By GREGORY DICUM
He mounded the resulting gravel-sized ice in a silver cup into which followed 12-year Old Fitzgerald bourbon and simple syrup. He snapped a generous bunch of dark mint sprigs and planted it in the ice. He concealed a small straw inside the bouquet, such that my first experience of the now-frosted cup was a clean, soaring nose of pure mint. A bracing, richly sweet wash of bourbon followed close behind.
It was the best mint julep I have ever had. By far.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, a growing scene of local distillers and bartenders capable of wielding their elixirs to maximum effect has emerged. With wry flair, they combine technical perfection with subtle, deniable showmanship and an eagerness to experiment with Northern CaliforniaÂ’s agricultural bounty. Â“The West Coast does liquids well,Â” said one of the AlembicÂ’s owners, Daniel Hyatt, reflecting on his contribution to the regionÂ’s fluid scenes.
Anchor Distillery in San Francisco makes gin and rye whiskies in tiny lots. Distillery No. 209, on Pier 50, makes only gin. But St. George Spirits, across the bay in Alameda, is the only one open to the public.
When I visited this fall, the air was redolent with Montmorency pie cherries finishing their mash in a chilled steel tank. Shining copper stills, industrial macerators and barrels filled a huge, light-filled hangar on a former Naval base (the vodka is named for it: Hangar One). Within an hour the cherries had become eau de vie, dripping from a stainless steel pipe while JĂ¶rg Rupf, the founder, offered tastes to an impressively informed group of about 30 visitors.
Absinthe Verte, perfected by Lance Winters, Mr. RupfÂ’s distilling partner, is one of the handful of American absinthes on the market again after a centurylong drought. The spirit epitomizes the fervid scene in the Bay Area: it is at once classic, with a 19th-century aesthetic, and innovative Â— something that had not been available at all, much less in this highly cultured form.
The bar that best reflects this dichotomy is Bourbon & Branch. Styled a modern-day speakeasy, it is in a space in the seedy Tenderloin neighborhood that was once an actual speakeasy. A password (get it online with your reservation) is required to enter the den of wood, leather, distantly twinkling tinplate and oceans of brown liquors. Twenties jazz plays quietly, and guests are greeted with small glasses of champagne punch on linen coasters.
If it all seems a bit pompous Â— a reservation at a bar? Â— it works. Even on a Friday evening, Bourbon & Branch is an intimate setting for the contemplation of fine cocktails. It draws a diverse crowd of aficionados who are rewarded with exquisite drinks: the Sazerac is not too sweet, its rye bite balanced with a lemony nose. The 1794 (really a Boulevardier) is delicious. My Democrat, a concoction of peach and bourbon, was tasty but lacked heft. I sent it back and the bartender happily fixed the problem with a splash of bourbon.
The bar features a seasonal menu of what Brian Sheehy, one of the owners, calls Â“market fresh cocktails,Â” as well as two that change every day. Bourbon & Branch has become the nexus of a tight-knit community, with alumni opening bars and developing menus throughout the city. Last month, Mr. Sheehy and co-owners opened Cask, a store selling craft spirits and bartending paraphernalia.
Todd Smith, who helped start Bourbon & Branch, developed the bar at Beretta, in the Mission District. I visited on a Thursday, the day Mr. Smith still works the bar. It was hot, so I led a small group of obliging friends through an extended flight of gorgeous drinks. A lucid pink Nuestra Paloma, of tequila, elderflower and grapefruit, glowed in the sun. The Agricole Mule was a tangy song of Martinique rum, sweet but not cloying housemade ginger syrup, lime and mint. The almond viscosity of fresh orgeat made by Small Hand Foods, a Berkeley company that specializes in craft cocktail ingredients, offset the phenolic astringency of St. George absinthe in the Gaby de Lys.
We continued with a Pisco Punch that married satisfying pineapple gomme richness with piscoÂ’s depth. The Airmail was beautiful Â— the cocktail version of latte art Â— and mixed the tickle of prosecco with honeyÂ’s roundness. It gave way to the best thing we drank that day: a refreshing Rangoon Gin Cobbler that tasted like a liquid Dreamsicle.
The Clock Bar, which opened this summer in the Westin St. Francis on Union Square, is one of Michael MinaÂ’s endeavors Â— a counterpart to his eponymous restaurant across the lobby. His hand is visible in the bar food: treats like lobster corn dogs or black truffle popcorn are $12.
