bars in the city taking this casual approach, saying: ‘I love what’s going on in the East bay right now, with Jon Santer at Prizefighter and Alex Smith at Honor Bar. They are two bars that are just your normal neighbourhood bars doing great things with their cocktail programmes and spirits.’

Jacques Bezuidenhout, master mixologist for the Kimpton group (which includes Jasper’s and Harry Denton’s Starlight Room), sees this trend too. ‘It is going away from the formality you sometimes see in a speakeasy, towards a casual setting that is open to anyone whilst serving great drinks and selections.’

‘You see more accessible bars making more awesome cocktails than the hidden ones’ Kevin Diedrich

For Diedrich, customers often now use the words speakeasy or Prohibition as a way of describing any well-made cocktails. That’s not to say that the city isn’t without its share of this style of bar, or at least bars that draw on these influences, for better or worse. In the latter case, this style has become so prevalent that venues lose a degree of legitimacy. Ryan Fitzgerald at Beretta believes that ‘it’s become a gimmick. I saw a new one that opened the other day and the menu includes choose-your-own-fruit Mojitos and Caipirinhas.’

Martin Cate at tiki bar Smuggler’s Cove confirms this. ‘It’s been co-opted by a lot of nightclub operators, so we’re seeing places that go for the look, and have the bartenders in vests, but they’re serving vodka with Red Bull and pitchers. So for those that were early adopters in San Francisco, like Bourbon & Branch, they’re still offering the quality mixology to go with the look, but the concept’s getting diluted elsewhere.’

SF bar essentials...

Bourbon & Branch, 501 Jones Street
One of the first to adopt the speakeasy style: a password’s required to get in, there are rules to be adhered to, and an impressive list of classics and Prohibition-style drinks to choose from.

Beretta, 1199 Valencia Street Quality cocktails and pizzas in a contemporary, late-night venue. Spirits-focused cocktails, along with some barrel-ageing experimentation.

Smuggler’s Cove, 650 Gough Street
San Francisco’s premier tiki bar, with the spotlight on quality drinks and bartending, not to mention a staggering array of rums – numbering in the region of 180.

Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant, 5929 Geary Boulevard
Tommy’s is a temple to all things agave, and the birthplace of the eponymous Margarita, with Julio Bermejo at the helm. 

The Hideout, inside Dalva, 3121 16th Street
A speakeasy in the back room of a dive bar, with drinks by the likes of Todd Smith, formerly of Bourbon & Branch, and Josh Harris of Trick Dog.

On the quality side, the latest variation on the speakeasy concept is the introduction of bars within bars in a number of venues in San Francisco, balancing the dilution of the concept by other operators with ever more exclusive and hidden venues. Bourbon & Branch itself has one, The Wilson. While inside dive bar Dalva, in the Mission part of San Francisco, is a speakeasy called The Hideout.

A few minutes down the road from Dalva is the much less hidden, but nevertheless significant San Francisco drinking spot, Beretta. Contemporary it might be, but it represents the marriage of restaurant and bar that is so defining of the cocktail scene in San Francisco. Bezuidenhout explains: ‘The city has many free-standing bars, but not many cocktail bars that stand alone from restaurants. This has resulted in a fresh, kitchen aspect to our drink programmes.’

At Beretta, upmarket and late-night pizza place meets excellent cocktail bar quite seamlessly. Beretta bartender Fitzgerald’s drinks offering is serious and sophisticated, characterised by minimal use of fruit. An example is his drink, Fogerty, named after John of Creedence Clearwater Revival fame, and combining Campari, cassis and rye, with a dash of Regans’ Orange Bitters No.6. A number of experiments are ongoing at Beretta too, such as a surprisingly good barrel-aged Wray and Nephew overproof.

The bar and restaurant’s late opening times aren’t as common in San Francisco as somewhere like New York, Fitzgerald confirms, but he sees late-night dining becoming more common.

