The two things most talked about in Napa Valley these days are:
1. the water shortage
2. well made cocktails
It turns out that if you have enough of the latter, you can forget your worries about the former.
So to do my community service, to help shake our collective concern about the drought, napaman set out to study the current craze in cocktails. The chilled ones are especially hot.
San Francisco seemed like the perfect place to devote a night’s research to cocktails. Bartenders here are recognized for their innovation as well as for their keenness to revive classics, which have been lost over time.
I contacted Lisa Rogovin, who operates a series of sensational food tours in San Francisco (www.edibleexcursions.net) and signed up for her Thursday evening walk-about of four different trendy bars where tour participants get to talk to the bartenders and learn about popular cocktails.
Bartenders is such an old term. Nowadays, these masters of the spirit world are called mixologists by the press, and are as revered as DJs were when raves were the hot trend.
The bar scene at Cantina.
There were eight people on my cocktail tour. We met at a bar called Cantina. Our tour guide was Quinn Sweeney, a Vermonter who fell in love with the San Francisco cocktail scene nine years ago when he arrived and never returned home.
Quinn talks about Pisco to our group in a back corner of Cantina.
Quinn is a teacher, writer, photographer and artist. He writes for several publications and knows where to find the best cocktails, or ingredients to make them.
Quinn also designs and sells "distinctive devices for discerning drinkers" as he puts it. You can check out his offerings at https://www.etsy.com/shop/libationlab
The Peruvian distilled spirit used at Cantina to make delicious Pisco-based cocktails.
Cantina is really ground zero in America for the Peruvian spirit called Pisco. Bar owner Duggan McDonnell is a principal in the brand Encanto, produced in Peru, which is used here to make a cocktail called Pisco Punch. It was THE San Francisco drink back in the 1850’s gold rush era.
Bartender Brian Deconinck at Cantina makes eight Pisco Punch cocktails with Encanto Pisco for our group.
Duggan has been relentless in researching the origins of Pisco Punch and thinks the one he now serves is as close as anyone has ever gotten to the version served 150 years ago, when San Francisco’s seediest section was called The Barbary Coast – where sailors who had one-too-many Pisco-based drinks would get konked on the head and wake up on a ship halfway to Shanghai (hence the term “to be Shanghai’d”).
Bartender and general manager Brian Deconinck uses Lillet Rouge to give his pineapple-infused Pisco Punch color.
Brian also explains how Pisco is made in Peru – through the distillation of a variety of up to eight different fermented grapes.
As we take our leave to head to the next bar stop, this is what our group looked like:
The BEFORE shot; our group at the start of the cocktail safari. Sober as a judge, each and every one of ‘em. That’s Quinn on the far left.
Here’s the AFTER shot - our group after four bar stops and five cocktails:
Next stop on our safari – a bar called Royale.
Here we are introduced to two flavor sensations. Quinn serves us his favorite Vietnamese bánh mì sandwiches, which he has brought along from Fresh Brew Coffee. “These are some of the best bánh mì sandwiches in the city,” he says.
Tour leader Quinn Sweeny brings mescal-based cocktails called “The Last Word” to our table.
Quinn also introduces us to The Last Word, a mescal-based cocktail which, he says, originated in Detroit in the 1930’s and which has been painstakingly recreated at the Royale.
We are given an introduction to mescal. Unlike Tequila, which must be made by distilling only the blue agave plant, mescal can be made with many different agave varieties.
The Last Word cocktail.
The Last Word is a blend of mescal, green Chartreuse, maraschino liqueur, and a squirt of lime juice. It has a smoky finish and the acidic lime flavor lingers.
Quinn explains the difference between mescal and tequila to the group.
Speaking about Chartreuse, which is made by an order of Carthusian monks in France, Quinn says that one of his favorite shots is called Lucky Charms. “To a jigger of green Chartreuse add a dash of your favorite hot sauce,” says Quinn. “Knock it back as you would any shot – divine!”
These shoes have absolutely NOTHING to do with mescal or our tour – but I sure did like them on this woman sitting at the Royale bar. Smokin’!
Time to move on to another bar.
At Trocadero Club, bartender Zander Sheets specializes in drinks made with schnaps, a German term derived from the verb “to swallow.” Schnaps are strong distilled spirits and, as Zander explains, can even be made from distilled beer!
Bartender Zander Sheets creates his drink The Baroness for our group.
The ingredients required to make The Baroness.
Okay, the evening is moving on and so are we. To our fourth, and final, bar.
At Rye (the name of the bar), bartender Vincent Toscano prepares a Basil Gimlet. A large basil leaf, about the size of a lily pad, floats on the top of each cocktail.
The first cocktail served to us here is a Basil Gimlet. Quinn confides, and bartender Vincent confirms, that one of the best gins you can use to make gin-based cocktails is actually one of the least expensive – Gordon’s.
“It’s a myth, perpetuated by marketing people, that you have to spend a lot of money for gin,” says Quinn. “If you’re making a gin-based cocktail, Gordon’s is a great ingredient.”
The Basil Gimlet prepared at Rye Bar.
The deafening bar scene at Rye.
Our second cocktail at Rye is, like the first, NOT made with Rye. How curious.
Vincent shakes up eight Nail Gun cocktails, a sweetish drink with a lemony, peach finish. It is made with Dewar’s blended Scotch whisky, Drambui, bitters and freshly squeezed lemon.
“It’s a variation of the Rusty Nail,” explains Vincent. “We add peach simple syrup and lemon to the classic recipe to give it a twist.”
The tour ends. It’s after 9 pm. It’s been a hoot, and a colorful, and tasty one at that. If you are interested in taking the San Francisco Cocktail Tour, go to
and fill in the blanks.
The tour is offered every Thursday, 6 to 9 pm, and costs $115 per person, which includes all cocktails and appropriate food nibbles. But not your Uber ride home!