Distillery visits are the Cocktail Wonk’s E-ticket ride. During my recent California visit it was a foregone conclusion that I’d visit the Lost Spirits distillery. However, on our last day, circumstances also allowed a stop at St. George Spirits and a quick visit to Forbidden Island. Without knowing the St. George Spirits background, you might be tempted to assume they’re just another of the small craft distilleries that have popped up in the past ten years. The reality is that St. George Spirits has been going for over thirty years and played a crucial role in bringing the craft distillery movement to life. Along the way they’ve gained a reputation for their gins, fruit brandies, absinthe and agricole-style rum. Keep reading for what I learned and saw on the tour.
St. George Spirits
Although St. George Spirits started off small, these days they’re based in a 65,000 sq. ft. hangar at the former Alameda Naval Air Station. Driving to the distillery on a Sunday afternoon, we experienced an eerie feeling driving through a pancake-flat military facility, with streets named after aircraft carriers, yet with no people or cars to be found. It was only in the St. George parking lot, adjacent to the Hangar One Vodka distillery in its own building, that we saw other people–evidence that we weren’t in a military ghost town. From the parking lot you can see ships being loaded in the working harbor, and across the bay, the San Francisco skyline:
View from St. George Spirits parking lot. San Francisco in distance.
Once inside the hangar doors, you’ll see that the tours and tastings are a highly organized endeavor. It’s highly suggested to book your tour online in advance: $15 for “Basic Training,” i.e. tasting, or $20 for “Advanced Training,” comprised of a roughly forty-minute tour, then tasting. Within the entry room, along with the reception desk and store, are two long tasting bars, akin to what you’d find at a large winery. They can serve up to about fifty people, broken up into groups of between four and eight. We opted for the “Advanced Training,” and it wasn’t long before our name was called to join a group of about twenty people.
Stills at St. George Spirits
Stills at St. George Spirits
Upon exiting the entry room we found ourselves in a completely open, high ceiling hangar with all the obvious fixtures you’d expect in a distillery – pot stills, bottling equipment, life-sized animatronic shark, aging barrels … wait, shark? The guide explained that another hangar on the decommissioned base had housed a movie prop house. The prop company had moved elsewhere, but somehow didn’t have room for the shark. The St. George folks struck a deal for storage that eventually ended up with them taking possession of it. Giant meat-eating sea creature notwithstanding, everything about the distillery looks highly organized, polished and photogenic. Lots of gleaming copper and chrome, with nothing obviously out of place.
Shark prop at St. George Spirits
This will soon be crushing pears!
The tour consists of multiple stops, each in front of a particularly photogenic location. At each stop, the guide gives a lively overview of one of the distillery’s products, deftly weaving elements of the current stop into the story about the particular product. The trek starts with the pot and columns stills, all elevated on a platform about three feet above the main floor. This stop focused on the pear brandy, and the guide spun a tale around the many tons of pears soon to be arriving at the very spot we were standing–including how each bottle of pear brandy starts with thirty pounds of fruit.
Holding tanks and bottling line, St. George Spirits
The tour then moves to the proofing area (where the highly distilled spirits, typically above 90 percent alcohol by volume, are diluted to a more drinkable mix), the bottling line, aging barrels, Mako shark, the botanical basket held high above the stills for gin, and an interactive display of various absinthe ingredients, to smell and experience. The walking is minimal — we covered no more than ten percent of the hangar–yet we saw all the critical elements of a working distillery you’d expect to see.
Aging barrels at St. George Spirits
Our guide showing spirits clouding because of added water
Our guide was very upbeat and informal. Since most people on these sorts of tour are unfamiliar with the spirt-making process, the guide expectedly covered a lot of very basic material about spirits and distillation, intermixed with stories and anecdotes. There were also demonstrations, including adding water to a flask of distillate, demonstrating that it draws out certain oils that turn the distillate cloudy. I found myself wandering off to poke around corners and through the barrels to get more photos, but the stories, including one about the monkey on the Absinthe Verte label pulled me back in. To her credit I didn’t notice her say anything incorrect, a feat made even harder by all the material she covered. Kudos for that!
Gin botanical basket, at top. St. George Spirits
Absinthe ingredients, St. George Spirits
Back in the tasting room after the hangar tour, we broke into small groups of four to six, each being assigned a particular tasting station staffed by a person pouring samples. We tasted a total of six spirits over the course of about thirty minutes. Each spirit was properly introduced, along with a refresher on some the backstory we had heard on the tour. The tasting progresses from the more subtle, sweet spirits toward the more powerful spirits, chosen in this order to preserve your palate. Starting with the pear brandy, we then tasted the rye gin, followed by the NOLA Coffee liqueur). At this point there’s a spot where select one of four possibilities. I selected the Agricole-style Rum to absolutely no-ones surprise. Mrs. Wonk selected the Terroir gin, inspired by the flora that grows on and around Mt. Tam, in Marin County. Last up was the Absinthe Verte, diluted as you’d expect.
Tasting room, St. George Spirits
The highlights for Mrs. Wonk were the two gins, while the pear brandy and agricole style rum were my favorites. I’m saving a proper write-up of the agricole for a later time, but the short version is that it has a strong funk, in the best way possible. During the tasting, I chatted with the server and mentioned that rum is a personal passion. He shared with me that while the current agricole-style rum isn’t aged, they have been aging some for eventual release. I’m very interested to see how long they choose to age it and if they go at least three years, the minimum for a Martinique AOC agricole rum to be labeled rhum vieux or “old rhum.”
Barrel, St. George Spirits
After the tasting, you can purchase bottles of St. George spirits, although I didn’t see anything you couldn’t find elsewhere (and for a few dollars less). An adjacent counter sells T-shirts, tasting glasses, books, and so on. I grabbed a pair of the somewhat unusual looking tasting glasses, just like the ones we enjoyed using for the tasting. (Mrs. Wonk noted that the glasses were wrapped for travel in silver ballpark-style hotdog wrappers—a whimsical touch.)
