San Francisco has been a groundbreaking drinking town since the 1800s when this water-surrounded Peninsula nurtured wild Barbary Coast saloons and the first bartender to elevate and publicize the craft of bartending, Professor Jerry Thomas. Northern California has transformed American drinking across the board, with SF being home to the first brewery (Anchor Steam) to shift the beer conversation to “craft” in the 1960s, the first city to import pisco to North America and the region that permanently revolutionized the wine world.
Then there is craft spirits. Utilizing California’s bounty, Bay Area distilling pioneers were often decades ahead. Hubert Germain-Robin brought Cognac and Calvados-quality brandy production to the US in the 1980s with his Germain-Robin distillery (now “Craft Distillers”). Also in the early ‘80s, Jorg Rupf showed us what true eaux de vie are, when he launched St. George Spirits, which went on to change the game in numerous spirit categories, from gin to whiskey, absinthe to vodka. Miles Karakasevic moved to Napa from the former Yugoslavia and in the 1980s began distilling Old World brandies, while he and his son Marko went on to distill an array of impressive spirits. In the small Santa Cruz-area town of Soquel, Daniel Farber launched Osocalis in the 1990s, yet another pioneering source for Cognac-style brandies. In the Silicon Valley town of Belmont, Old World Spirits secured the first TTB-approved label for barrel-aged gin, long before it became a trend.
As Bay Area distillers, from Seven Stills to Sonoma County Distilling, Raff Distillerie to Spirit Works, shape California’s craft distilling movement, Bay Area bar managers, ambassadors, bartenders and spirits folk in SF/NorCal have educated and shaped this ever forward-thinking city long before there was a “scene” elsewhere. Along with NYC, SF was early to realize a cocktail renaissance over a decade ago and has shaped the conversation—and the palate—of the country, as it does in food. Even prior to 2008, SF was the kind of city where you’d find the likes of sherry or amaro cocktails (Fernet Branca sold more here than any other city years before other cocktail cities got hooked on the bitter side of the taste profile). It’s a town where classic cocktails such as the Boulevardier and Last Word trended a decade ago and where produce is as fresh as it comes.
Here, bitter, savory and herbaceous are accepted, even pleasing, drinking words. It’s a place where experimentation is highly valued; but so is quality and purity of ingredients. This keeps standards high and competition stiff, so it’s no surprise that we could name 50 bars and not include all the best—and then there’s Oakland, Berkeley, Wine Country and other NorCal towns graced with special bars. Here, then, is a cross section of 10 of San Francisco’s great cocktail/spirits bars.
Tucked upstairs in the Mystic Hotel, Charlie Palmer’s Burritt Room + Tavern is a brick-walled, velvet-lined space that recalls Prohibition Era and the Jazz Age with live music and seductive cocktails. Bar manager Josh Trabulsi turns out inspired drinks and classics covering a range of spirits, pairing cocktails with executive chef Luke Knox’s cooking in the dining room.
Drink Menu: In addition to a “spirituous” and “citrus” section of the cocktail menu, note gems in the “savory” section, like Revelry, mixing Sonoma Rye Whiskey with fino sherry, baking spice liqueur and a saline solution. charliepalmer.com/burritt-room-and-tavern
The ever-talented Danny Louie (also bar manager behind nearby Chino with an Asian-influenced cocktail menu) crafts inspired, unusual drinks, based around an extensive selection of over 300 tequilas and mezcals at Mosto in the Mission.
Drink Menu: Alongside the sublime El Mosto house margarita, Louie turns out changing, creative sippers like Invierno, mixing blanco tequila, Lillet, fennel seed, tarragon and a house kumquat shrub with tonic, or the Green Hornet, combining Don Julio Reposado with coconut milk, Green Chartreuse, jalapeño and lime. mostosf.com
Comstock Saloon’s beautiful space in a 1907 building on the Barbary Coast trail was restored to its past glories in 2010, thanks to barmen Jeff Hollinger and Jonny Raglin. Striking, antique mahogany bars in both rooms of the restaurant/bar are surrounded by wood booths, a Victorian furniture lounge with wood-burning stove and a main bar looking up at a balcony marked with an upright piano, a space from which some of the best live (free) jazz in the city happens.
Drink Menu: It’s all about the classics, the kind found in pages of The Savoy Cocktail Book or Charles H. Baker’s Gentleman’s Companion, the latter displayed (first edition) in glassed-in shelves lining the wall, along with other historical cocktail memorabilia. Try crowd-pleasers like the Cherry Bounce: bourbon, cherry brandy, lemon, Angostura bitters and a splash of Champagne. comstocksaloon.com
At roughly a decade old, neighborhood-favorite Alembic has placed on “best” lists; from World’s Best Bars to Food & Wine’s Top 50 Bars in America over the years after Daniel Hyatt put the expertly-curated spirits selection and cocktails on the map. Alongside executive chef Ted Fleury’s superb food, bar manager Larry Piaskowy (our bar manager interview this issue) continues the tradition of excellence in the intimate Haight-Ashbury space with quality cocktails, often utilizing craft/small batch spirits.
