Local Foods Go Drinking

A mix of artisan ingredients and classic recipes is shaking up cocktails in Oakland.

Don’t look now, but the local foods movement has elbowed its way
through the crowd and sidled up next to your seat at the bar. It aims
to seduce by slipping organic citrus zests and small-batch brandy from
Soquel into your grizzled workhorse well drink. Although the Bay Area’s
cup runneth over with educated eaters who demand seasonal, organic, and
artisan foods, the Alice Waters revolution has been surprisingly slow
to transform the stuff that sloshes in our cocktail glasses. We decry
trans fats and corn syrup, and spend Saturday mornings cross-examining
farmers, but throw a couple of Bacardi and Cokes our way, and all of a
sudden we become pretty cheap dates. United by an affection for antique
recipes and methods, a new breed of bar geeks is making it easier to
drink mindfully — no, that’s not an oxymoron — by conjuring
up cocktails that showcase craft spirits, local produce, and handmade
ingredients at a handful of Oakland restaurants.

Sidebar, one of the city’s newest eateries, sells “classicist” and
“locavore” versions of every cocktail on its menu. Jonny Raglin, owner
of Proper Potion Consulting, designed the list. “I wanted to give
people the opportunity to go local if they wanted to. But if they
wanted a regular old Manhattan made with Martini & Rossi sweet
vermouth and Maker’s Mark, then they could have that, too,” he said.
Take the Aviation. Customers can stick with old-fashioned austerity
— Beefeater gin, Maraschino liqueur, and lemon juice — or
try the locavore, with its very particular pedigree of No. 209 Gin from
San Francisco, St. George Spirits Aqua Perfecta Kirsch Eau de Vie from
Alameda, house-made spiced syrup, and Meyer lemon juice. Either one
costs $9.

“It looks like I’m poisoning your drink!” laughed Hana Hayashi, a
bartender at permanently crowded Pizzaiolo. She carefully squeezes an
eyedropper filled with cardamom tincture into a shaker that contains
gin, fresh lime juice, and simple syrup. The resulting pale-green
gimlet looked like any other, but the first sip was full of surprise.
The cardamom’s musky heat smoldered across the tongue for a second
before it was quelled by the lime’s citric tang. Pizzaiolo’s
ever-changing cocktail list includes homemade tonic and various
concoctions that sound more suitable for a Victorian apothecary than a
modern-day Temescal pizza joint. But that’s part of the fun.

The small — and somewhat controversial — cocktail menu
at Camino is also tweaked several times a week. Thad Vogler, the
restaurant’s opening bar manager, wanted to feature small-production
spirits with deep agricultural roots. “I’m not into organics just for
the sake of organics, or local for the sake of local,” he said. Flavor
is the most important factor. “It’s the same as food. The stuff that
tastes best is the stuff that’s made mindfully and not mass-produced.”
Distillers should know where and how their grapes, grain, and sugar
cane are grown, or, better yet, grow the crops themselves. That means
he might select an artisanal French brandy over an industrially made
spirit from Northern California.

The bar uses only local, organic, seasonal citrus, so limes
disappear from the drinks for months at a time. “I was amazed at how
pissed people got,” said Vogler about the menu. “We don’t sell decaf,
we don’t sell Diet Coke. But believe me, we’re nice people. We’re not
trying to be judgmental, but we don’t have any name-brand vodka that
you’re familiar with. Those are massive industrial products.”

Bill Owens is the founder of the American Distilling Institute in
Hayward and a passionate booster of craft distillers. “We’re not a
gigantic corporation with offices in Belgium,” he said. “We have a
different mission: to have you try something that’s made with a labor
of love instead of a computer.” Traditionally, small distilleries made
use of existing agricultural resources — a surplus of apples,
say, or corn — out of sheer necessity. “You do things according
to what you have,” said Owens.

Alameda-based St. George Spirits, maker of Hangar One vodkas and the
Aqua Perfecta line of eaux de vie, is clearly the hometown favorite
when it comes to craft distilleries. But plenty of other world-class
spirits are made in Northern California, especially gin (including
Sarticious from Santa Cruz and No. 209 and Anchor Distilling Company’s
Junípero in San Francisco) and brandy (Germain-Robin near Ukiah;
Osocalis in Soquel). Affordable local whiskey, though, is still hard to
find.

