Revenge of the cocktail challenge
SN&R’s resident drink expert dares local bartenders to mix up a glass of boozy excitement
This is truly an exhilarating era in Sacramento for boozehounds. Each year, we get an off-the-hook cocktail week in August, and the city also boasts an increasingly interconnected network of artisan bartenders who are inspiring each other to rise to the next level.
The last few months have also seen the opening of The Golden Bear offshoot Hook & Ladder Manufacturing Co., as well as the whiskeycentric Pour House. Even though it’s only been nine months since SN&R’s last cocktail challenge, the scene’s changed quite a bit since then. In fact, it’s grown so rapidly that it seems natural to take on Cocktail Challenge 2: The Revenge of the Cocktail Challenge. The format is the same as last time: four area bars, two drinks per establishment, bonus points for creativity. And, as always, the ratings and challenges posed here are arbitrary and playful in spirit.The Golden Bear
Challenge No. 1: “I’ve had a terrible day. Make me a cocktail.”
The result: The husky-voiced bartender here is not exactly quick to serve me—she waits on a couple of friends first, but when she does finally get around to me, she happily takes on my request. She asks if I want The Golden Bear’s interpretation of a Manhattan cocktail—this strong classic is one of my favorites and is sure to take me away better than Calgon ever could. She moves at a leisurely pace, adding the nice touch of singeing the orange peel to bring out the aromatics. However, the sweet vermouth is too prominent here, and the bartender uses Jack Daniel’s whiskey. When I left my 20s behind, that included any desire for Jack Daniel’s or Jim Beam to ever touch my lips again.
Challenge No. 2: “I’ve had a great day. Make me a cocktail.”
The result: This time, a different bartender is instantly attentive, and laughingly asks my friend if he would like the same “weird order” that I just put in. She mixes up a drink on the menu called the Kentucky Buck. The strawberry simple syrup makes it taste like a girly umbrella drink sans umbrella, and it’s way more summery than wintry. Also, it’s made with Jim Beam (see statement above). However, it is exuberant enough to commemorate a good day.
Knowledge of the classics: Yes, with the Manhattan.
Improv skills: Seemed resistant.
Bonus round: Er, negative bonus points for charging me for a drink that a gentleman down the bar bought me.
Order again?: No to both.Pour House
Challenge No. 1: “I hate Scotch cocktails. Make me one I’ll like.”
The result: The bartender makes me a Whiskey Fig. The drink is very light and lemony—with just a hint of Scotch smokiness. Still, it seems a shame to use 12-year-old Glenfiddich Single Malt Scotch Whisky when its taste is subsumed by fig jelly and citrus.
Challenge No. 2: “Make me your favorite classic Scotch cocktail.”
The result: The bartender chooses a Rob Roy and makes it with the bar’s house Scotch, Famous Grouse. It’s served in a big martini glass and is oddly watery and not cold enough—as if it had been sitting in the shaker for a bit.
Knowledge of the classics: Good choice with the Rob Roy, not-so-great execution.
Improv skills: Defaulted to a list when handed an open-ended challenge.
Bonus round: Pour House also serves a drink called Burnt Apple, for which they smoke the apple for up to nine hours—a method that gives it a campfire-esque caramel note. They’re not screwing around.
Order again?: Overall, I’d rather just sip a fine Scotch with a single ice cube, and Pour House has the best selection in town.Hot Italian
Challenge No. 1: “Make me a drink with any amaro (an Italian herbal liqueur) except Fernet Branca.”
The result: I ask for a non-Fernet drink because it’s overused and is the least subtle of the amaros—which are not exactly subtle to start with. The bartender makes a cocktail of his own creation that he calls a Daytona and says if it eventually ends up on the restaurant’s menu, it’ll probably get an Italian name. It’s made of Averna, rum, ginger syrup, Angostura Bitters and a squeeze of lime. The Averna has a strong savoriness with licorice and Worcestershire flavors. I taste the drink and like it but ask for more Amaro, which improves its strength and flavor.
Challenge No. 2: “Make me the most Italian drink you can think of.”
The result: The bartender grabs the Campari and says he was going to go for a Negroni, but since this is at brunch he’s thinking a Campari spritzer instead. He mixes it with Prosecco and another bartender slicing limes nearby suggests peach nectar. Finished with a slice of orange on top, it’s both pretty and refreshing. The peach really softens the Campari flavor, which can often be overpowering.
Knowledge of the classics: Suggesting a Negroni for the ultimate Italian cocktail is pretty spot-on.
Improv skills: Impressive in both challenges.
Bonus round: The bartender really mixed to the vibe of the two visits: strong aperitif before a pizza dinner; sparkly, light drink for brunch.
Order again?: Yes, and I plan to with the Daytona.The Red Rabbit Kitchen & Bar
Challenge No. 1: “Make me something creative with tequila.”
The result: The server asks, “Tequila or mescal?” as if she can sense that mescal might be the perfect thing here. She then brings me the bartender’s take on a classic paloma in a highball glass. It features a strong, smoky top note of mescal, with grapefruit juice, soda and a lemon twist. It’s a little citrusy and a little sweet, which slightly tempers the mescal but doesn’t totally tame it.
Challenge No. 2: “Make me a tropical rum cocktail that’s actually good.”
The result: This challenge comes with a caveat—“actually good” means “as in, not made with Malibu Rum.” The server replies, almost shuddering, “We don’t have Malibu.” Fair enough. The bartender mixes me a “classic strawberry daiquiri,” which is simply rum, strawberries and lime. Here, the “actually good” part is found in the wallop it packs. Even better, another bartender starts rhapsodizing about an artisanal whiskey blended with peated Scotch, made by High West Distillery & Saloon in Utah. I call out for one of my own, poured over a single rock of ice. It’s smooth and smoky.
Knowledge of the classics: Unimpeachable.
Improv skills: Substituting mescal for tequila is a master stroke.
Bonus round: I finally got to say, “I’ll have what he’s having!” when I ordered the High West Whiskey, thus fulfilling a lifelong dream.
Order again?: F@#k yeah.