Trick Dog, San Francisco, CA, US.
Ridiculously expensive drinks, barrel aged cocktails, cocktail tasting menus, and ‘molecular mixology’ are all well and good, but to me the most exciting recent development in American cocktail culture is the neighborhood bar with decent, and usually relatively reasonably priced, cocktails.
We are lucky to have at least two such establishments within slightly aerobic, (our neighborhood is called Bernal HEIGHTS,) walking distance of our house. The first to open was Royal Cuckoo near Mission and Valencia. A fun establishment, they have many of the trendy accoutrements of craft cocktail bars: Curated LP selection, taxidermy, and an organ built into the bar.
The second to open in our neighborhood opened a little less than a year ago across the street from the established Southern American Comfort Food restaurant, Front Porch at 29th Street & Tiffany. Opened by the same partners that opened Front Porch, Rock Bar moved into the space that housed the dubious International Club and is rather interestingly Geologically, Minerally, and Mining themed.
They also have a jukebox curated by the nearby Aquarius Records staff, a pool table, and several exciting theme nights including Football on Sunday, Ping Pong on Monday, Teacher Tuesday, and Films Played Silently on Wednesday. The night I stopped by they were playing Buster Keaton shorts.
I did mention it was Minerally themed?
Anyway, two of the best things about Rock Bar, are first, that you can put your name in at Front Porch, and then retire to Rock Bar, while you wait for your table. Front Porch, being a small and rather popular restaurant, is often busy, so a place to retire and chat is always nice. However, secondly, waiting an extended period with only drinks and no nutrients can be dangerous, so you are allowed to call over to Front Porch for take out, and they will deliver it to Rock Bar, such as this Big Bucket of Mixed Fry Up, including Chicken Wings, Okra, Pickles, and Potatoes.
I recently stopped in to try some of their new fall cocktails and chat with the staff. Bar manager Brion Rosch started me off with a story.
“When I opened the bar, I told our co-owner Kevin Cline that I wanted to have Cocchi Americano. He kind of freaked out. He had previously worked at Bix, where someone had briefly had an infatuation with Cocchi Americano. Every month Kevin had to do an inventory and count the many bottles of Cocchi Americano, some still old enough to have tax stamps, and could never figure out a way to sell it. So I’m going to start you out with a drink a created as a tribute to Kevin and his time at Bix, on Gold Street, in San Francisco. It’s called the Gold Street Cocktail and is Plymouth Gin, Cocchi Americano, and Angostura Bitters.”
Dry and delicious, this is a Martini on steroids.
The second drink we tried was his Fall Pisco Punch. The traditional Pisco Punch’s most basic elements are Pisco, Citrus, and Pineapple. He’s keeping the Pisco and Lime, but has made a sort of custom sweetener by combining Small Hand Foods Pineapple Gum, Allspice Dram, and other secret ingredients. Definitely has that fall, Christmas spice feel.
“Kevin was giving me a hard time about how many fall drinks we’re using Allspice Dram in.”
I told Brion, I actually think it is a requirement for all fall drinks.
Lastly, we tried Brion’s most recent concoction, The Old Sage. This drink started as a variation on an Old Fashioned, using St George Spirits Dry Rye Gin as a base. A couple iterations later, and somehow egg white ended up in the drink. That day, they had gotten in some awesome new organic Sage over at Front Porch. When co-owner Josey White tried the drink, she suggested Brion include some sage with the Dry Rye in the drink. I was pretty impressed by how well the flavor of pungent sage combined with the St George Dry Rye. Sweet and savory at the same time, this would be a fun after dinner drink.
If you find yourself in the outer Mission/Bernal Heights area, do stop by Rock Bar. Good drinks, good beer, friendly folks, and more Minerals & Crystals than you are likely to find in any other bar in the world.
After a dry Mekons concert at the Swedish American Hall, could have used a drink.
Close to Churchill, maybe I can stop in and say “Hi” to Karly or Trevor.
The long line of young people waiting to get in, nixed that idea.
Wait, what the!? What is that the young people are wearing on their heads?
What I can only describe as “Balloon Animal Crowns”!
It doesn’t even look like a Hen Party. I guess I need to get out a little more at night…
Is it normal to be relieved I don’t have to deal with these sort of people where I work and at the same time, a little jealous?
There has been a bit of public backlash recently against “Cocktailian” or “Mixology” bars.
As in these articles:
“Complicated Cocktails“, Ali Zweben
“Against Mixology“, Sarah Deming
“Measure for Measure“, Karl Kozel
I’ve been biding my time up to now, but lately feel like maybe I can add a bit of zest to the debate.
