Essential Highlights of an American Whiskey Distillery Tour

Recently Mrs. Wonk and I went on an American Whiskey distillery tour spree, visiting eight distilleries in Kentucky and Tennessee in a little under a week. We’d have visited more except we only had two days in Kentucky, and Mrs. Wonk was starting to get a little itchy from all the talk of mash bills, white dog, and char levels. On this trip we toured:
  • Barton 1792 (Bardstown, KY)
  • Willett (Bardstown, KY)
  • Maker’s Mark (Loretto, KY)
  • Heaven Hill (Bardstown, KY)
  • George Dickel (Tullahoma, TN)
  • Jack Daniels (Lynchburg, TN)
  • Prichard’s (Kelso, TN)
  • Corsair Artisan (Nashville, TN)

2015 update:

A year later we returned and checked off these as well:

Each distillery has its highlights, and a series of future posts will spill the details on each. However, after a few visits it was clear that certain elements are present on nearly every tour, so this first post covers the common things in detail, freeing future posts to focus on the unique aspects of each location.

Continue reading “Essential Highlights of an American Whiskey Distillery Tour”

Of Sharks, Monkeys, and Barrels – A Visit to St. George Spirits Distillery

Hybrid pot & column still, St. George Spirits
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.

Going Full Metal Tiki in the San Francisco Bay Area

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
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.

A Tale Of Six San Francisco Bars

Beautiful cocktails at San Francisco’s Beretta
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:
  • Loló
  • Beretta
  • ABV
  • Alembic
  • Local Edition
  • Nopa

 

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
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
Alembic
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
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!

 

TikiKon 2014 Trip Report

 

Deadhead Rum at the Kickoff party bar.

TikiKon 2014, a celebration of all things Tiki, was held July 11-13 at the Red Lion Hotel in Vancouver WA, across the river from Portland OR where the precursor to TikiKon started over a decade ago. A previous post of mine covered the Iron TikiTender contest, while this post cover the classes and other activities that went on at TikiKon.

Burlesque at the Kickoff party

Since many people arrived during the day on Friday, the only planned activity was a Kickoff party at Portland’s Star Theater in the evening. The headliner was Satan’s Pilgrims, a Portland surf-music band that’s been around for a number of years. Opening acts included Lushy, a Seattle band, and a PG-rated burlesque show. Deadhead rum was the party sponsor, with drink specials featuring their rum, and super-sized representations of the distinctive Deadhead rum bottle on the bar. The Star Theater is a relatively tiny theater, but there was still plenty of room to move around, chat with other people, and get close to the stage if desired.

Lushy performs at the Kickoff party.

The crowd was mostly people in their 40s and 50s, nearly all wearing Tiki shirts, dresses, vintage hats from the 50s, and so forth. While Satan’s Pilgrim’s music got my approval during an investigation of their web site, we didn’t stick around as there was a nearby bar we needed to make a pilgrimage to. More on Portland bars in a subsequent post.

Saturday was the big day. Cocktail classes, pool parties, and the Iron TikiTender contest were the main events. The cocktail classes at TikiKon are purchased separately from the TikiKon passes. There were four classes, each costing $20 and an hour long:

  • International Tiki Takeover
  • Rum Beyond Tiki
  • Home Tiki Bar Basics
  • Regarding Rum

All the classes were moderated by Blair Reynolds, owner of Hale Pele in Portland, OR. Blair did a great job of jumping in to add additional context while giving the presenters plenty of time to talk. The classes were very informal – Held in the Red Lion hotel bar overlooking the Columbia River with the presenters speaking from behind the bar typically.

Blair Reynolds and Felix Fernandez at International Tiki Takeover.

 

Blair Reynolds and Jason Alexander at International Tiki Takeover.

 

Blair Reynolds, Jason Alexander, Felix Fernandez and Marie King at International Tiki Takeover.

The International Tiki Takeover was primarily the three Iron TikiTender contestants (Felix Fernandez, Marie King and Jason Alexander) talking about how they got into Tiki, while shaking and pouring pre-batched versions of their winning Tiki recipes. Each attendee received a small sample of each drink while the TikiTenders talked. The attendees interacted frequently with questions, keeping the discussion lively throughout the whole hour. Marie King brought swag (coasters, swizzle sticks, etc…) from the Tonga Hut for everybody, a nice touch.

