Unpretentious Cocktails 

Serious drinks and “mixologists” are out, replaced by consumer-driven lighter — and sweeter — cocktails.

click to enlarge Copper Spoon serves mezcal-centered gems. - PHOTO BY LANCE YAMAMOTO
  • Photo by Lance Yamamoto
  • Copper Spoon serves mezcal-centered gems.

Ever been rubbed the wrong way by a hipster-bearded bartender referring to himself as a “mixologist”? Well, we have good news. Behind-the-bar pretentiousness is officially out. Hear it from some East Bay “mixologists” themselves.

“All we do is sell sugar water. And it has different amounts of sugar, juice, or alcohol in it, but we’re just selling sugar water, so get down off of your high horse,” said Chris Mansury, bar manager of Plum Cocktail Bar.

Vita Simone, co-owner of Temescal bar and restaurant Copper Spoon, shared a similar sentiment: “I can pour you a shot or a beer. We’re not brain surgeons — we’re not saving lives,” she said.

This isn’t to say skilled bartenders like Simone and Mansury are passing vodka Red Bulls at their customers and calling it a day. Both pay painstaking attention to the ingredients entering their cocktails, from the smoky mezcal-centered gems at Copper Spoon to the eclectic, E. E. Cummings-inspired menu at Plum Cocktail Bar. They’re just less precious about it.

“The whole bar experience got really serious for a while and kind of stuffy and formal,” said Mansury. (“It was all suspenders and twisty moustaches,” groaned Tina Marie Brackett, the general manager at Plum Bar). “I think we’re starting to see a return to whimsy and bringing fun back into the experience.”

This means a respite for your IPA-singed, bitters-mauled taste buds — it’s OK now to let a little sweetness back into your life. After the trendy imbalance of dry, bitter, spirit-forward drinks, bartenders are indulging their customers’ cravings for the lighter side of things.



“It’s been dark times, and I think people are trying to reach into that escapism,” Mansury said.

We buy it. Saying fuck it to cavities and ordering a sugarbomb lemon drop really isn’t too shoddy of a coping mechanism for the Trump era.

Not only are bartenders shedding stuffy titles and undrinkably bitter cocktails, they are being more transparent about what goes into their concoctions. Plum Bar’s current menu details exactly how to make each of their cocktails, from specific measurements to mixing instructions. Customers are even invited to take the menus home with them. And if you don’t know how to make some of the syrups, Brackett says to ask her, and she’ll write down the recipe for you.

As bartenders are becoming more genuine and transparent, customers, too, are becoming more thoughtful.

Simone said she’s noticed “people being more conscious about where the liquor comes from. They’re drinking it not just because it’s good but also because of how it’s made and the people the money goes to.” She likens it to the way people shop for produce at a farmers market. Plus, Bay Area residents are particularly smart consumers.

“The base level of knowledge of a customer in Oakland or San Francisco is so much higher than a lot of other places,” said Alex Maynard, brand ambassador at Starline Social Club.

It’s fitting, then, that dealer’s choice drinks are on the rise. For the uninitiated, ordering a dealer’s choice means describing what flavor profiles or liquors you’re craving and letting the bartender create something just for you. At Copper Spoon, if a customer likes a dealer’s choice, they can choose to name it and write it in their book. This way, they can enjoy it again and become a small part of the democratic process of creation.

Apparently, the thoughtful cocktail sipper of 2019 is also less likely to want to get blackout drunk. Therefore, our East Bay bartender sources predict low ABV drinks are about to get very popular.

“People are just more health conscious. Partying more responsibly is a trend,” Maynard said. Low ABV allows people to be more mindful of what they drink — and remain sober as they knock back a few. And as lower-proof cocktails grow more prominent, they don’t have to mean less flavor.

“I think people are starting to pay attention to the idea that you can be just as creative with lower-ABV stuff,” said Mansury. “You can still use a high-proof spirit in a low-ABV drink; you’re just using it to accent as opposed to being the backbone.”

So while imbibers are growing increasingly health-conscious, it’s only natural their newfound thoughtfulness would including looking outwards from themselves. Bars are also beginning to emphasize sustainability in their cocktail menus.

“Bars stopped offering the plastic straw and replacing it with a paper one, or no straw at all,” said Jessica Maria, co-owner of Albany bar Hotsy Totsy.

Plum Bar has been working on its new menu, which Brackett calls its “resourceful menu.” After a series of popups in their bar for the past eight months, they’ve found themselves with a pantry full of odd ingredients.

“Right now we have three pounds of golden raisins, a bunch of molasses, and shiitake mushrooms,” Brackett said. “It leads to a lot of experimenting with new flavor combinations.”

She mused about mixing sesame oil and miso paste with palm sugar and seeing where that might take her. Or even transforming oyster sauce into some sort of burnt caramel ginger confection.

“It’s going to be weird and all over the place, and it’s not going to make any sense when you’re looking at it. So, we have to be able to talk everyone through the process and be like, ‘This is what happens when you have four pop-ups in eight months, and you have a full pantry of cornichons.’”

Take that, snooty twisty moustache guys. 

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