Another year, another round of drinks polished off.
This year in cocktails was an interesting one. It was the year when low-alcohol drinks crossed over from something you drank after surgery to legitimate options on a lot more bar menus. It was the year we started seeing more interest in aperitif drinks, lighter beverages with bitter botanicals to open up the appetite (not that San Franciscans usually have that problem). This year saw the continued move away from the uptight and too-serious cocktail bar to more causal spots designed to be neighborhood joints. Sadly, it was also one where the dive bar in San Francisco suddenly found itself an endangered species, as the economics of their value in real estate and liquor licenses outweighed their profits, signaling the last call for a handful of them.
Most in all, it was a great year to be sitting at a bar stool. Great cocktails showed up in more places than ever, while more bartenders in more established places shifted their focus from interesting-and-challenging to so-good-I'll-take-two-more.
Here are my picks for some of the best drinks I had this year, in no particular order.
Dipsea Diver at Duende
The Dipsea Diver ($9, tequila blanco, manzanilla sherry, Benedictine, peach bitters) from bar manager Troy Bayless is a fantastic aperitif cocktail: light, crisp, but with a beautiful balance of vegetal tequila and briny sherry with a hit of fruit. Add an order of the patatas bravas ($6, fried potatoes dusted with pimento spice mi and spicy aioli) and you're basking in the Spanish sun. 468 19th St., Oakland, (510) 893-0174, duendeoakland.com.
El Presidente at Bar Agricole
What makes the El Presidente ($11, white rum, white vermouth, farmhouse curaçao, grenadine, orange bitters), a drink developed in the Prohibition era at La Floridita in Havana, stand out at Bar Agricole isn't novelty. The classic drink excels here due to the lengths Craig Lane and the superb staff go to make it great, from the choice in rum to the housemade bitters. You can order this drink at other bars, but it'll never be this good: sweet, aromatic, floral, with subtle bitterness worthy of both the common and powerful. 355 11th St., 355-9400, baragricole.com.
SPF 2020 at Comal
One of my favorite summer drinks this year was Comal bar manager Matthew Campbell's SPF 2020 ($9, Matusalem Rum, strawberry, blood orange, cinnamon-clove ancho pepper dram). Tangy and refreshing, the drink verges on tiki, but mostly transports you to the beach. This is one cocktail I'll look forward to as soon as strawberry season arrives again. 2020 Shattuck, Berkeley, (510) 926-6300, comalberkeley.com.
The Woodsman at Bloodhound
This is the time of year when old fashioned drinks like The Woodsman ($9, Rittenhouse 100-proof Rye, honey, allspice dram, Fernet Branca, lemon peel) are the most appropriate. The drink will warm you up faster than a fireplace, so sip it slow and enjoy. 1145 Folsom, 863-2840, bloodhoundsf.com.
The Spanish Prisoner at Brass Tacks
You'll swoon as soon as you taste the tall, dark, and rich Spanish Prisoner ($10, amontillado sherry, Bonal Aperitif wine, Cardamaro Vino Amaro), especially if you like stirred whiskey drinks like Manhattans. The blend of fortified wines create a drink perfect if you're looking something that tastes substantial but won't buckle your legs with an alcohol kick. 488 Hayes, brasstackssf.com.
Vesper Lynd at Burritt Room
The classic Vesper gets a makeover by lead bartender Josh Trabulsi into the Vesper Lynd ($13, Leopold's Navy Strength Gin, cucumber-infused Dolin Blanc Vermouth). The subtle cucumber and herbal qualities of the vermouth entwines with the juniper and floral character of the gin. Named after the bond girl in Casino Royale, this drink is just as dangerous if you're not careful. 417 Stockton, 400-0555, mystichotel.com/eat-drink/burritt-room.
Ostwald Ripened at Ziryab
Simultaneously exotic and ridiculously refreshing is the Ostwald Ripened ($10, Arak, Bols Yogurt, Pavan, lemon, grated cinnamon), named after the clouding effect in anise spirits, like arak, when water is added. Inspired by a dish bar manager Zachary Brian Taylor tried at a staff lunch, the drink laces the anise sweetness with yogurt tang and floral Pavan. 528 Divisadero (at Fell), 522-0800, ziryabgrill.com.
Manhattan at Original Joe's
In the crowd of craft cocktails, the House Manhattan ($6, Old Crow Bourbon, Martini Rossi Sweet Vermouth, Angostura Bitters) stands out for a couple of reasons: It's well made, it's $6, and you can get one to pair with a big, messy, and delicious burger. 601 Union, 441-0103, originaljoessf.com.
Dia De Los Muertos at Padrecito
The ingredient list in the Dia De Los Muertos ($12, blended scotch, yellow chartreuse, Cocchi Americano, lemon) that bar manager David Ruiz concocted describes a drink you would assume would be a smoky and herbal. Instead it's a citrusy and hearty drink based on the Corpse Reviver #2 that keeps things interesting without overwhelming you with peat. 901 Cole, 742-5505, padrecitosf.com.
The Rebound Fling at The Ice Cream Bar & Soda Fountain
While all the kiddies swarm the front of the ice cream parlor, the knowing adults head to the back "bar" for one of the "remedies," shakes and floats fortified with sherry, beer, or port into an adult beverage like The Rebound Fling ($11, Speakeasy Payback Porter, morello cherry ice cream, sour cherry syrup, lactart). What makes this great is that it's not simply a float spiked with booze, but a drink built around the flavors to create something as deliciously naughty (and fleeting) as a real fling. 815 Cole, 742-4932, theicecreambarsf.com.