When scanning a restaurant's cocktail menu, one of the things I try and gauge is how much dialogue is evident between the kitchen and the bar in the drinks. Are there overlaps in flavors or techniques? Is there something there that provides a signature beyond the choices in spirits that grounds it to a common ideal with the cuisine? It may not guarantee a great cocktail, but it usually indicates that at the very least, something interesting will come out.
At Plum Bar, rather than create that bridge with specific ingredients or liquor, Ron Boyd, the Director of Operations for the whole Daniel Patterson Group, is doing something radical: keeping the cocktail menu mostly classics or variations on classics and building the complexity with an extensive cordial and bitters backbar made entirely in house.
This allows Boyd and bar manager Carl Revelle to serve up classics like the Corn & Oil ($10, rum, Aperol, Plum Bar falernum liqueur, lime, Plum Bar aromatic bitters) with flavors tweaked specifically for chef Kim Alter's take on bar food. The drink is lighter than is sounds, but hefty enough to pair up with the bold flavors of the sandwiches and snacks.
The falernum in the drink was the first cordial that Boyd made in-house. During a shortage of the lime and clove liqueur, he decided to try and make his own. The recipe evolved to include a touch of coffee and cacao in it that lends it an earthiness, and yet is so much livelier than the commercial version that it permanently replaced it at the bar. It also ignited a quest to develop what is possibly the largest selection of housemade liqueur and bitters in the Bay Area. It became so large (currently at 15 cordials and infused spirits, four aged cocktails, and 10 varieties of bitters) that Boyd had to hire John Peterson to handle all the production.
Much like you would expect from Plum, everything is made from local ingredients (with the exception of a small handful of botanicals), which creates some challenges for Peterson, but also opportunities to find creative solutions. For example the bitterness from the bight and fragrant Vin d'Orange (a citrus driven fortified wine) comes entirely from orange peels. Boyd and Peterson agree that their spirits are not an effort to duplicate flavors found in commercial products, but rather build on them using local ingredients and customized to their bar. This provides them with another element that allows the drinks to have a sense of place.
Don't miss out on the extraordinary Plum Bar ginger beer, which is easily the best tasting housemade soda I've ever enjoyed. Made in a process that combines cooked and fresh ginger, water, and sugar with a dash of salt, it is the platonic ideal of ginger beer.
You can have it alone ($5) or in their Mule By Any Other Name ($10, vodka, gin, rum, tequila, or bourbon; lime, Plum Bar ginger beer). Whichever way you enjoy it, you're sure to get a kick out of it.
Mule By Any Other Name
2 oz. Liquor of your choice (vodka, gin, rum, tequila, or bourbon)
½ oz. Lime juice
3 oz. Ginger beer (to fill glass)
Combine spirit and lime juice in a Collins glass filled with ice. Top with ginger beer and stir to combine. Serve with a straw.
Plum Bar, 2214 Broadway (at Grand), Oakland, 510-444-7586