10:30 a.m. on a weekday morning is not my usual cocktail hour. But with a cheerful SF Chefs. Food. Wine volunteer saying “Breakfast is served!” as he placed a cute pink drink in front of me, well, what could I do?
It was, after all, educational. The drink was a raspberry rum daisy, made with white rum, lemon, and raspberries, an olden-days cocktail made artisanally up-to-date through the use of small-batch Caribbean-style Baptiste rum and a locally made fruit syrup sweetened with raw cane sugar and thickened with gum arabic, that secret weapon of molecular gastronomy. And the occasion was Cocktails Get Into the Mix , an exploration of the past and present state of West Coast cocktail culture, moderated by Alcademics editor Camper English. In conversation with English was Duggan McDonnell of Cantina and Thad Vogler of the upcoming Bar Agricole.
Drawing a contrast between the technique-obsessed, traditionalist, authenticity-driven New York style of places like Milk and Honey, Death & Co. and the more free-wheeling, flavor-inspired California vibe, Duggan laughed, admitting, “We’re more of a hot mess behind the bar.” But both Vogler and McDonnell gave New York City its props, saying they’d both learned a tremendous amount about how even the simplest decisions–what sort of ice to use, whether to double-strain (using a cocktail strainer first, a fine tea strainer second)–can make a dramatic difference in the final result.
But, much like our restaurants, the current West Coast cocktail scene is driven by the extensive, year-round availability of amazing produce. “We eat and drink incredibly well here, we’re tasting things constantly,” noted McDonnell, who connects this vibrant, terrior-driven food culture with the rise in inventive, market-driven cocktail menus.
These drinks may look simple, but much of the work happens after hours, with bartenders simmering their own herb- or spice-infused syrups, amassing collections of quirky amari (the bitter digestive liqueurs beloved by true cocktail geeks), even growing (or bartering for) herbs, fruits, or seasonings. For bartenders less interested in getting in touch with their inner chef, there’s Small Hand Foods run by Jennifer Colliau, a bartender at the Slanted Door, whose Berkeley-based company creates “classic ingredients for pre-prohibition cocktails,” including grenadine, gum syrup, orgeat, and pineapple and raspberry syrups. All are made in small batches using raw cane sugar (no corn syrup) and no artificial ingredients.
As the group of us sipped our rosy daisies (flavored with Colliau’s raspberry gum syrup), Vogler pointed out the difficulty of sourcing spirits that haven’t come though the big industrial distillers. Even small-batch labels often buy their base spirit–neutral alcohols usually derived from grain–from big producers, then redistill, infuse and flavor it to their own specifications. This, he noted, was behind the simple but surprisingly inflammatory decision of Oakland’s Camino restaurant to yank vodka from their bar menu, instead carrying only a small selection of spirits and seasonal ingredients. (They’ve since found a small distillery that meets their standards.) When California-grown limes weren’t available, the bar used lemons. This caused quite a stir in the press and blogosphere around town, as diners happy to dig into free-range rabbit and sustainable sardines were incensed at not being able to order their usual vodka tonic.
“You have to throw out a lot of stuff if you decide not use anything with artificial flavors or colors, or high-fructose corn syrup,” said Vogler, who worked on Camino’s cocktail program. That meant no Campari, no maraschino cherries, almost none of the usual fizzy mixers. It’s annoying sometimes, admits Vogler, but also fun, more like being a pastry chef with 5 or 6 creations a day than a typical bartender.
Another difference in the East Coast/West Coast throwdown: the pervasive Latin and Asian influences here, and the predominance of tequila, sake, soju and other similar liquors here in lieu of the whiskeys, bourbons, port and sherries more popular in New York. At Cantina, McDonnell noted, the two most popular cocktails are Asian-Latin mashups: the 5-Spice Margarita, and the Latin Buddha, which blends Buddha’s Hand citrus vodka with serrano chiles and ginger beer.
A lengthy cocktail competition during the midday food-and-wine tasting seemed to prove nearly all these points. In an Iron-Chef-styled move, the 3 bartenders had to whip up, on the spot, an original cocktail featuring a secret ingredient. The ingredient? Fresh herbs, from dill and rosemary to purple basil and fennel flowers and sage. The winner, Nick Varacalli’s “Pass me the lemon, honey” matched lemon thyme with honey-sweetened bourbon, a bit of Canton ginger liqueur, fresh lemon, sweet vermouth, and bitters. A little fresh, a little sweet, a little bitter, and some herb to top it off: what could be more Californian?