San Francisco is the epicenter for the new classic cocktail
Super-premium spirits Bulleit bourbon, Don Julio tequila and Ketel One vodka on the scene in San Francisco.
Photos by Jenn Farrington
The City by the Bay and its surrounding communities are on the cutting edge in art, culture, technology . . . and the cocktail. THE TASTING PANEL takes an extended look at some of the venues where talented Bay Area mixologists are using Diageo super-premium spirits to shake up a seismic mixed drink revival.
Photos by Jenn Farrington
Exquisite Don Julio 1942 Añejo at San Francisco’s Taverna Aventine, joined by another member of the family, Don Julio Blanco.
Tucked between San Francisco’s bustling Financial District and vibrant North Beach is Taverna Aventine. GM Ryan Schooley is proud of the different premium brands he has to offer his discerning customers, and has watched as his customers’ interest in esoteric spirits has grown exponentially in recent years.
“I'm extremely surprised at how fast the Don Julio 1942 flies out the door,” Ryan says. “The tequila knowledge of the average customer in San Francisco is amazing to me; it’s gone through the roof, and I find that I hear more specific details about Don Julio and other premium tequilas now than any whiskey or scotch.”
The popular Maple Leaf Manhattan at Aventine: Bulleit bourbon, sweet vermouth, maple syrup and orange bitters, topped with brandied cherries. Customers often request “that Bulleit Maple Manhattan.”
Ryan attributes most of that surge to not only the growing tequila industry, but to influential mixologist Julio Bermejo, of local favorite Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant. Ryan’s favorite tequila cocktail at Aventine is called the Cheech—tequila, tonic and lime—but he finds that many folks who order tequila are looking for a shot and usually specify Don Julio Blanco.
“Ketel is definitely used most in our Dirty Vodka Martinis,” Ryan declares, suspecting it might be because Ketel One has a more distinct flavor profile than other vodkas and works well with the saltiness of the olives.
“Ketel just seems to be in the vernacular of SF,” Ryan continues. “Ketel soda is definitely what they get the call for most. I must have made 30 to 40 of them during two hours I spent behind the bar during a happy hour last week. Ketel is at a place where it doesn’t even need feedback—it’s a top-seller wherever it goes.”—Danny Ronen
photos by Jenn Farrington
83 Proof’s Bulleit Bourbon cocktail, with muddled fig, orange bitters, absinthe and a little agave nectar, garnished with a sliced fig.
Bartender/owners Sky Wegman and Chris Barry of San Francisco’s 83 Proof might not admit it, but they enjoy having a hidden little spot. Luckily for them, people love them and their establishment. Their popular bar at Mission and First doesn’t have a cocktail menu, nor do their cocktails usually have names, but they find that their customers will request the same cocktail from a previous visit. 83 Proof is also known for its Manhattans—neither Sky nor Chris is sure how that started, but obviously, they have no complaints.
“Your choice of bourbon is much more important than you realize,” Sky states. When using bourbon in a Manhattan, the gentlemen prefer using Bulleit because of its high rye content (approximately 30%), which they feel makes all the difference in the drink’s balance.
Owners and bartenders Chris Barry (left) and Sky Wegman show off their favorite ways to use Bulleit Bourbon at 83 Proof; they even have a special shelf to display the bottle on the back bar.
83 Proof gets a large Financial District happy hour crowd who like to drink their whiskeys straight, as opposed to in cocktails. For these folks, Chris has invented a novel new cocktail he likes to call Bulleit on the Rocks—another one of their most-requested items.
A favorite memory at 83 Proof is of Tom Bulleit visiting the bar during San Francisco WhiskyWeek in October. Tom had apparently heard great things about the place and was happy to find the bottle of his bourbon on its private mantle. If you ask nicely enough, Sky and Chris will even take the bottle from its location up on high to show you Tom Bulleit’s signature—just don’t ask to touch the bottle . . . . —D.R.
Photos by Jenn Farrington
Tucked away near the new Federal Building is Mr.Smith’s, best-known for its creative Martinis, especially those made with vodka, such as this Ketel One Basil Gimlet with Ketel One, muddled basil, fresh lemon and lime, agave nectar and a chipotle powder float.
In April 2005, proprietor Kevin Kokoszka and partners opened Mr.Smith’s in attempt to create a space for sophisticated drinkers who like a wide range of services, from a standard cocktail bar feel to VIP table service to an after-hours club. Kevin also wanted to make sure that the cocktails themselves were creative and made with the best possible ingredients. For the bar produce and the house-made purées, Kevin himself goes to his local farmers’ market in Marin County, as well as several others in San Francisco, to pick up the freshest fruits and herbs he can find. For the spirits, he and his bartenders trust their premium brands, such as Ketel One vodka.