The St. George Spirits distillery is solidly in the middle ground, size-wise, of the distilleries I’ve visited: Enormous in comparison to the hand-built Lost Spirits, but tiny next to giant behemoths like Auchentoshan, near Glasgow, Scotland. Although I wasn’t fortunate enough to have one-on-one interaction with the distillers at St. George Spirits like I’ve had elsewhere, I came away very happy with my visit. While you may not see any mash fermenting, barrels being filled, or bottling lines running, if you have any more than a passing interesting in spirits, the up-close view of the equipment, good story about the products, and a generous tasting of their products make this a worthwhile visit.
California has a disproportionately large number of great Tiki bars, which isn’t terribly surprising since Tiki originated in Southern California and the Bay Area during the latter half of the 1930s. Portland has one Tiki Bar of note (Hale Pele) and the Seattle area has Tacoma Cabana, but beyond those, Tiki is relegated to the occasional “theme night” in the Pacific Northwest. It’s no surprise then that I’ll always jump at a California trip excuse to get my fill of Tiki. During our recent visit to San Francisco for VMworld, Mrs. Wonk and I visited ten bars, four of which were Tiki. The other six bars are covered in the prior post while this post has my thoughts on the two new (to us) Tiki bars we visited, plus two returning favorites.
A disclaimer about the photos here: Tiki bars are nearly always dark. A well-lit Tiki bar would just seem…off. Thus, dark rooms, small cameras, and no flash are a recipe for dark, grainy photos.
Smuggler’s Cove – Cocktail Wonk Rating: 9/10
Smuggler’s Cove decor
If you’re reading this, you’ve probably heard of Smuggler’s Cove as it’s rightly on every published “Best Tiki Bar” list and is famous for having the largest rum collection of any bar in the world. Owner Martin Cate, along with Jeff Berry, has become one of the go-to experts for Tiki-related quotes. Rather than rehashing what’s been well-documented elsewhere, I will focus on the Smuggler’s Cove experience, being a seasoned veteran with two trips under my belt.
Wait, this is a Tiki bar?
I guarantee you that nearly everybody arriving at Smuggler’s Cove for the first time has a “WTF?” moment. Set on an otherwise normal, low-rise commercial street, the view from the exterior is of a typical modern looking storefront like you’d find in an office park – and the dark, aluminum framed windows give no hint what’s behind them. No tiki torches. No Polynesian-looking sign suggesting what might be inside. Honestly, it could be any non-descript business. (Mrs. Wonk’s comment upon arriving for our first visit, “Are they going to sell me insurance in here?”) The only indication you’ve found the right place is small two-inch lettering on the glass door reading “Smuggler’s Cove.”
While the exterior may not provide many clues, the crowd of people waiting outside might give you a hint that something’s going on behind the dark facade. Smuggler’s Cove is not a large space, yet it is world-renowned, so it’s not uncommon for people to queue up outside to wait for seats inside. Here’s an important tip: If you’re a “must sit at the bar” person like I am, arrive prior to the 5 PM opening and be prepared to queue. Yes, even on a Tuesday. On our first visit, we naively arrived at 5:10 PM and there were no seats to be had. On this trip we arrived at 4:45 PM, so were first in a line of about fifteen when the door opened.
Smuggler’s Cove decor
Smuggler’s Cove is just a bit more awesome because it’s split over three levels. Step inside and it’s very, very dark. In front of you to the right is a small bar with about eight seats, and other than drink rail with seating along the left-hand wall, no other seating on this level. Toward the back, a set of stairs leads to an upper level with seating that overlooks the main floor. To the immediate right of the entry—watch your step as you come inside–is a curving set of metal stairs leading down past a three-story waterfall to the lower level, with more seating, the pool of the waterfall, and a secondary bar in the far back. The décor and theme of all three levels is over-the-top nautical Tiki – thick jute ropes, glass buoy lamps of various colors, rum barrels, and a giant suspended anchor: imagine the Pirates of the Caribbean set squished into your neighborhood watering hole. Also coo: I met the guy (“Notch”) who designed the space a few days later at a private party high up in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Stephen Liles at the main floor bar helm, Smuggler’s Cove.
Since we were first in the door, and with the benefit of knowing the lay of the land, we grabbed prime seats at the main level bar; with only eight seats, any of them are prime territory. Behind the bar was Stephen Liles, man of many hats. Stephen is a veteran at the Cove and a model of efficiency. Very little motion is wasted as he churns through the never-ending list of drink orders. Because he was so busy there wasn’t a good opportunity to chat with him for more than a few sentences. Every drink he crafted for us on both visits was top-notch.
First round at Smuggler’s Cove, including the Rum Barrel, now in my collection.
The menu at Smuggler’s Cove is a masterpiece, nicely bound and segregated into thoughtful categories, with each drink receiving a well-written description. Seriously, if you own a Tiki bar, this is the way to get your drinks the credit they deserve. The drinks are a mix of the expected as well as forgotten Tiki classics, along with house originals. A few drinks come in special Smuggler’s Cove branded Tiki mugs, which you can purchase with the drink for a few dollars more. There are dozens of different mug releases in existence, so I’m glad I’ve grabbed a different mug on each visit. (Mrs. Wonk feels a new collection coming on.)
Plantation Royal Blend, exclusively at Smuggler’s Cove
If you’re in to sipping rums, be sure to ask for the rum list, which is a separate menu. It numbers in the hundreds, some you will not find anywhere else. One in particular is a special Plantation Rum bottling exclusive to Smuggler’s Cove called the “Royal Blend”–containing four rums and aged in three different types of barrels, the last two being Cognac and Maury (a sweet French wine). I limited myself to just two cocktails because I knew I was having the Royal Blend. Mrs. Wonk will attest that I was rendered nearly speechless for several minutes, it was that phenomenal. (Mrs. Wonk says this is good information, in case she needs to render me speechless at some future time of her choosing.)
