Last October, Drinks International ranked ABV the 36th best bar in the world, one notch below fellow Mission hangout Trick Dog. It’s a bit of an alpha world city-heavy list, with nine out of the top 10 slots occupied by spots in London and New York — and the only other San Francisco watering hole to make the cut was Smuggler’s Cove, at No. 29 — but the point is clear. The world’s most discerning drinkers have taken notice.
On Monday, Jan. 23, ABV launches Over Proof, transforming its mezzanine level into a weeknight-only space that will rotate through four different spirits and an associated menu of bar bites, each for three months at a time — starting with rum. (After one year, Over Proof will become something else entirely.) Co-founder Ryan Fitzgerald says it evolved out of a realization that by moving a wall, an unused storage space could become “something ambitious and weird” that accommodates between 25 and 35 people. It was almost a mezcaleria, but led by Todd Smith, the team opted to do for cocktails what Michael Mina’s Test Kitchen in the Marina did for food, logistical hurdles of constant change be damned.
“We had a meeting with some of the staff and asked what we should
start with, and they all said ‘People would expect whiskeys and mezcal, and why don’t we go with something they’d least expect?’ ” Fitzgerald says. “And that’s rum.”
The result is Flip-Flop, Over Proof’s rum project, which will run through April 20. At two seatings every weeknight, the $80 price tag gets you six bites, five cocktails, and a “Sippin’ Flight” of three signature rums from around the Caribbean. With shrimp ceviche and a rum ham musubi, Flip-Flop is hardly beholden to the strict parameters of any one cuisine, although it does serve
a variation on the national dish of Trinidad, a chow mein made with sweet peppers, braised cabbage, and green onion.
The drinks are correspondingly tiki-esque, but geared toward putting rum center stage, not burying it beneath six kinds of tropical juices. For added depth, a Pink Flamingo (rhum, lime, pineapple gum, tiki aperitif, and absinthe) contains three separate types of bitters, and the Pineapple Bum is made with Rancio, a sherry-like oxidized Catalán wine, as well as a neutral spirit infused with the flesh and rind of a pineapple, then blended and distilled. Cleverly, a “Cuba Libre” — quote marks ABV’s own — is poured from Coke bottles but contains carbonated vermouth in lieu of any cola.
This isn’t far from what Liholiho Yacht Club is doing with its basement bar Louie’s Gen-Gen Room, but it feels as though ABV is mostly looking to upstage Trick Dog, which is well- known for periodically dumping its entire menu and starting afresh. Fitzgerald says that was part of the motivation, although he acknowledges that can be brutal on the staff.
“We’re kind of reluctant to fully overhaul and redo the menu because of the mise en place of bartending,” he says. “Putting everyone through their paces makes service more difficult. We’re trying to concentrate hard on providing people with a good time.”
“Nothing against Trick Dog,” he adds, “but there’s no way they pull that menu off without batching cocktails. … Granted, we are batching some drinks upstairs at Over Proof, but at a bar, I want to be able to go in and say ‘I don’t think I want that, I’d rather have it with this alcohol’ and see what people can pull off.”
Both Fitzgerald and Smith came from Bourbon & Branch, which — along with Manhattan’s Milk & Honey, now called Attaboy — pioneered the speakeasy trend nearly a decade ago. Over Proof aspires to maintain its progenitors’ focus on the integrity of the spirits, but without any of what Fitzgerald calls “stuffiness.” (He cites Bar Agricole as another major influence in that domain.)
When I visited Open Proof, the paper menu — a blue map of Caribbean islands — had Sonic Youth coasters on it, to protect it from the parade of drinks. I posted one on Instagram only to learn they belong to ABV proper, although Fitzgerald assures me that Over Proof will be getting its own, too.
“We kind of like our coaster game,” he says. “We’re working on pulling off some new ones. We love coasters more than napkins. They’re like our business cards.”
A defiant transparency is also key.
Fitzgerald throws a bit of shade at lauded bars that “get awarded the most major awards, and you go in and they offer you a Bacardi daiquiri, and you’re like, ‘You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,’ ” he says. “This is literally probably the worst rum available, and they’re probably paying you to carry it.”
By contrast, Over Proof will carry “a small rum out of Boston that cost us four times as much, makes a way better daiquiri, and supports a distiller who gives a shit and has gone through and tasted 400 different strains of sugar and sugarcane and decided that these are the three different strains she wants to use, because that makes the best rum.”
“That kind of thing, as bar owners, we could support wholeheartedly,” Fitzgerald says. Us, too.
Flip Flop, Mondays through Thursdays, Jan. 23 – April 20, 6:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., $80 At Over Proof, inside ABV, 3174 16th St., 415-400-4738 or abvsf.com