Don't look now, but the local foods movement has elbowed its way through the crowd and sidled up next to your seat at the bar. It aims to seduce by slipping organic citrus zests and small-batch brandy from Soquel into your grizzled workhorse well drink. Although the Bay Area's cup runneth over with educated eaters who demand seasonal, organic, and artisan foods, the Alice Waters revolution has been surprisingly slow to transform the stuff that sloshes in our cocktail glasses. We decry trans fats and corn syrup, and spend Saturday mornings cross-examining farmers, but throw a couple of Bacardi and Cokes our way, and all of a sudden we become pretty cheap dates. United by an affection for antique recipes and methods, a new breed of bar geeks is making it easier to drink mindfully — no, that's not an oxymoron — by conjuring up cocktails that showcase craft spirits, local produce, and handmade ingredients at a handful of Oakland restaurants.
Sidebar, one of the city's newest eateries, sells "classicist" and "locavore" versions of every cocktail on its menu. Jonny Raglin, owner of Proper Potion Consulting, designed the list. "I wanted to give people the opportunity to go local if they wanted to. But if they wanted a regular old Manhattan made with Martini & Rossi sweet vermouth and Maker's Mark, then they could have that, too," he said. Take the Aviation. Customers can stick with old-fashioned austerity — Beefeater gin, Maraschino liqueur, and lemon juice — or try the locavore, with its very particular pedigree of No. 209 Gin from San Francisco, St. George Spirits Aqua Perfecta Kirsch Eau de Vie from Alameda, house-made spiced syrup, and Meyer lemon juice. Either one costs $9.
"It looks like I'm poisoning your drink!" laughed Hana Hayashi, a bartender at permanently crowded Pizzaiolo. She carefully squeezes an eyedropper filled with cardamom tincture into a shaker that contains gin, fresh lime juice, and simple syrup. The resulting pale-green gimlet looked like any other, but the first sip was full of surprise. The cardamom's musky heat smoldered across the tongue for a second before it was quelled by the lime's citric tang. Pizzaiolo's ever-changing cocktail list includes homemade tonic and various concoctions that sound more suitable for a Victorian apothecary than a modern-day Temescal pizza joint. But that's part of the fun.
The small — and somewhat controversial — cocktail menu at Camino is also tweaked several times a week. Thad Vogler, the restaurant's opening bar manager, wanted to feature small-production spirits with deep agricultural roots. "I'm not into organics just for the sake of organics, or local for the sake of local," he said. Flavor is the most important factor. "It's the same as food. The stuff that tastes best is the stuff that's made mindfully and not mass-produced." Distillers should know where and how their grapes, grain, and sugar cane are grown, or, better yet, grow the crops themselves. That means he might select an artisanal French brandy over an industrially made spirit from Northern California.
The bar uses only local, organic, seasonal citrus, so limes disappear from the drinks for months at a time. "I was amazed at how pissed people got," said Vogler about the menu. "We don't sell decaf, we don't sell Diet Coke. But believe me, we're nice people. We're not trying to be judgmental, but we don't have any name-brand vodka that you're familiar with. Those are massive industrial products."
Bill Owens is the founder of the American Distilling Institute in Hayward and a passionate booster of craft distillers. "We're not a gigantic corporation with offices in Belgium," he said. "We have a different mission: to have you try something that's made with a labor of love instead of a computer." Traditionally, small distilleries made use of existing agricultural resources — a surplus of apples, say, or corn — out of sheer necessity. "You do things according to what you have," said Owens.
Alameda-based St. George Spirits, maker of Hangar One vodkas and the Aqua Perfecta line of eaux de vie, is clearly the hometown favorite when it comes to craft distilleries. But plenty of other world-class spirits are made in Northern California, especially gin (including Sarticious from Santa Cruz and No. 209 and Anchor Distilling Company's Junípero in San Francisco) and brandy (Germain-Robin near Ukiah; Osocalis in Soquel). Affordable local whiskey, though, is still hard to find.
