It was a hot Saturday afternoon in Midtown, and the best place to be was inside a bar. Watch the world. Stay cool. Have a cold wine or a frosty beer.
That’s what Calveanor and Nancy Claiborne were doing at the old Capital Dime (soon to be Saddle Rock) on L Street. Sort of. Bartender Elli Fischer handed them pale white cocktails in old-school, flat Champagne-style glasses called coupes. The sides of the glass had condensation beads.
“Try this,” Fischer said. “I’ve been working on it. Help me out. Tell me what you think.”
The Claibornes sipped. They looked at each other, then sipped again. Nancy nodded. Calveanor looked surprised.
“I’m more of a sweet-drink guy,” he said. “I felt the tart at first, and was anticipating the bite—but it never came. It was smooth all the way, and something herbal and citrus-y finished it off great.
“I would never think to order this, but I will now.”
That right there is a snapshot of Sacramento’s ballooning, enthusiastic, oddly intelligent and surprisingly deep cocktail scene. It seems like everyone plays along. Young people have old-fashioned interests. Folks have sophisticated home bars. Even beer and wine drinkers are engaged. And, maybe most of all, it’s welcoming to beginners, nondogmatic and toweringly unsnooty—far more than any recent culinary drinking trend, including coffee, beer, juices and probably even bottled water.
The local cocktail scene is also getting big national attention, yet it remains almost under the radar here. That’s partly because it evolved in step with the rest of the region’s culinary awakening, and partly because cocktail folk aren’t chest beaters or self-promoters—not any more, not the good ones. And they are surely not “mixologists.” Do not call them mixologists. They are, simply and stupendously, bartenders.
More on that, but first back to the main point: Sacramento’s cocktail scene has taken off like an Atlas rocket. Or maybe the better metaphor is a Cal Expo fireworks display.
“It’s a full-scale explosion,” said Jayson Wilde, who runs the bar at the new Bottle & Barlow on R Street and managed the highly regarded Bourbon & Branch in San Francisco.
“It’s unrecognizable from what it was just a few years ago,” said Joe Anthony Savala, former general manager at Zocalo and co-founder of Sacramento Cocktail Week. “It’s also got a very Sacramento personality.”
Some of that personality was there at the soon-to-be Saddle Rock bar. Almost any spot in the city with a bar has some version of craft cocktails, with bartenders constantly trying to improve and inventing new drinks (Fischer’s used absinthe, aromatics and other secrets for the moment). The noncocktail regulars talk comfortably about what they’re tasting. And it is sooo friendly.Service. Service. Service.
Here’s another example, from a recent Friday night at Shady Lady Saloon, ground zero for Sacramento’s cocktail culture: Two relative beginners—OK, me and my wife, Deborah Meltvedt—were at the busy bar. Bartender Anna Schaubach came to help. We put ourselves in her hands. I asked for something savory; Deborah wanted refreshing but definitely not sweet.
Schaubach came back with a Cilantro Smash for me in a lowball glass—parts tequila, yellow Chartreuse, lime juice, ginger syrup, orange bitters, a pinch of salt and a sprig of cilantro. It smelled fresh and herbal, wove through layers of fruit, herbs and umami; and the salt at the end spiked all the flavors just like with food.
She gave Deborah a Horse’s Neck in a tall glass, a ragingly popular drink at Shady Lady that included bourbon, bitters, ginger syrup and a lemon peel. Even before I noticed, Schaubach was back talking to Deborah.
“I can see you’re not loving your drink,” Schaubach said. “Try this one.”
She gave her a new drink, something called a Ward Eight, with bourbon, orange juice, lemon and grenadine. Schaubach chose a bourbon that added a dusty, almost malty undertone with no hint of sweet. This one Deborah was loving.
So, you imagine the perfect bar service—perceptive, attentive, creative and totally approachable, even for novices—and that’s what you find at Shady Lady and many other spots around town.
Welcome to Sacramento.
“That’s our job as bartenders,” Schaubach said. “We want you to have a good time. You don’t have to know anything. We love it when we can walk you through the history of a cocktail, or when someone says, ’Choose something for me.’ But we know lots of people just want their drink.”
That same night, Greg Hayes, a longtime Sacramento public relations guy, and Argelia León, a communications pro, were at the bar ordering drinks from Carl Wenger, the general manager. Hayes is a gin man and wanted a martini. Wenger offered tastes to choose the gin, but Hayes waved him off. He explained why.