Besides arriving early if you want a good spot, the other advice I’ll give is to eat up before you get there. They don’t serve any food, and with all the rum you’ll happily consume, you’ll rapidly go off the deep end unless you’ve laid down a healthy base of food first. (Mrs. Wonk would have paid a considerable amount for some sad bar nuts or goldfish crackers.)
To sum it up, Smuggler’s Cove does Tiki drinks exceedingly well. Yes, it’s become a bit of a tourist destination with all that entails: sometimes long waits for cocktails, crowded spaces, clueless people ordering wine (really???) but it hasn’t jumped the shark yet, and it likely won’t. If you have the chance, don’t question — just go.
Longitude – Cocktail Wonk Rating: 8/10
Longitude, across the water in Oakland, is new in the Bay Area Tiki scene. However, it comes with impeccable credentials in the form of owner Suzanne Long, previously the general manager and head bartender at Forbidden Island (reviewed below). My Longitude notes here don’t have quite the same level of details as other bars, as our visit didn’t follow my normal bar visit pattern where Mrs. Wonk and I sit at the bar and soak in the experience. This was because we were fortunate to be accompanied by Josh Miller from the Inu a Kena blog. With all the great conversation, I didn’t have as much time for mental note taking.
The bar at Longitude
Longitude is newly constructed and looks more upscale and put together than your typical Tiki restaurant, combining Caribbean and African influences rather than Polynesian grass shacks and leis. Mrs. Wonk is a respected interior designer and doesn’t quite “get” the African / Caribbean mash-up (however well-executed), but Josh and I think it works. The bar counter is a gorgeous slab of wood, the stools are casually elegant, and faux plants are abundant but tastefully done. The bar area itself is unusually bright for a Tiki bar. But at our table about ten feet from the bar, it was dark enough to require cell-phone light to read the menu. Next to us was a semi-private “hut” for large parties.
Cocktail at Longitude
The cocktail menu comprises about fifteen drinks, each with a nice description. I opted for the Queens Barrel (“three rums, sparkling citrus, and passion fruit”) which both Josh and our waitress warned me was the booziest of the drinks. It was well made and on par with the drinks at Smuggler’s Cove. With a few exceptions, the drinks are house originals, some venturing into some non-Tiki areas, such as the gin-based Farmer’s Martini. Fifteen drinks is great for a normal restaurant menu, but high-end Tiki restaurants typically feature quite a few more. Longitude takes a lot of cues from Tiki but doesn’t slavishly follow the idioms.
Longitude’s Pu Pu platter
Bonus points for Longitude for their food menu, which covers both the usually Tiki dishes (Mrs. Wonk highly recommends the well-executed Pu Pu platter, which at some restaurants can sometimes be a sugary mess but instead was tasty and well-balanced, flavor-wise.) as well as British-influenced dishes like bangers and mash, mac and cheese, and shepherd’s pie (tying into that African-explorer theme).
“Hut” at Longitude
Out visit to Longitude was during its first few weeks of operations, so they may not have pulled out all the stops yet. We had a very enjoyable time, and I’ll definitely visit again to see how they evolve.
Tonga Room – Cocktail Wonk Rating: 7/10
Ship deck dance floor at Tonga Room, SF.
If you’re a fan of over-the-top, vintage Tiki environs, the Tonga Room is an essential pilgrimage. If you’re looking for dozens of different, expertly Tiki cocktails (a la Smuggler’s Cove), you’ll come away mildly disappointed. I’m clearly in the first category, so a Tonga Room visit is an essential part of a San Francisco visit.
More than any other Tiki Bar I’ve been to, the Tonga Room is about the visual experience. You really do feel as though you’re stepping back in time to 1945, which is when it first opened here in San Francisco. What does a visit to the Tonga Room entail? First, you set course for the Fairmont hotel in San Francisco, perched at the top of Nob Hill with amazing views in every direction. (Walk if you haven’t been to the gym in a week, take an Uber if you’re committed to wearing those stilettos.)The Fairmont is an enormous, elegant historic hotel dating back to 1907. Walking through the lobby, which hasn’t changed much in a hundred years, you’ll think, “There’s a Tiki bar in here somewhere?” Find the elevator that takes you down a few floors, wander down a long hallway though the bowels of the hotel until you spy volcanic rock and a small lobby with an entrance leading into the Tonga Room. Step through the door, and…wow!
Bandstand in Tonga Room’s lagoon
In front of you is full blown wooden ship rigging. Beyond that is a pool (think: regulation size hotel swimming pool), surrounded on three side by dining tables under open thatched roofed “huts.” Along the pool rim are festive strings of lights and lanterns. In the middle of the pool is a thatched roof bandstand made up to look like a Polynesian river boat. Take it all in – this may be the closest you’ll ever come to Tiki’s glory days in the 1940s and 1950s. The space you’re in used to be the Fairmont’s swimming pool area, but in 1945 was converted into the Tonga Room. With its long history and serious Tiki cred, the Tonga Room was designated a historical resource after an ill-conceived effort to get rid of the space a few years back.
Bar at Tonga Room, SF
The bar area is to your right, with seating for about twelve at the bar, with hi-top seating close behind. Take a seat at the bar (obviously) and grab an old-school Tiki “picture menu”—in case you have no idea what a Scorpion Bowl looks like. The drinks include a few vintage classics (Mai Tai, Zombie, Singapore Sling), other drinks often lumped into the Tiki category (Pina Colada, Margarita), and a few house originals. I’ll be honest, I was concerned at first that the drinks would be a travesty, akin to the pineapple and OJ “Mai Tai” found at every hotel bar in Hawaii. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the Tonga Room sticks to the original recipes for the most part. Extra credit for the Small Hand Foods orgeat behind the bar, rather than some petrochemical based “orgeat.”