Michael Shea and Jim Romdall at Rum Beyond Tiki.

 

Jim Romdall and Michael Shea at Rum Beyond Tiki

Next up was the Rum Beyond Tiki class with Jim Romdall of Rumba in Seattle, WA, and Michael Shea of Rum Club in Portland, OR. The broad topic was how rum is used in other types of drinks besides Tiki. As with the prior class, both Jim and Michael shook sample of non-Tiki drink from their respective bars while describing them. I’m a regular at Rumba so I was surprised when Jim said that Rumba’s “Sexy Old Fashioned” was their most popular drink. A lot of time was spent talking about the need to introduce and educate customers about the many types and flavors of rum beyond Bacardi Silver that represents most people’s perception of rum. Towards the end of the session the discussion migrated to other underrated spirits that warrant more promotion. I was happy that pisco was one of the spirits mentioned, as I’m planning a future post on this topic.

I missed the Home Tiki Bar basics source because A) I didn’t have a ticket, and B) have been doing Tiki in my home bar for years. Thus, I can’t provide any insight into that particular class.

Martin Cate preaches the Gospel of Rum during Regarding Rum.

 

Esteban Ordonez holds forth at Regarding Rum.

The final class was Regarding Rum, with Martin Cate of Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, CA, and Esteban Ordonez, Brand Ambassador for Don Q rum. Martin took the lead in using history as a narrative to work their way through a number of styles. They started with Wray and Nephew Overproof, a white rum and a very interesting choice as the starting point. Next up was the Don Q Cristal, Don Q Anejo, which Esteban took the lean in describing. Following that was Clement Select Barrel, used to cover the Agricole style of rums. As each rum was discussed small samples were passed out to the attendees. The final rums discussed were Appleton 12 and a special Smuggler’s Cove exclusive bottling, Plantation Royal Blend. Martin described the Royal Blend as rum from each of the former English colonies in the Caribbean, brought to France for further aging in Cognac and Maury (French dessert wine) barrels. I was highly anticipating this last tasting and it did not disappoint – Rum perfection!

Reading through the course descriptions after the fact, there were some differences from the descriptions and how the discussions actually played out. Nonetheless, all of the topics discussed were relevant and the attendees seemed happy with what they saw.

Island Marketplace
Island Marketplace

After the classes I wandered out to the pool party. A B-52s cover band was playing and a mermaid was posing for photos with attendees. Inside, where it was much cooler, the Island Marketplace filled a medium-sized room with vendors selling an assortment of Tiki paraphernalia. I grabbed a ceramic Deadhead Rum Tiki mug for $20.

Mermaid at the Rock Lobster pool party

 

Deadhead Rum’s cool trailer.

The big Sunday event was the home bar tour, wherein 150 attendees were shuttled around all day in buses to various home Tiki Bars in the Portland area. I unfortunately didn’t sign up in time to get one of the 150 tickets, but will be doing so next year for sure!

Was the English Civil war responsible for the birth of rum?

I’ve always been curious about what thought processes lead to the invention of things. On the topic of rum, I’d long wondered who made the first rum and what gave them the idea? The book “Rum, A Social and SociableHistory” by Ian Williams provides a very plausible theory that I frequently recount to friends who are inquisitive about the history of rum.

