Traditionally, cocktails have come in two varieties. There’s the classic, or spirits-driven cocktail, constructed around a distinctive base liquor and often made in accordance with the sacred texts—that is, century-old bar books. (Think of a Manhattan or a Sazerac.) Then there’s the fresh-market cocktail, in which bar chefs take inspiration from fresh seasonal and local ingredients, like Thai basil or heirloom tomatoes, and use spirits to complement or enhance natural flavors. (Think of a hangover-inducing gazpacho.)
The second style has for years been associated with San Francisco. For this reason I have avoided the city—I tend to be more of a strict reconstructionist. (The culinary cocktails I’ve had whisper and hint at flavors; spirits-driven drinks play more to the back row, which is where I like to sit.) But I recently spent a few days there with an open mind and a list of new bars to visit. And I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. Not because it turned out that I actually liked fresh-market cocktails—I’m still not a fan of the puréed salad with vodka—but because bartenders there are serving as deft matchmakers, finding the best of each style and encouraging dating when it makes sense. In some cases, lasting marriages are the unlikely result.
Video: Erick Castro, general manager of the Rickhouse bar, mixes two of his most popular drinks
The Rickhouse, on Kearny Street, is a warm and comforting space, with a wall of woven barrel staves and lambent, ochre lighting. They served one of the best drinks I’ve had in a long while, called the Laphroaig Project. Scotch is one of the trickier spirits to mix with—the peaty smokiness tends to decisively tackle all other flavors—but this drink used the scotch almost as a seasoning and boldly counterbalanced it with lemon juice and equally potent liqueurs: puckery Maraschino, plus green and yellow Chartreuse, both of which taste wildly medicinal. It was delicate, robust, and beautiful—like a troupe of linebackers dancing Swan Lake.
The Rickhouse isn’t just adapting classic cocktails—the Laphroaig Project is basically a Prohibition-era drink called the Last Word, with the volume turned up to 11—but also borrowing from the fresh-market approach. “The whole concept was to take the East Coast emphasis on vintage cocktails and technique, and to combine that with the San Francisco ethos,” Erick Castro, the general manager, told me. The bar uses free-range egg whites, organic produce and berries, and unprocessed sugars to give drinks a bigger, more rustic sensibility while supporting local agriculture and highlighting seasonal flavors. The Kentucky Buck is a good example. It’s a tall, effervescent drink that follows the blueprints of a Moscow Mule or a Dark and Stormy, but the base is Bulleit bourbon that’s been infused with fresh local strawberries, then introduced to lemon juice, Angostura bitters, and ginger beer. It tastes like a classic that’s been on a farm holiday.
I next stopped by Smuggler’s Cove, which opened late last year on Gough Street. The proprietor is Martin Cate, a sly genius formerly of Forbidden Island, a neo-tiki bar in Alameda that proved that tiki drinks, when returned to their roots, are actually sophisticated, well-balanced cocktails rather than just fruit terrariums shaded by little umbrellas. His new venture is strongly tiki-inflected—grottos, waterfalls, a huge anchor suspended from the ceiling—but it really stands as a high temple to rum, with more than 200 varieties on offer. The Cove offers many of the classic tiki drinks, expertly re-created (like the Jet Pilot and the Zombie), but pilgrims can explore other fascinating chambers of the temple, including colonial America (which popularized the Calibogus, a rum-and-spruce-beer drink) and Prohibition-era Havana (which made the Daiquiri and Mojito famous).
The drinks in Cate’s canon are nearly all built around lemon, lime, orange, and grapefruit. The citrus is squeezed fresh nightly, and the Cove’s cocktail formulas are constantly adjusted to account for changing seasonal tartness. But I’m happy to report that spirits still dominate—the drinks emphasize rather than obscure the underlying liquor. “San Francisco used to be much more market-driven—we do live in America’s salad bowl,” Cate said. “And New York was much more spirit-driven. But I would say that the lines have blurred.”
It might be time to put to rest the two-cocktail taxonomy. The best of the fields and the best of the bottle might be forming a more perfect union. And I’m okay with that.