What’s the only thing better than opening a Mission cocktail bar that’s from the same team as a two-Michelin-starred restaurant? Having a friend who’s knowledgeable about auctions clue you into the existence of a trove of rare bottles held by the estate of a French aristocrat who married into a well-to-do California family.
It’s almost uncanny, but that’s what happened with True Laurel, a joint project by chef David Barzelay and bar director Nicolas Torres. While a clamorous Spinzall culinary centrifuge clarifies grapefruit juice at one end of the tasting bar — which doubles as his R&D lab — Torres expounds upon his good fortune.
“We had a partial list of some of the stuff and just read it and said, ‘Wow, this is real,’ ” Torres says. “There’s names that you have to do you research on, and some more obvious stuff like 1940s bonded bottles of Old Overholt. That’s something whiskey people know.”
They uncovered bottles of brandy from the early 19th century, along with other treasures Torres is keeping under wraps, many of them bottled during Prohibition and still displaying their government stamps. (During the 1920s, some houses were licensed to produce medicinal spirits.) Everything’s going on the menu — just not all at once.
“David and I are very funny about it,” Torres says. “He gets very excited and wants to share it with everybody, and every time he opens a bottle, I’m like, ‘Let me see your ID.’ When they open, I definitely want to be there and be part of it, but there’s this hoarder-vintage side of me that’s like ‘That belongs in a museum!’ ”
He won’t reveal which, but Torres says a tasting specialist from a well-known spirit brand came in to compile tasting notes, hoping to reconstruct some long-lost secrets. The peril is that the quality may not be consistent, and not because a given bottle aged improperly.
“A lot of the bigger houses bought a lot of people’s stock,” Torres says, using whiskey as an example. “There’s wariness of what’s good out there. It could be rectified spirit, blended in with real whiskeys or aged in barrels. The thing about this collection is it’s amazing, but you can’t make any promises on any of this stuff.”
He’s been tinkering with True Laurel’s cocktail list, swapping out ingredients as seasons shift and changing some because he decided he doesn’t like them. The venue’s tasting bar isn’t fully up and running quite yet, but as people have been dropping by “here and there” for a shot of the reserve spirits, the concept is slowly gelling in Torres’ mind.
It’s going to be three days a week at most, and probably toward the beginning of the week because weekends are already “a good busy” and if the regular bar is too crowded it might spoil the intimacy. The tasting bar is L-shaped so everyone can see one another, and while the drinks are the highlight, he doesn’t want to sideline the kitchen. The thing is, though, the idea of sipping five cocktails in a row is palate-fatiguing and unappealing — and people have come to expect theater from experiences like these, even if it’s smoke and mirrors sometimes.
“It would be really badass if you had a few cocktails and maybe a rare wine,” he says, offering an alternative, “and then, at the end, a little nip of 1947 Old Overholt.”
Torres’ cocktails require a lot of time and energy well before he serves them. He makes multiple trips to the farmers market every week, and right now he’s having fun playing with sotal, an agave distillate from Chihuahua with grassy, floral notes. He sourced a bunch of late-season quince that had been in cold storage, and he’s using it three ways: roasted, macerated as a syrup, and candied into a garnish. The result is a “quince glass,” a sort of fruit roll that approaches the hardness of a Jolly Rancher. He combines all this with Caperitif, a South African fortified wine distilled from Chenin Blanc. Having a kitchen right there helps.
“I always reach out to the pastry chefs,” he says. “They deal with sweets, weird refinements, measurements, getting into all the science. As a bartender, the best person you can talk to is the pastry chef.”