Ask the cocktail cognoscenti about Marian Farms in Fresno, and you'll likely hear some swooning. Gena Nonini is a third-generation biodynamic table-grape farmer who's been making certified organic pisco, a type of brandy with South American origins, in a German copper pot still since 2007. "I'm a farmer first," she said, "so I'm fortunate to be able to control the product all the way from the soil to the glass." She was already distilling high-proof alcohol from her grapes for medicinal uses, so entering the beverage business was a relatively easy step. "They kinda bite you all the way down," she said of other piscos. "But our stuff doesn't do that. It's smooth." She's tapped into a healthy market in the Bay Area thanks to the enduring popularity of Pisco Punch, a classic pineapple cocktail that was invented in San Francisco during the late 1800s.
When she's not tending bar at the Slanted Door and Heaven's Dog in San Francisco, Berkeley resident Jennifer Colliau creates what she calls "very geeky" cocktail ingredients. Colliau's year-old company, Small Hand Foods, specializes in small batches of syrups made with local and organic fruits. They're intended to complement "pre-Prohibition era" recipes, a reference to the golden age of drinking in the late-19th and early-20th centuries when bartending technique reached its zenith, and ingredient lists were short and honest. "I want to drink how I want to eat," she said, adding that she trolled farmers' markets until she could find a good hookup for the pomegranate juice that she uses in her rich, blood-colored grenadine. People from all over the country have been calling her to ask how they can get their hands on a bottle of orgeat, an almond syrup that perks up tiki drinks like the Mai Tai, or gum syrup, which adds a degree of viscosity to drinks that regular simple syrup can't pull off. She makes a raspberry gum syrup in the summertime. "I originally thought, 'Oh, there will be eight bars in the Bay Area that will want this stuff, and that's it.' But I've been really blown away by the level of interest," she said.
Specialty ingredients aren't reserved just for the pros. Amateur mixologists visit shops like Ledger's Liquors in Berkeley hoping to find obscure new bottles. Some of them should probably stay obscure. "A guy just called me looking for bacon vodka," said owner Ed Ledger. He makes a point of stocking local and hard-to-find items to help customers recreate the drinks they've tried in bars.
"People's idea of a cocktail for years and years has been something with a really silly name that has too much sugar in it and gives you a headache," said Scott Beattie, a Healdsburg-based cocktail caterer and author of Artisanal Cocktails. "It's only been in the last ten years that people realized that if you want to make great drinks, you have to use quality liquor and quality products."
Quality, of course, rarely comes cheap. But small changes can help put your money where your mouth is. Learn more about the companies whose brands you drink. Ask your liquor store to carry artisan products, and pay a visit your friendly neighborhood distiller for a tasting. Use organic citrus for wedges, juices, and zests. And take full advantage of summer's bounty by infusing your favorite spirit with late-season local berries or stone fruits. Once you taste the good stuff, you might not want to go back.
1 cup quartered Black Mission or Brown Turkey figs (use Black Mission for better color)
2 cups Anchor Distilling Company Junípero Gin
½ bunch fresh thyme
Place figs in glass jar and add gin. Seal tightly and place in a darkened spot for two weeks. One day before serving, add the thyme to the jar. Continue to infuse for another 24 hours. Strain gin through cheesecloth before using.
When Figs Fly
Jonny Raglin of Proper Potion Consulting recommends Gloria Ferrer sparkling wine to keep this drink local.
1.5 oz. Fig-Infused Gin
1 tablespoon superfine sugar
Chilled Champagne, Prosecco, or other sparkling wine
1 sprig fresh thyme
Combine gin and sugar in a shaker with ice and mix vigorously. Strain into a flute and top with Champagne. Garnish with sprig of thyme.
Culture Spy - February 23, 2:42 PM
What the Fork - February 23, 2:12 PM
Seven Days - February 21, 3:30 PM
Culture Spy - February 19, 1:45 PM
Seven Days - February 18, 5:00 PM