Mai Tai at the Tonga Room, SF
While the drinks aren’t up to Smuggler’s Cove / Latitude quality level, with careful ordering you can get decent-enough Tiki drinks to pass the time while you marvel at the lava-stone walls and wait out the rainstorm. Yes…rainstorm. Indoor. Rainstorm. Over the pool at 30 minute intervals. How awesome is that? If you’re with a friend or three, order a bowl (sized for two or four) and sip it through the ridiculously long straws provided. Currently there are three bowls on offer: Scorpion, Smuggler’s Cove, and Lava. On our prior Tonga Room visit, we were served by the very nice bar manager, a fellow Tiki wonk, who generously gave me our bowl for my collection. As you’d hope for a restaurant within a hotel, the Tonga Room has a slightly above average Tiki/Asian fare menu, including a Pu Pu platter, pork ribs, won tons, and spicy chicken wings.
Immerse yourself in the Tonga Room vibe, and you’ll be reluctant to leave. There’s always a detail you hadn’t noticed before. Have moderate expectations about the cocktails, soak in the Tiki history, and you’ll find yourself planning a return trip.
Forbidden Island – Cocktail Wonk Rating: 7.5/10
First, let’s start with a bit of backstory connecting Forbidden Island to other bars in this post. Back in 2006, Martin Cate along with some partners opened Forbidden Island in Alameda, across the bay from San Francisco. He left in 2009 to start Smuggler’s Cove, and Suzanne Long, now of Longitude, assumed head mixologist duties at Forbidden Island. As such, Forbidden Island played a role in the eventual formation of both Smuggler’s Cove and Longitude.
Forbidden Island was our last Tiki stop, shortly before heading to the airport to return home. Although Sunday at 3 PM isn’t normally the time I’d pick for a bar visit, it was the only time we had free, and hey, Forbidden Island is open! I’d convinced myself this would work out well because bars are generally empty on a sunny, Sunday afternoon, right? We strode in and… what the hell? It was packed! Turns out that Forbidden Island hosts a lot of special events, and we’d arrived just as the Tiki Car Hop was getting underway. Realizing this wasn’t going to be an optimal visit, we stuck around and did our best to extrapolate what it would be like at a less busy time (i.e., ordering and drinking while standing).
Forbidden Island bar
The interior is dominated by a long, straight bar that can easily accommodate four bartenders behind it. The back bar is a treasure trove of rums, somewhat similar in vibe to Hale Pele in Portland. Over the bar area is a low, thatched “roof,” the underside festooned with hundreds of attached dollar bills. Along the opposite wall is a row of enclosed booths, and overhead hang colorful, nautical glass buoys, rope netting, and palm fronds, giving a pleasant ramshackle vibe.
Cocktails at Forbidden Island
The cocktail menu was an abbreviated event menu (for the car hop), with around fifteen drinks listed. A friendly regular at the bar noticed our puzzled looks and explained that the normal menu has three times the number of drinks, which I was able to verify online. The full menu is broken down into “traditional Tiki,” “house specials,” “famous tiki bar tributes,” “cocktail classics,” and “pools of paradise” (i.e. punch bowls). In a whimsical twist, most of the drinks have a skull and crossbones symbol indicating their relative strength. Both the drinks we ordered met my high expectations, and if we had more time, I wouldn’t hesitate to explore more of their creations. There’s also a small food menu although we didn’t partake—it’s hard to Pu Pu while standing up.
Drink all the rum at Forbidden Island
Patio behind Forbidden Island
Forbidden Island has a patio and a small parking lot out back, which was the showplace for the Tiki Car Hop, which featured quite a few well-restored vintage cars, which we took our time wandering through. The sunny Sunday patio was perfect for day drinking outside—and a haircut, should you need it (the car hop offered services in a full-on old-style barber’s chair). Just another day in Tiki-ville! Although I didn’t have the optimal Forbidden Island experience I’d hoped for, I wouldn’t hesitate to go back next time we’re in the Bay Area.
Stay tuned for my final post from this trip which covers my visit to St. George Spirits Distillery.
The San Francisco Bay area is a special place for me. I spent twenty of my first twenty-seven years there and always welcome going back, an opportunity afforded me during the recent VMworld conference in San Francisco. The city is a hotbed of world-class cocktail bars, easily in the top ten worldwide destinations for innovative mixology. Mrs. Wonk and I naturally took advantage of our time in SF to visit as many bars as we could. We were successful enough that I’ve broken up my reporting into two several posts – I covered Trick Dog in a prior post, this post covers the more “traditional” craft cocktail bars, and a subsequent post will cover the Tiki bar scene. What follows isn’t a comprehensive list of places you should visit in San Francisco – there are plenty of those already. Rather these are my thoughts and ratings for the set of bars I selected to pack into our limited time in town:
I could easily spend weeks in San Francisco, perching for a few hours at all the bars I’d like to visit.
Loló – Cocktail Wonk Rating: 8
Backbar at Loló
Loló was our first stop in San Francisco after hitting town around noon. It was on my “backup” list of bars to visit if the opportunity arose, but was also on Mrs. Wonk’s “must eat” list. (As mentioned in earlier posts, she tackles food, I handle drinks, and a good time is had by all.) We were hungry too, so I scanned my list for places open for brunch, so we could kill the proverbial two birds with one
Panko tacos at Loló
stone (i.e. brunch and a new bar on my list). Loló fit the bill. It needs to be noted before discussing cocktails that Loló’s food (“Jaliscan-California Inspired Cuisine”) is simply put, the bomb. We took our seats at the bar, looking around at other patron’s plates for ideas of what to order. I wanted to proclaim, “Just bring me one of everything!” Unfortunately, the available cocktail side of the equation was just “meh…” with only their brunch cocktail menu available, a stripped down version of their normal offerings, heavy on the simple two- or three-ingredient brunch drinks. I had a perfectly functional mezcal daiquiri, but wasn’t wowed. (The panko avocado tacos, on the other hand, were a highlight of not only Loló but ranked high for our whole time in the city. Amazing.)