First off, not every bar has to be for every person. Like restaurants, there are different types of bars for different types of customers. Maybe you like waiters in starched tuxedos serving you tiny jewels of food while you sweat in a tight suit and quiver with anus clenched excitement in an uncomfortable chair. Maybe I like to have a bacon hamburger served to me by a tatooed hipster in a dive bar.
We don’t all enjoy the same restaurants, why should we all enjoy the same bars?
What is it about bars, where if someone is attempting something other than the one or two accepted tropes, that it is perceived as alienating, where there is a whole range of accepted restaurant experiences?
But, you say, Bars are about going out, getting drunk, and having fun with your friends.
Well, sure, but not everyone’s idea of “fun” is the same thing. For you, maybe the cat’s pajamas is going out to a loud bar where there are five different sporting contests on three different screens and you do a shot every time each respective team scores. Well, that’s fun some of the time. Personally, I rarely care about sports, and would rather go out to a quiet bar and talk about music or geek out about cocktails with a well informed bartender, some cocktail and music geek friends. I don’t go out to a sports bar and try to debate the finer points of the Pegu Club with a jock bartender free pouring vodka red bulls, why should you expect that you should enjoy yourself at a bar catering to cocktailian patrons? Look around at the other customers, at the bartenders, at the back bar. What do you see? Do you feel like you fit in? If not, I hate to be harsh, but maybe this isn’t the place for you.
Jigger Pouring vs. Free Pouring. I used to not measure the cocktails I made for myself, friends, and family at home. Some times they were good, some times they were bad, and it was often the same cocktail. When I started the Savoy Cocktail Book project, I forced myself to measure, and found that my cocktails, if not improved, were at least consistent. I don’t know how to measure spirits by counting my pours, so I measure using a measuring cup or jigger. Other people know how to measure by counting their pours or by visually judging the amounts in clear mixing glasses. Awesome for them, but I’m 46 and don’t work in a Sports bar, so I am just not going to make the effort to learn how to free pour at this point in my life. And I don’t juggle bottles, either.
While you’re thinking about this, take a look at the bottles in the speed rail at your “local”, where the bartenders “Free Pour”. Do you see anything which would cost you MORE than $15 at retail? No? I didn’t think so. Now take a look at the bottles in the speed rail at Alembic or Heaven’s Dog. Do you see anything that would cost LESS than $15 at retail? Right, that bottle of Barbancourt 15 that we just poured in your “Rum and Honey” would probably set you back $40, or more, at the liquor store. A half ounce over-pour of Barbancourt 15 is costing the house significant money, especially when factored over days or weeks. A half an ounce over-pour of the rum flavored after shave you see on the speed rail at your local may be costing them less than the cola they are mixing it with. There is a reason we have to measure and they don’t.
Finally, a lot of people take issue with the more enthusiastic zealots of this new cocktailian wave of bartenders and mixologists. To be clear, we think America, and the rest of the world, was drinking pretty shit cocktails, for quite a few years. For those of us with any sort of podium, it is almost a matter of a righteous cause, that we use these outlets to improve the way people are drinking, and spread our agenda of drinking better. It’s not life or death, but we do think you will be happier drinking better spirits, liqueurs, mixers, and cocktails.
You don’t have to agree, and I’m always up for a healthy discussion on the topic, but I’ve found, in most cases, that the cocktails made with care and well selected ingredients speak for themselves, even to the coarsest of palates.
When we first opened Heaven’s Dog, we knew that a bunch of the staff would be short timers, who intended to defect to Thad Vogler’s new restaurant Bar Agricole when it opened.
However, an optimistic start date, meant most actually departed “The Dog”, some the SF vicinity, before Bar Agricole opened.
However, for those of us who have been patient, Bar Agricole opened this August.
As you are walking towards Bar Agricole, the first thing you might notice is this insignia on one of the outside walls, indicating that the building and construction process were certified “Gold” by the US Green Building Council. This indicates not just that they have used much recycled material in the project, but that the paints and other materials are certified non-toxic. Good for the contractors and the people who will work in the building. More information about that program here: What LEED Is
So ambitious is the Bar Agricole project, it’s kind of hard to get your mind around. They’ve even got gardens out front with herbs and vegetables they hope to use in their kitchen and in their drinks. Not sure what to call it… “Farm to Table, er, bar”? “Garden to Glass”? “Cradle to Grave”?
They aim to be open early to serve coffee and breafasty type things, then have a lunch, and then to be open for dinner, and late night service. So far, they are serving dinner and open into late night.