St. Nicholas Abbey, Barbados
It’s generally accepted that rum as we know it was first distilled on Barbados in the mid 1600s. Barbados had been visited by Spanish and Portuguese forces prior to the English arrival, but it was the English that decided that it was a good spot to grow sugar cane and set up a permanent settlement in the 1620s. At the time, sugar was scarce and very highly desired in Europe. Soon, nearly the entire island was dedicated to growing sugar cane, so much that food needed to be imported because Barbados land was more valuable for sugar production than for more readily usable food crops.
In the sugar making process, the cut cane is crushed and the resulting juices collected. Those juices are then boiled, causing the sucrose (what we think of as table sugar) to crystallize out. This process may be repeated to extract yet more sucrose. What’s left behind? Molasses. The various grades of molasses available are really a function of how much sucrose has been extracted.
In Barbados during the mid-1600s, molasses was an industrial waste product with very little value. It was used in mortar, fed to slaves, mixed with hay and feed to farm animals, or dumped in the ocean. So the natural question is “So who decided to ferment molasses and distill the result?” Ian William’s book suggest that Scottish/Irish whiskey making tradition may have birthed rum.
Going back in your world history, the English Civil war (1642-1653) was between various forces in England, Ireland and Scotland. Long story short, a collection of Irish and Scotsmen on the losing side ended up on Barbados either voluntarily (perhaps fleeing from home), or involuntarily as indentured servants. Ian’s book pick up the story here (quoting):
“Without being too stereotypical, we can hypothesize that some thirsty and inventive Scot or Irishman landed, voluntarily or involuntarily, in Barbados in its early days. Any exiled Celt who had dealt with malt to make a mash for a still would not need to be an Einstein to make the connection with molasses, not least on an island like Barbados, where traditional cereal production was insufficient for food, let alone brewing. So the odds are high that it may well have been an aesthete Celt, desperate for decent drink, who decided that all those spirits needed releasing from their distasteful, wet and murky brown shroud.”
Of course, this is conjecture and we likely never will know exactly what happened. However, if true it does provide the critical link between whiskey in the British Isles and rum in the New World. Folks who knew how to make whiskey simply adapted to a new source of fermentable mash. This narrative repeated itself later in America. For a while, rum was the dominant spirit in America, however its production requires molasses, which was economically prohibitive to transport to the western frontier. During the westward expansion corn and other grains were locally available, which led to the rise of American whiskeys such as Bourbon.

Going back to the origins of rum at St. Nicholas Abbey in Barbados

Approaching the St. Nicholas Abbey mansion.

In April 2103 my wife Carrie and I visited Barbados for the first time. A few months earlier we’d won the bidding for a week’s stay at a home in Barbados after remembering that Barbados is considered the birthplace of rum. It went without saying that we planned to visit every distillery on the island, but the story of St. Nicholas Abbey made it the obvious first stop.

The Abbey has a long and storied history going back to 1658, which I won’t attempt to replicate here as it’s well documented elsewhere. What you need to know is that the Abbey was a fully functioning plantation and distillery, growing its own sugar and doing nearly everything else in-house. The owner’s mansion on the property is enormous, beautifully maintained, and would be worth a visit even if there wasn’t rum involved. At some point in the late 1900s you could visit the house as a heritage attraction, but the Abbey was no longer a functioning plantation after 1947.
Things changed in 2006 when Larry Warren, a Barbados native and well-known architect specializing in historical preservation purchased St. Nicholas Abbey. In addition to setting out to carefully restore the buildings, he also set forth an ambitious project to make Abbey a fully functioning plantation and distillery like it had been hundreds of years earlier.
Making rum is a time intensive process, primarily due to the length of time needed to age the rum in barrels. A three year aged is pretty much the minimum you’d want to do, and to compete with fine rums you’re talking 10+ years from harvesting the sugarcane to bottling the rum. Obviously this ties up a lot of capital for a number of years before you start earning back your investment. As such, Larry Warren did what lots of distillers do – He jump-started the process by purchasing existing stock from another distillery and continued aging it in barrels at the Abbey. This lets the distillery blender start working with the barrels earlier, as well as provides an income stream once the rum is deemed ready to sell.

In the case of St. Nicholas Abbey, Larry was lucky in that he purchased his starter rum from Richard Seale, owner of the Foursquare distillery in Barbados. The Foursquare distillery produces a number of highly regarded rums, including Doorly’s and more recently, the Real McCoy rum. Richard Seale is highly active in promoting quality rum, sharing his detailed expertise about the rum making process, and exposing companies that play games with their rums.

Barrels purchased from Foursquare Distillery to help get St. Nicholas Abbey launched.

Starting with the Foursquare originated rum while simultaneously starting their own sugar cane/distillation pipeline, the Abbey started selling aged rums around 2009. To date, they’ve sold Foursquare based rums at ages of 8, 10, 12 and 15 years. When we visited in 2013, they had stopped selling the 12 year, but had the 10 and 15 year available. In addition, they had an entirely in-house produced “white” rum aged for 3 years if I remember correctly.