Cocktail menu at Loló
Fast forward several days – one of my “top tier” bars closed minutes before we arrived at 11 PM on a weeknight (what the hell?) and I was scrambling for ideas so as to not waste our limited drinking time. A return visit to Loló sprang to mind, thanks to a recommendation from the folks at Beretta (see more below.) A short Uber ride and we sat down at Loló’s bar with a much larger and happier Mexican-inspired cocktail menu, designed to mimic a Mexican loteria card, akin to a bingo card, but much more colorful. With the full selection of drinks available, I fell in love with Loló’s cocktails. Many had unusual twists that caught my attention: La Dama features rum, beet, horchata, Cappalletti, and egg. Mrs. Wonk was shocked at my order, as I hate the flavor of beets, but the taste more than equaled its alluring appearance. My follow up drink was La Pera – pisco, pear liqueur, sherry, and dry vermouth. So clear, chilled and simple, with a single miniature pear garnish, it was everything a craft cocktail should be.
La Dama (left) at Loló
La Pera at Loló
Loló is not a fancy place with fancy décor. It’s a moderately nice, very quirkily decorated Mexican restaurant in the Mission district of San Francisco. Other than the large mezcal selection, the back bar doesn’t look particularly special at first look. But despite appearances, the cocktails wowed us both and were among the highlights of the trip. Go check out Loló – just don’t expect the traditional craft bar and you’ll come away having won the cocktail loteria.
Beretta – Cocktail Wonk Rating: 9.5
John, our bartender at Beretta
After our initial visit to Loló, we had time to kill in the Mission district while waiting for our hotel room to be ready for check-in. We’d been seriously impressed by Beretta on a prior trip to the city, so I thought, “Let’s drop by and have just one drink,” as we didn’t know if we’d have another opportunity. Well…one drink turned into several, and we blew off checking into our hotel before dinner – Beretta is simply that good, and that welcoming. It will take over your afternoon because you simply must try the next drink that’s caught your eye. The bar staff is very warm and friendly, indulged my many questions, and wanted to know all about what other bars we had on our agenda.
Ask for this menu at Beretta
Walking in to Beretta, you wouldn’t guess it has serious craft cocktail chops. Initial appearances are of an upscale modern neighborhood bistro/pizzeria with long, high tables and a big open kitchen on one end. The back bar sits beneath a stairwell, and to be honest, looks a bit small. The spirits inventory on the shelves are respectable, but not a showcase library. Beretta’s magic comes from their house made ingredients and knowing how to use them to extreme effect. (Mrs. Wonk would like to entice the owners of Beretta to open a location in Seattle, preferably near our house, so we can visit more than once or twice a year. Pretty please?)
Beretta’s “regular” menu
One of my top ten favorite cocktails that I make at home is the Port of Spain (mezcal, orgeat, lime, and a whole ½ ounce of Angostura bitters—yes, extreme, but trust me on this one) which originated at Beretta. When we arrived, I scanned for the Port of Spain on the menu but didn’t find it. While the bartender, John, was making our first round, I mentioned the missing Port of Spain, and he must have sensed my cocktail wonkiness. He handed over a different “secret” menu, elaborately bound, entitled “Field Guide to the Birds.” Alongside its hand-drawn sketches and Latin ornithology names, a closer read revealed a set of intricate, complex recipes with exotic ingredients. A Cocktail Wonk’s dream menu!
A page from Beretta’s “Field Guide to the Birds”
A page from Beretta’s “Field Guide to the Birds”
Beretta’s food is top notch, so you should definitely snack while drinking. We thoroughly enjoyed everything from both our Beretta visits, although the panna cotta gelato with extra virgin olive oil and sea salt has a special place. Beretta can get busy, so show up early, grab a good seat at the bar, make friends with your bartender, and enjoy craft cocktail nirvana.
More great cocktails, and Beretta’s “regular” menu.
ABV – Cocktail Wonk Rating: 7.5
ABV, named for the “alcohol by volume” acronym, has gotten good press on the San Francisco cocktail scene, partly due to being co-helmed by former Beretta bar manager Ryan Fitzgerald, Erik Reichborn-Kjennerud (owner of Dalva and its back bar, Hideout), and Todd Smith, alum of both Hideout and Bourbon & Branch. The ABV space is narrow and deep, decorated in a simple, modern style—and without, as all of their press to date has noted, the recent well-worn design tropes of reclaimed wood and bare Edison bulbs. A long elm-top bar runs along the right-hand wall. Backbar spirits reside on stacked stainless steel and wood shelves and feature a large mezcal collection.
Backbar at ABV
Menu at ABV
The ABV cocktail menu is broken down by spirits categories, one spirit (or category) per page – is interesting in a design sense, but a bit of an ergonomic challenge as you try to scan the menu. Each category has four drinks or so. I went through the menu several times. It was nice to see a special section of fancy, non-alcoholic lemonades.
Round one at ABV
Round two at ABV
While ABV’s cocktail menu is obviously the product of solid craft cocktail chops, I had a sense of “been there, done that,” often a risk when you’re always seeking out the next exotic recipe, as opposed to just a damn fine drink. The drink execution was what I’d expect, given ABV’s pedigree. I started with the Lefty’s Fizz (mezcal, lime, grapefruit shrub, curacao, and egg white) and finished with the Whiskey in Church (smoky scotch, sherry, maple, and pear bitters).
Insanely good tart at ABV
ABV has a somewhat small but quite tasty of selection of happy hour plates. A woman next to us was enjoying something we couldn’t find on the menu, a savory, micro-sized pastry tart with tomato that looked YUM! We asked the staff about it and the kitchen happily made us our own, despite not being on the menu yet.
Fun story: I’m a big fan of Camper English and the Alcademics blog. Shortly after leaving ABV, I posted a photo of my drink on Instagram. Within minutes, Camper commented on my photo that he was at ABV. It was only then that I realized the guy sitting directly to Mrs. Wonk’s left at ABV was Camper. Oh well… next time!