But I was there to drink, and the St. Francis Cocktail was an unfortunate start. Why call a martini anything but? And why sully AnchorÂ’s Junipero gin with Noilly Pratt? (Here I might as well reveal my own martini recipe: two thirds Junipero, one third Vya dry vermouth, stirred with ice and served up with a single Armstrong martini olive. After that, a martini in which every ingredient is produced little more than an hourÂ’s drive from Martinez, Calif., one of the drinkÂ’s putative birthplaces, thereÂ’s hardly any point in doing it any other way.)
The Clock Bar is cool, with black wood setting off a gleaming floor and a magnificently lit bank of bottles. The place filled quickly with a crowd of stunned-looking hotel guests perched on black leather cubes and boisterous locals on their way to dinner.
The bar redeemed itself with its gin rickey: with a pellucid lime-ness that shone on the palate, it was the standout of the evening. I ordered a Boulevardier made with Bulleit bourbon and Carpano Antica Formula vermouth. Though swamped, Merran, the bartender, took the time to re-twist a lemon peel after the first broke. The flame of an orange peel outlined her face in brief, diabolical light.
The Alembic sits on a tawdry block of Haight Street, near Golden Gate Park. Yet it is a pleasant neighborhood bar (and restaurant) of high, mustard-yellow walls and generous skylights, with a casual air arising from civilized and knowledgeable regulars.
Mr. Hyatt, who often works the bar, divides his menu into canonical and new school: Sazerac, pisco sour, and Ramos gin fizz face inventions like the Gilded Lily, a surprising drink of Plymouth gin, Yellow Chartreuse and orange flower water under a glittering slick of gold dust.
But it is with the Old-Fashioned, a drink with roots easily 200 years old, that the Alembic achieves cult status. When I visited, a cheerful, bald man at the bar was having one made with AnchorÂ’s single malt Hotaling rye.
Â“Old-Fashioneds are too fruity,Â” observed the woman sitting next to me. She was drinking Â— and let me try Â— a Southern Exposure of Junipero gin, mint and lime with a surprisingly savory undertone of celery juice.
Â“Not here,Â” said the man at the bar. He waited until her date had returned to order an Old-Fashioned for her.
I ordered one as well, made with Buffalo Trace bourbon from the single barrel the Alembic owns. It was warmly syrupy, coating a few sharply cubic lumps of ice. It lay on my tongue like a soothing balm.
I went outside to take a call, and a woman stopped to look at the menu.
Â“Have you tried the Old-Fashioned?Â” she asked me.
Â“ThereÂ’s one waiting for me on the bar,Â” I said, tasting again my sweetened lips and a fragrant allspice aftertaste.
Â“ItÂ’s so ... Â” She smiled slightly and paused, unused to saying the word she had in mind unironically. Â“ItÂ’s so sophisticated.Â”
St. George Spirits, on the former Alameda Naval Air Station (2601 Monarch Street, Alameda, Calif.; 510-769-1601; www.stgeorgespirits.com) offers free distillery tours weekends at 1 p.m. The tasting room, where flights begin at $10 (which buys the glass that you can take home), is open Wednesday through Saturday, noon to 7 p.m., Sunday noon to 6 p.m.
The Alembic (1725 Haight Street; 415-666-0822; www.alembicbar.com) is a bar and restaurant. Specialty cocktails are $9; hours noon to 2 a.m.
Reservations are required at Bourbon & Branch (501 Jones Street; 415-346-1735; open daily starting at 6 p.m.). Get them at www.bourbonandbranch.com. You can also sign up for classes at the Beverage Academy, where the mysterious rites of the cocktail are passed on from the masters. Seasonal, Â“market freshÂ” cocktails are $12.
Cocktails at Beretta (1199 Valencia Street; 415-695-1199; www.berettasf.com) are $9. It fills up fast so get there early (opens 5:30 weekdays and noon on weekends) if you hope to talk cocktails with the bartenders.
The Clock Bar is off the lobby of the Westin St. Francis (335 Powell Street; 415-397-9222; www.michaelmina.net/clockbar). Open 4 p.m. Classic cocktails start at $11.
Cask is a recently opened store that specializes in artisanal spirits and obsessive barware (17 Third Street; 415-424-4844; www.caskstore.com).