In addition to Larry, his sons Simon and Shae are also involved in running the business. Since Larry is still busy as an architect, Simon handles much of the day-to-day business, down to pouring rums in the tasting room. Simon was there they day of our visit and we had a lovely half-hour-plus chat with him. Simon and I went in to full rum-wonk mode, such that Carrie had to bail out and browse the gift shop. Chatting with Simon about rum making and the distillery history was one of the trip’s highlights.
Simon Warren (L), and Cocktail Wonk (R) in the tasting room.
Upon entering the St. Nicholas Abbey grounds, your first stop is the mansion. You can choose to take a guided tour if you’d like.

Among the many curiosities in the mansion.

Behind the mansion is a small cafe/garden. From there you hook a right and after a short walk find yourself at the small bottling house, which you’re allowed to enter and look around as the worker process bottles. It was still a very small operation, done mostly by hand.

Bottling by hand!

Punch for making the leather stopper insets.

Continuing past the bottle house you’ll come to a barn-like structure that houses the Annabelle the copper hybrid pot/column still, aging barrels, and the sugar cane crusher.

Sugar cane crusher.
Aging barrels.
Aging barrels and tanks.

Annabelle, the hybrid pot/column still.

After wandering through the barn and marveling at its contents you head out back to the remains of a stone windmill. Past the windmill are lovely fields of sugar cane.

The windmill and barn housing the crusher, still, and aging barrels.

Remains of the original windmill.

Cocktail Wonk was very exited to be among his new cane friends.
Another view of the barn and smokestack.
You can wander around the rest of the beautiful Abbey grounds, lush with plant life and strewn with interesting artifacts.
All sort of interesting sites on the Abbey grounds.
As for the rum itself, I find the 10 and 15 very consistent with the other aged Foursquare rums, i.e. the classic Bajan style. The nose is fairly intense, in what I can only describe as “high octane” in a very nice way, and very different from Jamaican rums.  The taste is dry, as it has no added sugar, but very smooth and little burn. It’s a very different experience than something like Zacapa XO or El Dorado 15. Once you start sipping the St. Nicholas Abbey you’ll find it hard to stop.
The St. Nicholas Abbey bottles for their aged rums are works of art. Each is etched with a picture of the mansion, and you can have it personally engraved if you wish. The bottle stoppers are made from mahogany wood grown on the plantation, and have a circular inset of embossed leather.

Aged rum bottles showing the etched image of the mansion.
The cost for the Abbey’s rums is a bit expensive with the 15 year costing US $130 and the 10 year costing US $80.  However, having seen the history, attention to detail, and realizing all the labor involved, we happily snapped up four bottles – two for my collection, and two more for friends back home who had put in requests. We’d have bought more, but needed to save room in our suitcase for other Barbados rum treasures. As a bonus for being a repeat customer, if you bring your original bottle back, they’ll refill it for half price, something I aspire to do some day.

Boozing in Buenos Aires – Touring the Cocktail Bars

Backbar at Verne Club

Before leaving for Buenos Aires I combed the internet for hours putting together a list of bars to try out. As usual on these trips, there were more bars on my list than we actually got to, and some stomach problems at the end of the trip took out two evenings, but we still did well in hitting the essential places. With a few exceptions, most of the noteworthy cocktail bars on my list were in the Palermo and Recoleta/Retiro neighborhoods. If bars and nightlife are your thing, Palermo is an ideal place to consider calling home.

I don’t speak Spanish and my two years of high school Italian are quite rusty so it took me a while to piece together the basic everyday words I needed to know. At restaurants I depended on Carrie for much of the menu interpretation – it helps that she has a food background. But cocktail menus in Spanish – that was a challenge I looked forward to! I’m a pretty obsessive menu parser so I wasn’t about to throw in the towel that quickly. It helped that many of the ingredients included brand names. However, the names of juices, syrups, bitters and such tested me at first. I was particularly proud the first time I came across “Clara de Huevos”.  Knowing “Huevos” was eggs and with my background in drink patterns and what I might expect in a drink, I quickly figured out it was egg whites.

The perception I formed was that the best bars in town made some great cocktails, but the truly cutting edge stuff was about five years behind what I find in the US. For instance some bars are doing infusions but they were infrequent and rudimentary – Bacardi with cinnamon was popular. Bitters were in use but I didn’t notice large collections of exotic bitters and I don’t recall seeing much in the way of house made bitters. I only observed one barrel aged cocktail the entire time. In short, it felt like the bars had mastered the basics of classic cocktails and were making interesting variations with local ingredients, but relatively few mixology showcase drinks like you’d find at Seattle’s Liberty or Trick Dog in San Francisco.