Alembic – Cocktail Wonk Rating: 9
It seems like every high-end cocktail town has a bar that was present in the early days of the current scene and continues spinning out well-executed drinks while other bars come and go. In Seattle, it’s Zig Zag. In Portland, Teardrop Lounge. San Francisco’s Alembic fits that same mold, dating back to the prehistoric days of 2006. Nestled in the quirky, rapidly gentrifying streets of the Haight district, Alembic’s exterior doesn’t seem like it would house one of the most highly regarded cocktail bars on the San Francisco scene.
Pisco Punch at Alembic
Alembic’s interior surprised me when I first walked in. It’s an old space selectively modernized and sparsely decorated. The bar top is distressed wood with indented numbers (could this be the dreaded “reclaimed wood”…?! Ah well, they were there first, and it looks cool.). The backbar held a large but not oversized spirits collection. Hanging high on the wall is a large chalkboards with various food and drink specials. The regular paper cocktail menu is chatty, giving you a bit of story about each drink, along with some attitude. I was delighted to see one of my favorite pre-prohibition cocktails, Pisco Punch (pisco, pineapple gomme, lemon), so of course that was my first selection. My second selection was the Coffin Nail (mezcal, Punt e Mes, coffee liqueur, benedictine, chocolate bitters,) a dark, brooding drink I enjoyed immensely.
Coffin Nail (foreground) at Alembic
There are no vests or mustachioed bartenders here. The vibe is in character with the surrounding neighborhood – a bar where “regular” folks can enjoy themselves, while keeping the craft cocktail junkie’s coming back. Having just come from ABV, I was struck by how different the atmosphere of the two bars were. Both aim for a craft experience, but do so in very different ways. Despite Alembic’s fun, hang-out vibe, their cocktail menu shows they’re creating new original drinks and not resting on their laurels.
Backbar at Alembic
Local Edition – Cocktail Wonk Rating: 7
Local Edition’s backbar
If I only had one word to describe Local Edition, it would be “dark.” Seriously dark. After ten minutes in the subterranean space—the former print room of the San Francisco Examiner–my eyes still were struggling to make out features and read the menu. You won’t be sitting among old giant printing presses, however cool that might be. Rather, the periphery holds display cases and some old desks with vintage articles – but unless you’re sitting right next to them, you wouldn’t get the sense that this was formerly a storied printing room. There’s an unusual amount of velvet drapery for a bar, much of it dramatically lit and ostensibly used to subdivide the large space to more private areas for smaller parties.
Local Edition is one of a stable of bars from the Future Bars group, which also includes Rickhouse, Bourbon & Branch, and Wilson & Wilson, the latter two being on our list of stops from our previous visit to San Francisco. All the Future Bars properties have overall good buzz about them. Thus, it was not a surprise to scan the cocktail menu and find plenty of intriguing options that easily qualify as craft cocktails. If you know a bit of history, you’ll notice that many (all?) of the cocktail names allude to William Randolph Hearst or the SF Examiner. I started with the Rexroth (pisco, Amaro Nonino, pineapple gomme, lemon, egg white, Peychaud’s bitters and pink peppercorn,) and moved to the Bulldogge (Great King St. scotch, Santa Teresa 1796 rum, China-China Amer, tobacco tincture). The execution on all four drinks we ordered met my expectations for a bar of this caliber.
Hearst/Examiner themed cocktail menu at Local Edition
What was missing for me was a sense of authentic character – the sense that real people are crafting your drink, rather than highly skilled technicians going through the motions. (We experienced a similar feeling during our visit to Wilson & Wilson last year.) The actual working bar area doesn’t have traditional seating along the bar itself, so there was no opportunity to engage the bartenders and perhaps break that perception.
Drinks at Local Edition
While there are wait staff that take orders, I also saw people walking up, ordering drinks, and taking them back to their table. It’s worth noting that when we arrived it was a relatively calm Wednesday evening so there was plenty of seating and you could have a reasonably quiet conversation. By the time we left it though, was getting busy, and according to Yelp reviews it can get seriously packed, with music blasting, so pick your time to visit accordingly.
Nopa – Cocktail Wonk Rating: 8
The bar at Nopa
The bar at Nopa was a fluke visit. We’d wrapped up at Local Edition and had much coveted reservations for a bit later at State Bird Provisions (thanks to Mrs. Wonk’s scouting a mere sixty days in advance), so we had time to kill. Nopa was reasonably close by and is a very popular restaurant featuring wood-fired California cuisine. (Also on Mrs. Wonk’s potential restaurant list for the trip, but other choices won out in the end.) I’d read good things about their bar, so we headed over, hoping to sit at the bar for a spell. No such luck. The restaurant is clearly very popular, such that even at 8 PM on a Wednesday the bar area was jammed with people drinking while waiting for tables. We made the best of the situation and despite the crowded, lively environment, enjoyed our time. The entire restaurant, including the kitchen, is one big open space. With all the food prep being close at hand, and a prominently displayed wood fired oven, there was plenty to entertain us while standing and drinking.
Cocktails at Nopa
Nopa’s cocktails are simple three- or four-ingredient affairs, but it’s clear that each recipe is carefully crafted to make the drinks equal in stature to Nopa’s food. The menu begins with a set of eau de vie based drinks– a fancy French term for strong, generally unsweetened distilled spirits made from a fruit (i.e., pear eau de vie is made from pears). On a quarterly basis, Nopa creates a new series of inspired cocktails; on our visit, they featured the spirits of Hans Reisetbauer, a renowned Austrian distiller. My first drink was the “9 carrot gold” with Belgian genever, carrot eau de vie, and Benedictine. Delicious and definitely not a recipe you’re going to find at your typical corner bar.