“Here at Mr.Smith’s, people do call their vodkas,” Kevin states. Bartenders Brad Burt and David Ruiz declare that they mostly get a call for Ketel One Martinis, but also for Ketel and soda. David in particular is known for his range of Ketel One Gimlets.
Surrounded by premium spirits and fresh fruits and herbs, Mr.Smith’s bartenders David Ruiz and Brad Burt stand over their seasonal Ketel One creations: the Hibiscus Martini, the Pumpkin Pie Martini and the Basil Gimlet.
Vodka, gin and rum—in that order—are their three most requested base spirits at Mr.Smith’s. Even with their daily changing cocktail menu, plus specials up on the chalkboard, the folks at the bar still find that vodka makes up the majority of requested cocktails as well as about 80% of all bottle service orders—most of those being specific requests for Ketel One. After all, they did create the bar for the more sophisticated drinker. —D.R.
Hub for the Hip
Photos by Jenn Farrington
Always a gentleman, Jeff Hollinger takes us through a tasting of some of Absinthe Brasserie and Bar’s signature cocktails, plus a few secret ones still not on the menu.
CAPTION: Jeff reports that most of the Don Julio tequila sold both at Absinthe is either used in Margaritas or ordered as straight reposado shots. That doesn’t keep him from creating some fantastic Don Julio cocktails as well, like the By Any Other Name: Don Julio Reposado, lime juice, elderflower liqueur and artichoke liqueur.
If San Francisco’s Hayes Valley is a hub for the hip, then Absinthe Brasserie & Bar is its pulsing core. Jeff Hollinger, long-time bartender and Absinthe’s Manager of Restaurant Operations, has been mixing drinks and creating cocktail programs using some of the best spirits on the world, many of which are featured in the book The Art of the Bar, which he wrote with renowned bartender Rob Schwartz.
Ketel One, another oft-requested brand at Absinthe, is sold mostly in the form of a vodka Martini or a combination with soda or tonic. However, Jeff is currently working on a delightful concoction called Pink Elephant #1117: Ketel One vodka, Velvet Falernum, egg white, orange juice and prosecco, garnished with a slice of blood orange.
“We move through a specific brand most quickly when we put a cocktail on the list or on the chalkboard,” Jeff states. Bulleit bourbon, however, does well off the menu also, mostly requested at Absinthe in the form of a Manhattan or on the rocks. Jeff also created a cocktail called Aunt Edna (Is An Old Drunk), which contains Bulleit bourbon, oloroso sherry, ginger liqueur, Angostura bitters, a Lucid absinthe rinse and a bit of cinnamon. (Aunt Edna really knows how to mix it up!)
“Right now, we’re getting a lot of bourbon requests in general,” Jeff says, “since this is whisky season.” Let the hunting begin.
Jeff is also the Education Director for the San Francisco branch of the USBG (United States Bartenders’ Guild), an organization geared toward educating bartenders about different spirits, cocktail techniques, service and hospitality, and drinks culture and philosophy, as well as toward exposing members to new products. Jeff states that sharing ideas helps bartenders learn about new spirits and “pick each others’ brains,” an exchange that has sparked a lot of creativity here in San Francisco. David Nepove, who many say has singlehandedly elevated the San Francisco chapter to the status it has today, confirms that the USBG has assisted in creating a new era of outstanding bartenders and new classic cocktails . . . and that brands like these have helped make that happen.—D.R.
Photos by Matt Powers
Town Operating Partner Frank Sanchez keeps things fresh with his New School Manhattan, a bright update on the classic, with Bulleit Bourbon, fresh pomegranate purée and a dash of sweet vermouth, garnished with rich Amorino cherries.
At Town, Avenir Restaurant Group’s regional American grill in bustling downtown San Carlos, there’s a comfort factor that’s chic and familiar without being dated. The wood-fired grill’s clientele trends towards 40-somethings with a penchant for socializing, and bearing that in mind, Operating Partner Frank Sanchez mixes updated cocktails that emphasize seasonal produce and pristine flavors. His secret weapon behind the bar is agave nectar; with it, Town’s signature 1942 Margarita becomes a fitting tribute to Don Julio’s anniversary tequila. “When it comes to ultra-premium tequila cocktails, we’re purists,” Sanchez proclaims; “agave nectar thinned with distilled water, freshly-squeezed ripe lime juice and, of course, Don Julio 1942.” There’s not a drop of Cointreau in sight.
Sanchez’s New School Manhattan—a bright update on the classic, made with Bulleit bourbon, fresh pomegranate purée, a dash of sweet vermouth and garnished with rich Amarino cherries—is a cocktail that is both light and complex. “Our clientele is sixty percent female, so we use a seasonal fruit like pomegranate to bridge them to a brown spirit cocktail that has more character.” With one third of the menu devoted to Angus beef, Town offers locals all the cachet of a high-end steak house without making a trip to downtown San Francisco.