I arrived for a pre-opening party about 15 minutes early and was surprised to see construction relics peeking out from behind this and that door. Figuring I should give them some time to get it together, I loitered out from, taking some photos. Eventually Vince, a bartender from Beretta, also rolled up, and we chatted for a while, as they swept up the garden and put away their ladders.
We sauntered up the walkway, and entered the dining room, where the tension and excitement was nearly tangible. The first party in the new restaurant! How would it go?
Ostensibly, the reason I was invited to one of the preview events for Bar Agricole is that they are featuring St. George Spirits cane based rums on their cocktail menu. So, here we have it, 4 months later, a ‘Ti Punch made with St. George Agua Libre Blanc. Definitely worth the wait. Though, now that I think about it, isn’t a ‘Ti Punch just a cold Agricole Rhum Toddy garnished with lime peel?
If you’re interested in picking up a bottle of either the aged or unaged Agua Libre, a number of local retailers are carrying it, including: Cask, K&L, Healthy Spirits, John Walker & Co, Jug Shop, Ledger’s, and Swirl on Castro. At this point, it might be wise to call ahead and ask if they have it in stock, as I understand the early sales were quite brisk.
Wait, go back a sec, ‘Ti Punch? That’s not a Savoy Cocktail! What’s a ‘Ti Punch? You mentioned it a couple drinks ago with the aesthetics of the Tinton Cocktail, but didn’t really explain.
‘Ti Punch (I can never quite decide where to put the apostrophe), reportedly short for Petit Punch, is a Caribbean libation often associated with Martinique Rhum and/or sailing. It is: Rum, to taste. Sugar, to taste. Lime, to taste. Add Ice (or water), stir, and smile.
According to some, a very strict recipe would be:
2 oz Agricole Rhum Blanc
1 tsp Martinique Cane Syrup
1 quarter size disk of lime peel
Add Cane Syrup to a heavy bottomed glass. Squeeze lime peel over cane syrup, rub on rim of the glass and drop in. Add Rum and stir. Add ice and stir until chilled. Savor slowly and enjoy as the rum marries with the cane syrup, melted water, and lime.
That is, pretty exactly, a Cold Toddy or Sling.
However, Rhum Agricole Blanc can be a bit of an acquired taste. It’s usually 100 Proof and its flavor is sometimes compared, by the uninitiated, to Jet Fuel or Kerosene. A lot of people just don’t have the patience or proper relaxed attitude to wait around for the ice to melt and mellow the spirit. That first sip can be a bit of a shock. I’ve made ‘Ti Punch as described above for people who specifically ordered a Ti Punch and they sometimes ask for more lime wedges to squeeze into their drink, that I add more fresh lime juice, or if I can add more sugar. At this point, the cranky cocktail nerd inside me really wants to say, “Dude, if you wanted an Agricole Daiquiri, you should have ordered an Agricole Daiquiri, not a Ti Punch.”
On the other hand, when I was talking to Michael Lazar, of Left Coast Libations and the Stirred Not Shaken Blog, about Rhum Agricole Punch he mentioned his first exposure to Agricole-Style Rhum was in Guadalupe, where they are pretty relaxed about the whole thing. If you order Agricole Style Rhum, they just bring you a bottle, some limes, sugar, and, interestingly, a couple jars of jam. It’s up to you to figure out what you prefer in your drink. Then at the end of the night, they charge you based on how much Rhum is left in the bottle.
Maybe a more relaxed attitude is proper for an “Island-style” Drink.
And just about on cue, the battery in my camera flaked out. No more pictures of Bar Agricole, the staff, or their cocktails. Curses, I guess there will have to be a part 3 of this series!
Well, this is quite exciting and a potential boon to my Savoy Project.
Alembic Bar, in the upper Haight neighborhood of San Francisco, had held an event on St. Valentine’s Day where they passed out the Savoy Cocktail Book and asked patrons to pick a cocktail, any cocktail. Unfortunately, I was out of town over Valentine’s Day and missed the event.
However, it was such a success that they have decided to make the Savoy event monthly.
To quote the bar manager Dean James:
And since all of that worked out so well, we want to spread the love every month!
So on the last Tuesday of every month, we’ll be rolling it out again. A brief recap if you missed it,
the Savoy Cocktail Book is a famous old cocktail books, one of the first, and it contains hundreds of
great recipes, and a few strange ones, the likes of which we have been hard at work re-creating
behind the scenes. So you get the book, close your eyes and point, and chances are we have the stuff
to make it for you. Anyway, Round 2 is on Tuesday, March 25th. See you there!
Note to Alembic staff: Alembic is already one of my favorite bars. Really. This is above and beyond the call of duty!
Anyway, seriously, I just love the idea that some of these cocktails from the 1930s still have legs in the 21st Century.