Nopa’s cocktail menu
NoNopa’s cocktails are tasteful, well executed, and cover a broad range of base spirits — gin, genever, mezcal, scotch, Japanese whiskey, and no vodka in sight. The presentation, including the glassware, is consistent with a high-end restaurant. The cocktail selection is not quite as adventurous as other local places like Trick Dog, Beretta, or Alembic, but definitely in the top tier of cocktails from restaurants that focus on food rather than drinks. The spirits selection in the back bar would be the envy of many craft cocktail bars elsewhere.
Since we were planning on two drinks each, we grabbed a light snack of flatbread with seasonal produce and some excellent fries with a house-made herb aoli. For our next visit to San Francisco, we’ll make dinner reservations at Nopa and arrive early to score seats at the bar.
A huge thanks to Mrs. Wonk for including her insights on food and décor, as well as her extreme copy-editing skills. Next up, Part 2: Tiki madness!
The Jungle Bird is a relatively recent addition to the Tiki canon, originating at the Aviary Bar in the Kuala Lumpur Hilton in 1978. It’s solidly identifiable as Tiki, and the beginner home bartender can execute it without all sorts of “exotic” ingredients that show up in more complex Tiki drinks, such as falernum, orgeat, or pimento dram. Like many Tiki drinks, the Jungle Bird recipe has evolved over time, and I’m continuing the tradition here.
As it appears in Beachbum Berry’s Remixed, the Jungle Bird recipe goes like this:
The Elusive Plantation Rum Stiggins’s Fancy. Photo credit: Rumba.
World-wide rum sales are dominated by a handful of producers–the three goliaths of Bacardi, Captain Morgan, and McDowell’s, a rum made in India. The dominant thrust of Bacardi and Captain Morgan’s marketing is toward inexpensive rum with a fun, beach party atmosphere. For that reason, the rum-loving community (myself included) generally doesn’t focus on the big players. Instead, most of the attention goes to producers the average consumer hasn’t heard of, minuscule compared to the goliaths and perceived of higher quality and craft. Within the long tail of rum producers, one of the most respected is Plantation Rums. My personal collection contains more than a few of their offerings, so when Kate Perry of Seattle’s Rumba mentioned that Plantation Rum president and master distiller Alexandre Gabriel would be visiting Rumba to host a tasting, I practically lost my cookies, counting off the days till the event.
Within the spirits industry, there are two basic types of producers: those who distill and sell their product and those who buy distilled product from a distiller and then (hopefully) add their own stamp to the finished goods, typically via additional aging or blending. Plantation Rums is in the latter category, however don’t think that Plantation is merely reselling someone else’s rum. – There’s a great story to tell about Plantation’s rums.
The Plantation rums are one of several product lines from Pierre Ferrand, a French company that got its start distilling cognac and today still creates some well-regarded cognac at very reasonable prices. Under the leadership of Alexandre Gabriel, Pierre Ferrand has expanded into several different spirits categories, including but not limited to cognac, rum, gin, and calvados. For the Plantation line, Alexandre purchases premium aged from established rum producers, mostly in the Caribbean, and then ships the rums to France where they undergo a second aging in used barrels sourced from the Cognac side of Ferrand’s operations. Some of the higher-end Plantation rums even go through a third aging (more on that in a bit). The less expensive Plantation rums are phenomenally priced and great for mixing. The more expensive, single vintage rums are outstanding sipping rums.
The primary person behind all this rummy goodness is Alexandre Gabriel, a Frenchman who initially was brought into assist the struggling Maison Ferrand Cognac with their sales, and today is the president, majority owner, and Master Blender. It was on a trip to the Caribbean that Alexandre sampled some rums and had the insight that finishing these rums in his previously used cognac casks could yield great results. Plantation is now the realization of that vision. At this point the company has put out several dozen releases, and I’ve thought favorably of every one I’ve tried, so I was naturally very interested to meet Alexandre and hear him speak about rum.
Alexandre Gabriel being introduced at Rumba.
The tasting at Rumba was a mid-day event, attended primarily by Seattle area bartenders, but also by some of the local rum media, including Nicholas Ferris of The Rum Collective and yours truly. Short of Ferrand’s barrel house, you’d be hard pressed to find a better or more welcoming venue than Rumba, with its enormous rum collection extending all the way to the ceiling. Rumba GM Kate Perry and Bar Manager Jim Romdall co-hosted the event, including creating custom placemats for the tasting. In my case, the placemat became my de-facto notepad where I furiously scribbled notes:
Hastily scrawled notes.
After a brief introduction by Jim, Alexandre spoke for about ten minutes before getting to the five rums on the agenda for tasting:
20th Anniversary (Barbados)
The tasting lineup. Photo credit: Rumba.
On the placemat was a mysterious sixth spot without a tasting glass, with a lone pineapple image. Mid-way through the tasting, I saw Rocky Yeh, a very well-known portfolio ambassador and friend of Plantation Rum slip into a seat near the back with a single bottle. Could it be the very rare and coveted Stiggins’s Fancy? Yes! Suddenly the pineapple image made perfect sense. We were in for a bonus tasting of the Plantation pineapple rum that’s not for sale, and may never be for sale. More on this in a bit.
Alexandre Gabriel imparting the rum knowledge. Photo credit: Rumba.
Alexandre’s talk covered not only the rums we tasted, but also additional details about the Plantation aging and blending process, plus many more topics. It’s difficult to fit it all into a single-threaded narrative, so what follows below are the highlights I found interesting:
We must change to stay the same. While it’s fine to strive to recreate flavors from years past, it’s not as simple as slavishly using the same ingredients, because the ingredients themselves are changing.
Global warming affects how plants grow and how they taste. He gave the example of the taste of a particular grape, Folle Blanche, that has changed significantly over the past decades. As such, if we want to replicate old tastes, we must experiment with new techniques and starting materials.
Terroir means three things to Alexandre: Two are well-accepted, the third may be debatable.
·Soil and climate: This is well established and generally accepted.
·Environment: For example, during aging in a wet cellar, the alcohol content will evaporate more quickly, whereas in a dry cellar, the water content evaporates faster, which obviously affects the resulting flavors. Another example he offered is that a freshly painted cellar room can affect the eventual flavor in a negative way.