Being from Seattle, I don’t blink at a $12 US cocktail, so even though cocktails are considered expensive in Argentina, from my perspective it was always happy hour with half-price drinks. Drinks were regularly in the 55-70 peso range, so about $7 US.

Here’s where we made it to in order of visitation.

Verne Club

Tucked away a wee-bit off the main nightlife corridors, Verne Club has a dark, classic vibe of 1930’s art deco – Very Jules Verne futuristic. Dramatic lighting under the backbar gives the liquor bottles a dramatic feel, and interesting glass-covered gear contraption inlays in the bar look like they’ll start moving at any moment. Verne club is worth a visit for the ambience alone. The cocktails were a solid 7 out of 10, with many being house originals. One I remember in particular was dramatically smoke infused.

The food menu was decently sized for a bar and everything we ordered was well executed including the gourmet hot dog, one of their specialties. It was a Sunday night so there were few customers, giving us the opportunity to get to know the bartender. His English was good enough that I could convey my enthusiasm and we ended up talking for a while about various spirits and other bars we should visit. We liked Verne club enough that we attempted a second visit on a busier night, but the bar was full and the music was thumping so we took a pass.

Bar counter at Verne Club
Smoked cocktail prep at Verne Club

Basa Basement Bar

Basa was a late addition to my list as an “As time permits” entry. On our second night in town, after trekking across the city in a massive downpour, we found ourselves soaking wet in front of a closed Floreria Atlantico (below.) It seems that it was random national holiday (there are many), and there was no notification on Floreria Atlantico’s Web or Facebook page that they were closed. Luckily I had plotted out all the bars on a map and Basa was close by and more importantly, open.

We arrived at Basa around 8 PM, i.e. incredibly early in Argentine culture. The upside is that we had prime seats at the bar and the staff had enough time to work with our broken Spanish. Basa wouldn’t be out of place in Hollywood or Miami Beach – Mirrors, stage lighting, lush décor, etc.  I got the impression it’s a “See and be seen” kind of place.

Not knowing what to expect, and seeing the “glitz” worried me initially because I thought the drinks would be soulless vodka-tinis typically found in “nightlife” restaurants. Scanning the drink menu I found more than a few drinks that intrigued me. I cautiously ordered the first one – it arrived in a veritable cornucopia of ice and was quite delicious. My second and third drinks were all quite different and equally flavorful. Carrie had fewer drinks and switched to wine, but my extensive sampling of her cocktails found them equally winning. As much as it would have surprised me when I first walked in, I’d rate Basa’s cocktails an 8.5 out of ten. We ate dinner there, splitting an enormous rib eye steak, appetizers and dessert. All total we spent around $100 US. Le Bargain!

Delicious punch at Basa
Scotch Egg at Basa
Great Ice and color at Basa
Backbar at Basa

Floreria Atlantico

As we chatted with bartenders throughout the city, the question they all asked was “Have you been to Floreria Atlantico?”, so it had a lot to live up to. The day after our rain-soaked first attempt to make it there brought much better weather and after retracing the prior night’s steps, found ourselves in a flower/wine shop.  The clerk correctly assumed our intentions and guided us towards a walk-in refrigerator door. Down a set of steps into a dark subterranean cavern we went as our eyes adjusted to the dim light. Finally we had arrived at one of the top 50 bars in the world, and only one in South America.

Floreria Atlantico is a long, narrow space that curves along the outer edge of the building above. It has big posts that split the bar into sections so it’s hard to take it all in at once. The painted, rough cement walls and exposed ceiling gave it very rustic feel, perhaps the world coolest basement. The backbar occupies one wall, and tables/booths for diners were long the opposite wall.  Running in-between them was the long polished wood bar counter where we sat.

The cocktail menu is organized by countries, with five or six countries and each country consisting of four drinks, for a total of about 24 cocktail options. The drinks are a mixture of classics and house originals. I give them a solid 7.5/10. My favorite discovery was a metal Mate straws tipped with a tight spring that was used in some drinks.  Up to that point in our trip we hadn’t noticed anybody drinking Mate, so at Floreria Atlantico we were baffled but bemused by them. Later in the trip we found some at a craft market and scooped up a set to bring home.