LIFE GIVES YOU LEMONS

There are a number of factors that have contributed to San Francisco’s cocktail scene, but one of the greatest seems to be the city’s access to California’s local produce – cheap, plentiful and of a high standard. Bezuidenhout sees this effect. ‘Owing to an abundance of fresh local produce, there’s always been a great farm-to-bar style here,’ he says.

Fitzgerald acknowledges this advantage too. ‘I know many of my New York City bartender friends are constantly impressed with, and jealous of, California’s access to tons of inexpensive citrus and our bounty of other varieties of fruits and vegetables.’ This leads to a particular focus on seasonality, with ever-changing cocktail lists as a result.

As of last year, bars in California are able to take even more advantage of this bounty on their doorstep, with the amendment of a law that had up until then made spirits infusions illegal. Cate of Smuggler’s Cove comments: ‘Where 10 to 15 years ago we saw a lot of fruit going into neutral spirits, we’re seeing more refined infusions such as small accents of fruit, herbs, and spices being added to already full-flavoured ingredients like gin and bitters to create subtle twists.’

Fitzgerald adds: ‘There’s also a big trend towards sustainability, organic and responsibly-produced local cocktail ingredients. A growing trend is to apply that directly to spirits as well. More quality cocktail bars are carrying fewer spirits overall but those they do carry are selected with the criteria of sustainability in mind.’

Beretta

This is easier to achieve thanks to the area’s wealth of quality wine, beer and spirits. St George Spirits, just across the Bay Bridge, produces an array of spirits, many of which draw on the area’s produce. Among its products are Hangar One Vodkas, as well as a gin, single malt and an absinthe.

Anchor Brewing, in San Francisco itself, has a range of craft spirits from its tiny distillery tucked away in one corner of a warehouse. Products include the Old Potrero range of whiskeys, Junípero gin, and a recreation of Dutch genever called Genevieve.

‘With the ever-increasing selection of independent spirits we have, we can create entire bar programmes from micro-distilleries now. This is an advantage we share with cities up and down the west coast,’ says Cate.

And as Bezuidenhout points out, one can’t overlook the influence of the city’s proximity to wine country. ‘Bartenders have been incorporating table wines into their drinks for a while now,’ he says. Perhaps even more useful to the cocktail scene, there are local vermouths too, like those produced by Sutton Cellars.

‘The latest variation on the speakeasy concept is the introduction of bars within bars’

Spirits and ingredients from further afield also have their influence on San Francisco, of course. The city is home to that temple to tequila, and San Francisco institution, Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant in the foggy suburb of Richmond. Run by Julio Bermejo, US ambassador of tequila, and birthplace of the Tommy’s Margarita, the bar contains an extensive range of tequila, including an unrivalled vertical collection of some brands. The influence on the rest of the city is an obvious one. ‘Most bars and restaurants you go into have a great selection of 100% agave tequila,’ says Bezuidenhout.

From even further away, Italian spirits have a strong presence in the city, as a result of a more general influence of Italian culture on the city. ‘We are known as one of the first cities to get crazy over Fernet Branca,’ says Bezuidenhout, who also acknowledges the presence of Campari and various amaros on the city’s back bars. Diedrich confirms this: ‘Aperitifs and amaros have been slowly gaining momentum, as have low-octane spirits and well-made cordials.’

San Francisco itself contributes to the city’s unique bar scene, both in its relatively small size, and in the distinct identities of each area in the city. Fitzgerald comments that this small size results in ‘a really tight-knit and supportive community of bartenders’. The city’s size is a benefit for cocktail drinkers too. ‘Because it’s so small and customers don’t have to drive to get to our bars it makes for more of a drinking culture – taking a taxi home is much easier in San Francisco than it is in places like Los Angeles or Houston,’ says Fitzgerald.

All of these factors have combined to create an internationally influential cocktail scene that’s been responsible for a number of significant trends – and it shows no sign of slowing down.

Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – March/April 2012

Add your comment

Please sign in or register if you'd like to comment.

Register Forgotten password? Sign In

Subscribe Imbibe Magazine