“I have so much confidence in Carl,” Hayes said. “I defer to him on the gin. He’s the craftsman.”
A few minutes later, Hayes and León got their drinks. Hayes sipped his martini. For a moment, he disappeared somewhere, a distant, happy look on his face. “That’s why I trust him,” Hayes said when his consciousness settled back at the bar.
But Wenger and Hayes earlier had talked about another gin. Wenger moved back and forth behind the bar serving drinks, and when he passed the group, Hayes said to him, “I’ll try that one later.” Maybe a minute passed. Wenger zipped over and handed Hayes a taste, anyway.
“See that,” León said. “Where else do you see that? They asked what I like and don’t like, they even asked my name.”
That moment is another snapshot. That kind of service is what defines the region’s cocktail culture, though locals almost take it for granted.
“People don’t really think about it here, but Sacramento’s reputation is for a fun and very hospitable cocktail scene,” said Brad Peters, the beverage director of the Paragary Restaurant Group. He’s also the president of the Sacramento chapter of the U.S. Bartenders Guild, which in 2014 was the fastest-growing in the nation.
That rep includes praise from the San Francisco Chronicle, Sunset magazine, Playboy, Chilled magazine, Thrillist and a major story in Imbibe magazine, a bible of America’s drinks culture. Esquire magazine called Shady Lady one of the top 25 bars in America. There’s more. Over and over, besides the general kudos, the recurring theme was, “Holy hospitality, Batman, these people are friendly.”
“It fits who we are,” Peters said. “This is a grown-up, urban city, but we still slow down and pay attention to everything food and drink. We’re an artistic community, and we’re craftsman oriented. Also, we’re a genuinely friendly place.”The history: slow, then boom!
America’s modern cocktail culture—after Prohibition, the Depression and a World War—was relatively simple for decades. The 1950s and ’60s were pretty much what Mad Men showed, minus the volume. Bourbon and martinis ruled the bars, and flair most often translated to olives, lemon or a maraschino cherry.
Come the ’70s and ’80s, American drinkers developed a collective sweet tooth. It was an era of daiquiris, Long Island iced teas, piña coladas and bartenders who wanted to be Tom Cruise from Cocktail. The ’90s and into the next century, the drink style was lemon drops, flavored vodka drinks and the Cosmo. Plus, there was the mighty margarita. That’s the launch pad for Sacramento.
By the early 2000s, America’s foodie fascination had begun (pushed as much by the Food Network as any other force, as ignoble as that may be), and a few restaurants competed for curious eaters with more than just good wine lists. They also offered creative cocktails with fresh ingredients. In 2000, in Sacramento, there was precisely one doing that: Centro Cocina Mexicana.
Chris Tucker, a Sacramentan who also worked in the Bay Area, took over as bar manager for what was one of Sacramento’s trendiest restaurants.
“Randy [Paragary] and Kurt [Spataro] had already established a bar program when I got there,” said Tucker, who now runs the bar at Hook & Ladder Manufacturing Co. “They’d opened with great fanfare [in 1996], but some attention had dropped off. So they embraced fresh juices and top tequilas and, later, infusions (fruit, or savory foods like bacon, macerated in spirits). That was a huge commitment, and we were the only ones doing it.”
The drinks, especially the margaritas, were hugely popular. Restaurant and bar insiders noticed. Next came Zocalo in 2004. When Joe Anthony Savala took over that bar, he and his star bartender, Eric Castro, added another layer to the complexity of their drinks.
“It started with the Mexican restaurants in town,” said Peters, who worked for Tucker for a time. “Was it because they were Mexican restaurants, or was it Chris and Joe Anthony? Either way, it worked.”
Then came Ella Dining Room & Bar in 2006, with people like bar manager Chris Dooley and bartender Rene Dominguez. That became another spot where bartenders could learn from each other and work on their craft.
“A few of use were driving down to San Francisco on weekends to get educated,” Savala said. “The group of people who were learning was starting to grow here, but it was slow at first.”
By then, the term “mixologist” had worked into the culture, and some bars around the country were stepping up the quality and variety of spirits and ingredients. But Sacramento had only a few.
One reason was that Sacramento had no profit motive for craft cocktails. Alcohol sales were already profit centers for restaurants, and bars in the region were doing fine. “It was the classic, ’If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’” Tucker said. “Owners didn’t want to invest in something that would just sit there. That’s a lot of money on the shelf.”