While I was there for the cocktails, Carrie was there for the food which is highly regarded in its own right. We sat at the bar, sharing several appetizers and steak while working our way through the cocktail menu.  I’d highly recommend it if you’re looking for good cocktail/food options in one spot.

Floreria Atlantico
English style drinks at Floreria Atlantico
 Floreria Atlantico Tapas menu
Cocktail with mate straw at  Floreria Atlantico

Sky Bar, Hotel Pulitzer

This bar had been written up as one of the best rooftop bars in Bueno Aires.  It’s a relatively small space, although we had the entire bar to ourselves that evening. The cocktails were pretty basic standards and nothing I’d consider “mixology”.  I went off-menu and ordered a Negroni, my go-to safe-bet drink in these situations. Cocktails were a 4/10.  At 12 stories above the street, the view at night was OK but not particularly sweeping – nothing to write home about. Part of this is that BA just doesn’t have a particularly amazing skyline in my opinion.

Sky Bar Pulitzer Hotel

Grand Bar Danzon

The Grand Bar Danzon has a lot of positive reviews so I had high hopes but left feeling underwhelmed. It felt more about glitzy nightlife crowd rather than innovative, original mixology creations.  The bar counter has tiny LEDs embedded throughout for a starry effect and the bottles on the back bar were lit from below, as you do. We had nearly the whole place to ourselves but I wasn’t able to engage the bartender in a spirits discussion.

The cocktail menu was large and there were many special lists on boards on the wall, but was mostly just variations of the basics, or uninteresting vodka-tinis. In my book, a rum-based Old Fashioned is not particularly innovative despite my deep love for rum, so I had to search for a while to find something that piqued my interest. Your mileage may vary, however. Rating: 6/10

Bar 878

Like Floreria Atlantico, Bar 878 is regarded to be in the top tier of Buenos Aires craft cocktail bars. Our opportunity to visit was at midnight on a Wednesday. My hope was that being a school night, we might reasonably expect to grab a seat at the bar and strike up a conversation with the bartender. No such luck; the place was packed and I couldn’t get anywhere near the bar, much less find a seat.  Determined to make the best of it, we secured a small table near the bar. From that vantage we could easily observe amorous activity at other nearby tables.

Bar 878 is in a large brick space with high ceilings, very dimly lit. Between a candle and my iPhone I was generated enough light to scan the extensive cocktail menu. Despite the size, it took me a while to find something that qualified as an interesting house-original cocktail, although in fairness the drink menu’s ambition is a step or two up from Grand Bar Danzon. After sampling four drinks, my rating is 7/10. I believe that if we’d gone at a better time I might right it higher.

Bar 878 backbar
Small snippet of the menu at Bar 878
Cocktails by candlelight at Bar 878

Bernata

Bernata was a little gem we discovered near our hotel, and the only bar we visited twice. It’s a Spanish Tapas restaurant and the bar itself is tiny – A total of six seats which we had all ourselves both times. Our first visit was a quick stop for drinks before heading to a nearby Parrilla for dinner. The drink menu is entirely Gin & Tonic based – I counted 16 different variations.  The bartender spoke a passable, halting English, but once he understood we wanted amazing original drinks with local flair, he was a joy to talk to as he painstakingly created each G&T. We scanned the tapas menu and decided it was worth coming back for a second visit.

On our second visit the same friendly bartender was there and a very fun couple of hours passed by as we ate and drank our way through both the cocktail and tapas menus. Ranking just the Gin & Tonics I give a 7/10, but everything about the place is so cute that the overall experience is even higher.

Micro backbar at Bernata
Dining room at Bernata

Pony Line Lounge

With our remaining time in BA rapidly dwindling, Pony Line became the best option to squeeze one more bar in and I’m glad we did. I knew it was in the Four Seasons hotel but assumed it was tucked away somewhere in the bowels of the hotel or on the top floor. Instead, it’s at ground level, just to the right of the Four Seasons main entrance. Step out of your cab and your inside in seconds. The space is an over the top funky Rodeo Drive / Western décor with lots of leather, polished chrome and horse stall inspired booths. We rightly chose to sit at the bar and met the very friendly bartender who was happy to talk about mixology in BA.