·Local know-how: The way people do things during the production process. Alexandre believes this is part of terroir, but accepts that some may disagree.
A new cognac barrel can cost in the $1,000 price range, whereas a used barrel may only fetch $30. This was one reason why Alexandre was looking for ways to reuse his own barrel stock. Plantation Rum is now a big consumer of its sibling’s cognac barrels, but used barrel supply still exceeds demand.
Cognac is like classical music. The score has already been written, i.e. there are all sorts of rules and regulations, so cognac is mostly about how the music is “played.” In contrast, rum is “anything goes.” The lack of rules allows for much more new techniques and experimentation.
American oak barrels provide the whiskey lactone, also known as the coconut/vanilla flavor you often get from spirits aged in it.
Most rum that Plantation buys from the Caribbean is aged five to ten years, and only 65 percent of it remains in the barrel due to the angel’s share (evaporation).
Adding water to a spirit can release smells and flavors. However, that reaction really only happens once, so it should happen immediately prior to serving. To minimize flavor release during dilution prior to bottling, Plantation takes special steps including introducing water very slowly, as well as letting the water first sit for a while in a cognac cask.
During distillation, the “tails,” which are the chemical compounds that boil at a higher temperature than ethanol and hence come later in the distillation, are what give a rum its particular character. As such, some amount of the tails is usually included in the finished product.
The rum producers of Barbados– Mount Gay, Foursquare, etc.–have perfected the blending of pot and column still rums, creating light rums that have lots of character.
Spanish rums came to the party relatively late, primarily because during rum’s formative years, Spanish parts of the Caribbean were still consuming spirits from Spain. By the time the Spanish-held territories started producing rum, the column still had been invented and was more efficient than pot stills. Thus, rums from Spanish territories are typically made in column stills, so are relatively light.
The Jamaican rum distilleries have perfected the high-ester rum. Distilleries do all sorts of crazy things in the fermentation process to introduce compounds that eventually become the characteristic funky esters. Alexandre said that one Jamaican distiller told him he’s added goat’s heads to the mash. (I’d already heard of bat carcasses being used.) For more on this particular topic, see this prior post of mine. (For the record, Mrs. Wonk prefers her rums without goat heads or bat carcasses.)
Plantation is currently experimenting with high ester rums from other regions beyond Jamaica. The esters in these rums have different flavor characteristics than the dominant Jamaican rum. I can’t wait for these to show up and experience the differences
The French Agricole style, which uses sugar cane juice rather than molasses as a starting point, came about because of war between England and France. In the early 1800s, England blockaded France’s trade routes with the Caribbean, leaving the French territories with no place to sell their sugar. As a result, they started distilling rum from the cane juice. Voila!Rhum agricole.
Plantation has released an agricole-style rum (the Guadeloupe, which we sampled), but it can’t be labeled as such because it doesn’t meet the French AOC regulations. I found the Guadeloupe rum had the distinctive agricole flavor, but more refined and very “Plantation-like” in taste – Smooth and slightly sweet.
Plantation uses the elevageprocess for aging, which is much more labor intensive than simply putting the rum in a barrel and letting it rest for some number of years. Plantation’s process includes sampling sixty to eighty barrels a day to frequently assess how they’re coming along and possibly making changes along the way. For instance, if a particular barrel begins to get a certain characteristic that’s impacted by wood, the barrel may be emptied, a single stave replaced, and the barrel refilled to continue aging. Another less drastic example would be moving the barrel from one warehouse to another to provide a different environment.
Some higher-end Plantation rums, typically the “black label” editions, are aged a third time in a different type of cask, frequently one having held Pineau des Charentes, a sweet liqueur made from blending aged cognac with fresh grape juice. I find the flavor added by Pineau cask aging to be among my favorite rum tastes.
Plantation Rums has put out many releases, only some of which are available in the U.S. Sometimes the issue is simply that relatively small amounts are made, but frequently the trouble lies with the U.S. TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau), which imposes strict and often arbitrary restrictions that make some releases difficult to import into the U.S.
Portfolio Ambassador Rocky Yeh. Stiggins’s Fancy in background.
Near the end of the presentation, we finally got to the Stiggins’s Fancy rum. It’s a pineapple-infused rum that came about from a collaboration between Alexandre and David Wondrich, a true cocktail-world treasure and my favorite spirits writer. Only a relatively few bottles of Stiggins’s Fancy were produced, as it’s very expensive (tiny, very expensive Queen Victoria pineapples are used) and time consuming to make. The Stiggins’s was first seen at a Plantation-hosted event at Tales of the Cocktail this year, and the few bottles out in the wild now are highly treasured. So far, I’ve not been able to lay my hands on one. Thus, I was elated that Rocky Yeh was able to supply a bottle, which we all got to sample. Simply stated: It’s out-of-control amazing. Many folks are pushing Alexandre to formally release the Stiggins’s, but at the time of the Rumba event, Alexandre still hadn’t decided if it was economically viable to produce on a larger scale.
Rumba Bar Manager Jim Romdall introducing the rum map.
As part of the tasting, Rumba launched their rum map, wherein once you try a certain number of rums from various regions (sixty rums in total), you receive a DTO or “Daiquiri Time Out” coin, which entitles you to a daiquiri upon future visits. For this event, attendees were able to use the rums we tasted to fill slots in our newly started rum maps. Very nice!
Cocktail Wonk and Alexandre Gabriel. Photo credit: Nicholas Ferris.
After the formal event wound down, I was able to speak with Alexandre individually for about twenty minutes, during which I peppered him with questions and clarifications. He seemed genuinely happy to answer and even told me a few things followed up by, “But don’t blog that,” a request I’ve tried hard to honor here. I left the event with my head spinning from all the things I learned, and even more excited than before to see what Plantation Rums does next.
Alexandre Gabriel, Jim Romdall and Kate Perry at Rumba. Photo credit: Rumba.