But there were a few. L Wine Lounge & Urban Kitchen opened in 2007, with Tucker behind the bar. Lounge on 20 opened in 2008 with a cocktail focus led by Russell Eastman.
That’s when Savala and Castro hit on creating Midtown Cocktail Week. It was less a marketing device than a chance to bring in great bartenders, have them run classes for Sacramento folk and stage competitions to push everyone and spread the culture.
“It made lots of people aware of what we could do,” Tucker said. “And it got a lot of our customers interested.”
Then came two parallel forces that turned this slow cocktail evolution into that explosion. The broad one was Sacramento’s food sensibilities. In the past decade, diners here have really, really gotten into food, and the farm-to-fork mentality was surging before it became an official title.
If this region runs behind the San Franciscos and New Yorks in hypermodern cooking techniques, it’s as focused on quality products—food and drink—as anywhere in America, something even Alice Waters has said a number of times.
“Cocktails grew on the coattails of slow food and the foodie interests,” Tucker said.
So foodies caused the business need for restaurants to invest in quality spirits and cocktails. Customers responded to that, then demanded it. At first, quality cocktails, just like wine and, more recently, craft beer, were a way to stand out. Then, as more and more restaurants performed behind the bar, others didn’t want to get left behind.
That’s the slower, environmental push on the cocktail scene. The other force was more of a big bang, and it came from one spot on R Street: Shady Lady.
“We planned it for about two years,” said Garret Van Vleck, who owns Shady Lady with Jason Boggs and Alex Origoni. “We traveled up and down the West Coast. We wanted to see emerging trends, what worked, what wasn’t cool. We did lots of research looking at old cocktail books.”
In 2009, pure bars in Sacramento tended toward neighborhood-y, dive-y or clubs. Van Vleck and his partners were planning to open a very large bar that was, well, a bar.
“Plenty of people told us we were stupid,” he said. “We couldn’t necessarily argue with them.”
They opened in March 2009. “I thought we’d be this quiet cocktail place,” Van Vleck said. “The first night we opened, there was a line around the corner.”
Maybe the people who were most excited were other bartenders.
“It gave me a chance to work with Ryan Seng [now at Grange], Matt Nurge [now a partner in Red Rabbit], all kinds of great, creative people,” Tucker said. “We were learning together. It was like grad school.”
Bartenders came in hours before their shifts or on days off to concoct new cocktails and experiment on each other.
“I’d get there midafternoon, and we would have a crowd behind the bar,” Van Vleck said.
Many of those bartenders are now spread throughout the grid and the region. And they’ve spread that collegial, incubator mentality of bartenders teaching bartenders.
“The cocktail scene is really just helpful,” said Nikki Muth, a Zocalo veteran now tending bar at Tank House. “It’s not conceited, it’s not contentious, it’s not boisterous. Everyone in it is friends.”
“We came up in the same places,” Van Vleck said. “We all want each other to do well. It really is a community.”
That community contributes to the calling card of Sacramento’s cocktail culture: service.The secret’s behind the bar
If the Food Network helped kickstart America’s culinary fascination, food media’s ever-escalating quest for flash has also done some psychic damage to the culture. It gave us celebrity chefs, ultra-minutia-oriented food judges, and, maybe most horribly, its pumped-up notion of “mixologists.”
The name goes back to the 1800s, but by the turn of this century, it mixed equal parts Hollywood wannabe, self-important circus act and wine-snob-type elitist. That was then. Now, all bartenders worth their bitters cringe at the word.
“In the bar world,” said Peters, “that’s below bartender. Anyone can mix drinks. Where Sacramento excels is we have a lot of good bartenders.”
“Mixologist sounds so puffy and so easy,” Tucker said. “They’re not tending bar, not making a guy feel comfortable after a rough day, not putting someone in a cab at the end of the night, not helping people have a good time.”
The mixologist prototype went through a fairly fast evolution, from club-scene bombast at the start of the cocktail rebirth to a too-hip-for-hipsters mode more recently. Part of that act was to roll their eyes at some drink orders, especially drinks made with vodka. Vodka was considered uncool because it has less taste than other spirits and because it was popular.
“We’d get two drinks orders at Bourbon & Branch,” said Wilde. “One would be gin, one would be vodka, and some guys would make them both gin.”
The worst of them just refused to make some drinks, like, say, Long Island iced teas.
“How dumb is that?” Tucker said. “Someone wants to buy a $10 drink from you, shut up and serve them.”
When Wilde began managing Bourbon & Branch three years ago, he got a figurative face slap, as did lots of bartenders around then. They heard the “P” word.