The drink menu was moderately sized, but nearly everything looked intriguing enough to order. I eventually chose a well-executed “Brazillian Mai Tai”, and Carrie’s drink was also a winner.  Sadly, my stomach trouble a prior few days prevented a round two for me. Although the Pony Line is fundamentally a hotel bar, the quirky ambience combined with better-than-average cocktails make it a place I’d recommend. Rating: 7.5/10.

Pony Line Lounge backbar
Pony Line Lounge cocktail menu
Pony Line Lounge cocktail menu
Pony Line Lounge

The ones that got away

Although we covered a lot of bar territory during our too-brief tour of Buenos Aires and Montevideo, time ran out and we didn’t make it to either Frank’s Bar or Doppelgänger. If you’re a cocktail wonk and find yourselves in Buenos Aires, consider checking them out for me.

In my final post on Buenos Aires I’ll talk about the bounty of spirits I brought back!

Boozing in Buenos Aires – Part 1, Observations on Spirits in Argentina

 

A relatively well-stocked high-end Buenos Aires Bar

My wife Carrie and I are travel junkies, always looking for the next international travel destination. Since we’re both still Workin’ for the Man, we use US holidays to take two day weekends and turn them into 4+ day weekends.  With luck and planning we can get 9 straight free days while only using three vacation days. Over Thanksgiving 2013, we jetted down to Buenos Aires with a side trip to Uruguay. As usual in our international travels there was plenty of good food (Carrie handles that part of the planning), and plenty of time at bars- my bailiwick. There’s lot to tell about this trip, liquor-wise, so I’m splitting it over several posts. This first post is my general observations about what spirits are found in Buenos Aires.

It’s been said that “Argentines are a nation of Italians who speak Spanish and think they’re British living in Paris.”, and that was certainly my experience.  There were many moments walking down the street where I snapped to with the sudden realization that I wasn’t in Europe.  As with France and Italy, wine and beer are produced domestically, are plentiful and inexpensive, and so are the dominant types of alcohol consumed. Spirits are a much less straightforward story as I discovered while talking with many bartenders and stopping into countless stores while hunting for an elusive bottle.

What I saw over and over in bars were the same well-established brands, but with many gaps that surprised me. Spirits like Fernet Branca, Campari, and Bacardi are everywhere while other well-known spirits were nowhere to be found.  I’ve heard that a large reason for this is massive taxes on imports. It’s prohibitively expensive to get certain brands, even though a competitive brand may be available relatively cheaply. I’d also bet a large number of Argentine Pesos that back room deals impact what’s available.

With some local exceptions discussed later, nearly everything I saw while scanning backbars was well-known, established brands from major liquor groups – Campari, Diageo, Bacardi, etc….

I rarely saw anything that I didn’t recognize or that I’d call boutique or artisanal like you’d see in high-end bars in the US.

The big vodka brands were well represented including the usual rogues gallery of flavored vodkas – no surprise there. The gin selection is decent, likely because Gin and Tonics seem to be the rage, as they are in Spain. One surprising find for me was Bols Ginebra (genever) as I’m a big genever fan. Bols isn’t owned by a major liquor group like Diageo, but I saw it in stores everywhere. More striking was its price – About US $3 for a liter. You read that right! I constantly re-checked the shelf label, thinking I had misread it.

As with most other international locations I’ve been to, the high end liquor in Buenos Aires is Scotch, although a relatively limited selection compared to what I see in the US. The big American bourbon brands seemed woefully underrepresented, with Jack Daniels being the dominant player. I don’t recall seeing Tequila anywhere and certainly no mezcal.

Being a rum aficionado, I was quite interested in what rums were available. Sadly, the basic Bacardi variations (Silver, Gold, Bacardi 8), and Havana Club were consistently the only rums I saw on bar and store shelves. The only exception was at a private dining club where after dinner the proprietor rolled out a special covered wooden cart with about fifteen sipping rums, of which he was obviously very proud of. Alas, while a nice selection, there was nothing I couldn’t readily get at home. I’m sure his collection was acquired the hard way, one bottle at a time from friends or from his own travels.