Ask the cocktail cognoscenti about Marian Farms in Fresno, and
you’ll likely hear some swooning. Gena Nonini is a third-generation
biodynamic table-grape farmer who’s been making certified organic
pisco, a type of brandy with South American origins, in a German copper
pot still since 2007. “I’m a farmer first,” she said, “so I’m fortunate
to be able to control the product all the way from the soil to the
glass.” She was already distilling high-proof alcohol from her grapes
for medicinal uses, so entering the beverage business was a relatively
easy step. “They kinda bite you all the way down,” she said of other
piscos. “But our stuff doesn’t do that. It’s smooth.” She’s tapped into
a healthy market in the Bay Area thanks to the enduring popularity of
Pisco Punch, a classic pineapple cocktail that was invented in San
Francisco during the late 1800s.

When she’s not tending bar at the Slanted Door and Heaven’s Dog in
San Francisco, Berkeley resident Jennifer Colliau creates what she
calls “very geeky” cocktail ingredients. Colliau’s year-old company,
Small Hand Foods, specializes in small batches of syrups made with
local and organic fruits. They’re intended to complement
“pre-Prohibition era” recipes, a reference to the golden age of
drinking in the late-19th and early-20th centuries when bartending
technique reached its zenith, and ingredient lists were short and
honest. “I want to drink how I want to eat,” she said, adding that she
trolled farmers’ markets until she could find a good hookup for the
pomegranate juice that she uses in her rich, blood-colored grenadine.
People from all over the country have been calling her to ask how they
can get their hands on a bottle of orgeat, an almond syrup that perks
up tiki drinks like the Mai Tai, or gum syrup, which adds a degree of
viscosity to drinks that regular simple syrup can’t pull off. She makes
a raspberry gum syrup in the summertime. “I originally thought, ‘Oh,
there will be eight bars in the Bay Area that will want this stuff, and
that’s it.’ But I’ve been really blown away by the level of interest,”
she said.

Specialty ingredients aren’t reserved just for the pros. Amateur
mixologists visit shops like Ledger’s Liquors in Berkeley hoping to
find obscure new bottles. Some of them should probably stay obscure. “A
guy just called me looking for bacon vodka,” said owner Ed Ledger. He
makes a point of stocking local and hard-to-find items to help
customers recreate the drinks they’ve tried in bars.

“People’s idea of a cocktail for years and years has been something
with a really silly name that has too much sugar in it and gives you a
headache,” said Scott Beattie, a Healdsburg-based cocktail caterer and
author of Artisanal Cocktails. “It’s only been in the last ten
years that people realized that if you want to make great drinks, you
have to use quality liquor and quality products.”

Quality, of course, rarely comes cheap. But small changes can help
put your money where your mouth is. Learn more about the companies
whose brands you drink. Ask your liquor store to carry artisan
products, and pay a visit your friendly neighborhood distiller for a
tasting. Use organic citrus for wedges, juices, and zests. And take
full advantage of summer’s bounty by infusing your favorite spirit with
late-season local berries or stone fruits. Once you taste the good
stuff, you might not want to go back.

Fig-Infused Gin

1 cup quartered Black Mission or Brown Turkey figs (use Black
Mission for better color)

2 cups Anchor Distilling Company Junípero Gin

½ bunch fresh thyme

Place figs in glass jar and add gin. Seal tightly and place in a
darkened spot for two weeks. One day before serving, add the thyme to
the jar. Continue to infuse for another 24 hours. Strain gin through
cheesecloth before using.

When Figs Fly

Jonny Raglin of Proper Potion Consulting recommends Gloria Ferrer
sparkling wine to keep this drink local.

1.5 oz. Fig-Infused Gin

1 tablespoon superfine sugar

Chilled Champagne, Prosecco, or other sparkling wine

1 sprig fresh thyme

Combine gin and sugar in a shaker with ice and mix vigorously.
Strain into a flute and top with Champagne. Garnish with sprig of
thyme.

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