“People said to me, ’Oh, you work at the pretentious bar,’” Wilde said. “I said, ’They just care about what they do.’ But people were right. I talked to staff and said, ’We’re bartenders, the last thing we ever want is someone to say we’re pretentious.’”
“That mixologists, startender thing was growing pains,” said Red Rabbit’s Matt Nurge. “People forgot their roots. But it didn’t last, because that’s not what good bartenders are.
“A really great thing has been that, along with the growth of craft cocktails, there has been the rebirth of service and the pride in being a bartender. It’s not our customers’ job to know everything, or anything, about cocktails. That’s my job.”Cocktails, everywhere!
When Bottle & Barlow opened last month, the crowd of enthusiasts at one of the celebrations was surprisingly varied. There was, for instance, Alina Cervantes. Her husband is Simon de Vere White, an owner of de Vere’s Irish Pub.
“I’m married to an Irishman with a pub. For years, I’d never seen most of these drinks,” Cervantes said. “The first time I saw someone light a flame to get smoke into a drink, I thought, ’Is it some kind of ritual?’ But now I love it all.”
Amber Stott was there. She’s the founder of the Food Literacy Center. She had an Old Fashioned in her hand.
“One of my favorites,” she said. “It’s fun that we’re drinking my grandma’s drink. It’s a little nostalgic, and it’s a great cocktail. It’s not just me, I talk to so many people who like the connections of their drinks just like with food.”
And Stott, one of the region’s leading food educators, admits to a long-held jones for good spirits. “When we got married,” she said, “one of first things we did was stock the bar.”
Simply enough, the cocktail culture is widespread and woven deep, though it may be the quietest piece of Sacramento culinary zeitgeist, maybe because many people, like Stott, dived in at home.
“Customers are way more savvy than they used to be,” said Muth at Tank House. “Sometimes they teach me things. And people want to know where everything came from, what’s the story on all the spirits.”
That’s why craft cocktails are also a key piece of so many restaurants’ menus. It’s not just Ella. It’s Grange and Lucca and Press Bistro and Hock Farm and Goldfield and everywhere. Dan Mitchell, one of the region’s most respected bartenders, has been a stalwart for years at the small bar at Mulvaney’s B&L, a place better known for wine. The list goes on.
And it’s not just the grid. In spots like Berkley Bar at Pavilions, bartender Tim Rogers is as enthusiastic about the craft of drinks, and is as eager to talk about spirits and cocktail history as any bartender in town.
At Hilltop Tavern in East Sacramento, the dictionary definition of a neighborhood bar, there’s a craft-beer focus, but still people want their cocktails to have top-grade spirits.
“This is more a shot-and-a-beer place,” said Amy Anderson, there for happy hour on a recent Thursday. “But they have a great whiskey selection and it better be a shot of something good.”
The shot-and-beer order is still big everywhere, as are margaritas and other nationally popular drinks like Negronis, Manhattans, Moscow Mules and, sorry mixologists, vodka drinks and Long Island iced teas. Sacramento’s particular tastes, bartenders said, include martinis from top-grade gin, Tiki drinks—“It’s instant vacation,” said Tucker, “and it fits our weather.”—and the Old Fashioned, a canon of a drink, as Peters called it.
Two particularly high-profile drinks were born here. One is the legendary White Linen featuring elderflower liquor and gin. It was invented by Dominguez at Ella and is now found nationwide. The other is the Krakow Salt Mine, which combines bison grass vodka, apple cider and ginger beer. Red Rabbit’s Nurge invented that one.
“We get people in who tell me, ’We had this great drink in Roseville. Do you know how to make a Krakow Salt Mine?’” Nurge said.
At Red Rabbit on a recent Thursday night, bartender Rob Mason kept getting variations on that question, with requests for changes and tweaks or something entirely new. Regulars Jake Massa and Coco Currie said “dealer’s choice” at one point and got one of Mason’s inventions, a gin-based cocktail he called Tickle Your Fancy. Clyde Moore, a longtime friend of Mason’s, wanted something like a Pimm’s Cup, but different.
“Make me something unique,” he told Mason.
When Mason delivered the drink, Moore sipped slowly and sat still for a moment.
“Pretty much perfect,” Moore said.
“Just let me know,” Mason said, “if you decide that doesn’t work for you.”
And there you have one last snapshot of Sacramento’s cocktail scene: Everyone talks about the drinks, but it’s really about the bartending.