The Italian influence on the available Argentine spirits is quite strong – Campari group products are huge in Argentina, with Campari, Aperol, Cynar and Cinzano vermouths nearly everywhere.  Some of them are now being made in Argentina so they were extremely inexpensive relative to what I’d pay at home. A 700 ml bottle of Campari for US $6? Yes please! Interestingly, for a country that consumes as much vermouth as Argentina (the Italian influence again), I never saw a bottle of Carpano Antica Formula anywhere, despite its Italian provenance and the very high esteem that cocktailians hold for it.

And what of Fernet Branca? You may know that Fernet Branca is huge in Argentina and it’s frequently said that Fernet and Coke is the national cocktail. What you might not know is that Fernet Branca is made in Argentina, in addition to Italy of course. As with other locally made spirits it’s very inexpensive by US standards. I purchased a liter of it for 82 pesos, which works out to about US $10 at the prevailing “blue dollar” rate. What really surprised me was that Fernet Branca has competitors in Argentina, and that they’re even more insanely inexpensive. In the little bodega across the street from our hotel, I saw two or three Fernet competitors.  For US $3, I purchased a half-liter of Fernet Capri just to consume with Coke in our hotel room. It was literally so cheap that even if it was horrible I was only out $3. It was a reasonable facsimile in case you were wondering.

Hotel Cocktails! The Coke nearly cost more than the Fernet Capri.

Besides Fernet Branca there’s also a handful of other spirits made in Argentina that I consistently saw. Given the Italian-affinity of the country, the majority fall into the amaro/bitters category. One exception people seem particularly proud of is Principe de los Apostoles Gin, which is made with Yerba mate, eucalyptus, peppermint, and pink grapefruit. It’s relatively new to the scene, very popular and I’ll have more to say about this gin in a subsequent post.

Another non-amaro-style spirit made in Argentina is rum. There’s an Argentinian brand called Isla Ñ that I’d hoped to pick up. Unfortunately, despite much looking and asking, I couldn’t find it anywhere. Most people had never heard of it, and the one who had dismissed it as not being particularly good. I found this rather strange given the intense Argentine pride I saw elsewhere.

Tracking down novel bottles for your collection while in Buenos Aires requires tenacity and planning. Spirits are treated as an offshoot of wine so finding a wine store that happens to carry a decent spirits collection is your best bet. Searching for Vinoteca is a good place to start. There weren’t any large “liquor stores” like BevMo or Total Wine and I didn’t encounter a single store that focused predominantly on spirits.

No single store had a fairly complete selection of spirits, at least for the indigenous spirits I was after. There is a few chains (“Winery”, “Ligier”) with a number of shops throughout the city, however their spirits selection, while large by Argentine standards, didn’t seem well stocked with Argentine-specific spirits.

Typical Argentine liquor store. About 1/5th is devoted to spirits.

On the other hand, many grocery stores carry an assortment of local spirits, so if you’re focused on bringing back unusual bottles the trick is to scope out a number of locations, including grocery stores.

Hunting spirits in grocery stores. Prices are in pesos.

The best store we found was in Palermo, Malambo Vinoteca Y Almacén Criollo. The owner (or at least he seemed to be) spoke reasonably good English, was very helpful, and once he understood my mission (“Bring home unusual, local spirits!”), pointed out several bottles I would have missed otherwise. I was surprised to learn that some bars will actually sell you an entire bottle, although we didn’t take an opportunity to do so before it was too late.

Stay tuned for my next post on all the cool bars and cocktails we experienced in Buenos Aires!

Trip Report – Boozing in Beantown

My wife Carrie and I were recently in Boston for a good friend’s wedding and to see my son who lives in New Hampshire. Although my wife and met and lived together in metro Boston, we’d not been back to Boston together for any real time since moving to Seattle. Thus we approached this trip as if it were a brand new city – Carrie researched the restaurants and I researched the bars that looked interesting, plotting them on a map, and strategizing how to hit as many of them as we could while working around scheduled events.

While researching the lists of possible bars, I noticed something interesting: Many of the Boston bars that popped up frequently in “best of” lists were a component of a larger restaurant, or were hotel bars. For example, No. 9 Park’s bar was mentioned often, but the bar is just a portion of the restaurant of the same name. Likewise, The Hawthorne is within the Hotel Commonwealth. While there’s nothing wrong with either attribute, it’s in contrast to Seattle where most of the best bars (Canon, Rob Roy, Rumba, Zig Zag, Knee High Stocking Company, etc…) are indisputably bars first and foremost, even though they do serve food.

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