Drink Menu: In addition to strong classics (heavy on New Orleans greats like a Vieux Carre), Piaskowy’s changing drinks might include the likes of SF Confidential, combining new Fernet Francisco (a softer, subtle Bay Area-produced Fernet) with gin, honey, a touch of orange juice and orange and cardamom bitters. alembicbar.com
With over 500 spirits and a comfortable, Old World, lived-in feel in a space tucked off Romolo alley in North Beach, 15 Romolo has long been one of SF’s best bars. Boasting an extensive sherry collection (watch for the annual Sherry Christmas menus) and one of the most eclectic jukeboxes around, Romolo’s talented staff turns out excellence across the board, including what has long been the best Pimm’s Cup in town.
Drink Menu: Revolving drinks cover a range of spirits, specializing in sherry. During massive events like SF Beer Week, they turn out inspired winners like Ariel & Sebastian, a mix of gin and pisco with lime and a house kumquat pale ale beer cordial. 15romolo.com
Down on the docks, the eastern neighborhood of Dogpatch has continued to grow from desolate ‘hood on the Bay into a food and drink destination. Third Rail has cornered the cocktail side, offering a fun jerky menu. Opened by owner/chef Phil West of Range (www.rangesf.com) and bar manager Jeff Lyon, the welcoming neighborhood space is marked by a huge, vintage French train station clock.
Drink Menu: Lyon’s changing cocktail menu is grouped in four categories: low proof, high proof (spirituous), seasonal and citrus, with four cocktails in each—like a light alcohol Six-O-One showcasing neighboring Sutton Cellars vermouth, bourbon, Aperol, lemon and seltzer, or the seasonal Snapdragon, mixing gin, sugar snap peas, mint, lime and tonic. thirdrailbarsf.com
Since spirits industry gurus Todd Smith, Ryan Fitzgerald and Erik Reichborn-Kjennerud opened ABV in 2014, it has become an industry hangout where, on any given day, one runs into distillers, brand ambassadors, restaurant workers and a slew of bartenders hobnobbing in the laid back Mission bar with a top notch range of spirits and cocktails paired with chef Kevin Cimino’s southern-influenced, utensil free bites.
Drink Menu: Go savory with a Gin & Celery (Old Tom Gin, lemon, tonic, salt and celery bitters). Or, for a tropical, Mexican-influenced beauty, Pina Verde, combining Tapatio blanco tequila, lime, genepy, pineapple and house orange fennel bitters. abvsf.com
On chill Cortland Ave. in SF’s cozy Bernal Heights, Holy Water is that ideal neighborhood bar where there’s always a seat and even a water bowl for your dog by the front door. John Ottman and crew turn out well-crafted cocktail classics from a fine spirits collection. Note their nightly “11th Hour” from 11pm on, where they feature special offerings like single barrel pours or magnums of craft beer.
Drink Menu: Sip classic greats like a Queens Park Swizzle or Mexican Firing Squad, as well as spicy cocktail, Inferno Tropicale, mixing Ancho Reyes Chile Liqueur with pineapple and falernum. holywatersf.com
A top-notch bar destination in the ever-evolving Mid-Market corridor, right by Twitter and Uber headquarters, Oddjob boasts a creative menu of cocktails from bar manager Joey Picchi, who on some nights, also makes custom cocktails to your tastes in their bar-within-a-bar, SRO. Oddjob also hosts live music and DJs on an intimate stage in a space graced with a dramatic and artistic drink machine designed by Bay Area artist Benjamin Cowden and dubbed The Corpse Reviver, after the classic cocktail.
Drink Menu: Look for playful drinks like Swamp Milk, featuring floral, rosy Nolet Gin mixed with Suze, egg white, lemon and a house grape soda reduction that transports you right back to childhood, tasting of Crush or Fanta grape sodas. oddjobsf.com
Royal Cuckoo’s cocktails are hit-and-miss but the atmospheric Outer Mission bar boasts a strong small-batch spirit selection and killer live jazz around their permanent Hammond organ at the end of the bar. Jazz musicians play with organists (or the organ soloists) in a space that evokes the sensual, Old World spirit of New Orleans with SF quirk and vintage furniture. When the music isn’t live, groove to retro jazz and blues tunes from their vintage vinyl collection.
Drink Menu: Keep it simple and order classics or, (better yet,) neat pours. There are also house cocktails like a Honey Shrub Julep. royalcuckoo.com