After a decade of momentum building for the cult of the craft cocktail in bars across the nation, the pendulum feels like it may be swinging back in the other direction in certain new bars, and the New York Times is sitting up and taking notice. In a piece yesterday they look at bars like Prizefighter in Emeryville, where the vibe is unpretentious, despite the high-end liquor selection, and most of the drinks have only three ingredients, and stick to classic formulas like the daiquiri and the Old Fashioned. They call it “a fresh chapter for high-end mixology,” but local booze scribe Camper English is quick to point out that a movement back toward simplicity may be happening a bit too soon, and at the expense of innovation.
“It’s casual fine drinking, and I get that,” he says. “But after spending the last half-decade convincing consumers to try new cocktails, now bartenders are saying, ‘Stick to the classics.’” We’re observing, though, that the trend has more to do with people’s frustrations about how long it takes to get a drink than it does with concerns about preciousness or over-complication.
At Trick Dog, for instance, you have an innovative list of a dozen original cocktails, none of which could really be mistaken for a “classic,” yet bar owners Josh Harris and Scott Baird are sensitive to the criticisms of having to wait fifteen minutes while one’s order is precisely measured, stirred, and strained. To address that, they added two sections to the menu with drinks that can be served more speedily, allowing you to get your initial buzz on before heading toward the complicated cocktails. One section of highballs features just three choices of two-ingredient drinks, but they reflect the imagination and tastes of the bartenders — they include a terrific combination of aquavit and Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda, and another with Moxie and amaro.
Another section of the menu, which is part of a different trend, is for bottled drinks, which are pre-mixed and served in large-format, 500-milliliter bottles. But they also don’t sacrifice on innovation here, with our favorite being a complex, totally unique, clarified buttermilk punch with bourbon, lemon, orange liqueur, marshmallow root-infused milk, sassafras, and Earl Grey. The milk solids are heated and strained out of the mixture, leaving a strange but addicting tang from the buttermilk, and a faint hint of smooth creaminess to the drink. Bottled cocktails can also be found at Harry Denton’s Starlight Room, 15 Romolo, and elsewhere, and make for an easy option during prime time.
At Jasper’s Corner Tap & Kitchen you’ll always find two three- or four-ingredient cocktails on tap, making for a quick and easy pour over big, hand-cut ice cubes. Similarly at Spoonbar in Healdsburg, alongside a menu of complex creations from bar manager Cappy Sorentino, he’s also batched his own version of the Cuba Libre, using three kinds of rum and house-made cola, which is served on tap.
And at Hi-Lo, bar manager Michael Lazar and consultant Scott Beattie put together an easy but interesting list of pint-glass drinks that are simple to make, but still include some unique additives. The rum punch contains house-made falernum, for instance, and the delicious savory Collins has pickling liquid and tarragon in it.
So, on the one hand, while we agree with Mr. English that we don’t want to see every bar abandon their waistcoats and muddlers, we’re happy that there are options out there for those of us in the mood for something quick and stiff that isn’t a plain old bourbon and ginger.