Because the kitchen looks to regional and seasonal produce to keep things fresh, there is no lack of inspiration at the bar. “Every week during the summer months, there’s a farmers’ market that runs the length of the street, and from it we create a farmers’ market cocktail using the best-tasting ingredients we can find.”—Deborah Parker Wong
Photos by Matt Powers
Josh Perry, Bar Manager at Red Lantern, mixes and aromatic Cambodian Mist Martini, which gets its fragrance and green hue from Thai basil.
The elaborate stained-glass dome of the Redwood City courthouse fills the skyline over one of its newest neighbors, Red Lantern. Designed by owner Jeffrey San Diego, the restaurant’s sultry interior uses the decorative arts and natural materials found across Southeast Asia to a dramatic effect—one that inspires a cocktail no matter the hour. Bar Manager Josh Perry uses a deft touch in crafting balanced, creative drinks that pair well with the restaurant’s Indonesian, Thai, Cambodian and Filipino-influenced cuisine.
Perry muddles Southeast Asian ingredients like Thai Basil in the Cambodian Mist to transform Don Julio Silver, white vermouth, and fresh lime juice into a silky smooth cocktail that suits the complex and aromatic cuisine. Executive Chef Daniel Sudar was previously at Betelnut in San Francisco, and the level of sophistication in his menu is reflected in Red Lantern’s overall concept. With the bar and lounge area well screened-off from the main dining room, semicircular booths for larger groups and a quiet mezzanine, there is a feeling of intimacy throughout the space.
Because Red Lantern avoids being cliché, it has become a destination stop on weekends for an evenly mixed crowd that knows its way around a cocktail. Perry responds with his take on a classic Sazerac that plays on Bulleit’s high rye content, VSOP cognac, blood orange bitters and absinthe. The bitters emulsify in the shaker and create a rich foam cap that finishes the drink. “Your first guess would be that I’m using egg white,” Perry notes, “but this is just another way to achieve a very polished finish.”—D.P.W.
The Don Julio Difference
On location in Mexico, two TASTING PANEL gringos learn what makes this brand so special
The Secret of the Agaves
Photo by: Richard Carleton Hacker
Richard Carleton Hacker tries his hand harvesting a mature agave using a round-bladed coa de jima.
Not all tequilas are created equal. The secret lies in the agaves. Don Julio grows its agaves in the red, iron-rich soil of the family’s historic highland farms in Jalisco. While lowland agaves are herbal, the highlands produce honey and fruit characteristics, adding to Don Julio’s individuality. Although the company has not sought certification, its farming methods are akin to organic. Their agaves average 44 pounds each—double the normal weight of a six- to ten-year-old plant. Each piña—the core of the uprooted agave—must have a telltale maroon mark or tinge, evidence the plant is at maximum sugar content.
Since being acquired by Diageo in 2002, Don Julio has grown dramatically. When I first visited the distillery in 2000, there were nine stills; today there are 15, and the number of iron-doored brick ovens has increased from 8 to 18, with the distillery now operating 24 hours a day. But the basic techniques have not changed since 83-year-old patriarch Don Julio Gonzáles García started making tequila in 1942.
Currently being offered:
Don Julio Blanco (SRP$45) Smooth and creamy, with sweet citrus and black pepper.
Don Julio Reposado ($48) Fresh, spicy agave laced with black olives and honey, and a slightly dry finish.
Don Julio Añejo ($53) Marzipan, milk chocolate and a delicate hint of smoke from the bourbon barrel char.
Don Julio 1942 ($125) A vatting of tequilas aged from two-and-a-half to three years; lots of candied fruit, walnuts and yes, even bananas.
Don Julio Real ($350) Cognac-like, it swirls with orange peel, oak, dark chocolate and melted butter with a flourish of cedar.—Richard Carleton Hacker
Yes, There Really Is a Don Julio
As a professional, what makes you reach for one brand of tequila over another? Sometimes it’s just habit. Other times, it’s the most recent memory of a smooth taste.
In the Jalisco highlands, east of Guadalajara, I saw strong, attractive men (Refer to photo!—Ed.) harvesting shoulder-height blue Weber agave, grown in fields of copper-colored soil. Over at the processing plant, there’s an enticing sweet scent like jelly cooking as the hearts of the cactus are slowly roasted in huge brick ovens for 72 hours before fermentation and double-distillation—the original ovens Don Julio himself built in the 1940s.
Yes, there really is a Don Julio. Young Julio started the company when he was 17. He had been working in tequila-making since the astounding age of seven, to help feed his family. In the early 1940s he became aware of a new demand for better quality tequila in the world. Though he’s now in his 80s, Don Julio himself still inspects the agave fields; as he decreed, only the very ripest sections are ever harvested.
Out of all the tequilas on your bar, why reach for Don Julio,? Well, it’s easy to grab the distinctive knob of wood on top of the bottle. But the real reason is the story. —Becky Sue Epstein