Shaking up Sacramento’s cocktail scene
Instagram and talented bartenders stir up excitement in the local mixology industry
When did Sacramento’s cocktail scene arrive? Was it when Lou Bustamonte wrote that “Sacramento was built for cocktails” in the San Francisco Chronicle this August? When Cocktail Week launched in 2008? Or when Paragary’s opened in 1983?
Joe Anthony Savala, co-founder of Sacramento Cocktail Week, says the industry leveled up when our best bartenders stopped moving to larger markets—and instead honed their craft here. He cites Jayson Wilde, who worked at Shady Lady, ventured to San Francisco to manage the renowned bar at Bourbon & Branch, then moved back to open Bottle & Barlow in 2015.
“The biggest thing that has changed is that bartenders are staying in Sacramento and developing the cocktail scene, which rivals Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles,” Savala says.
Sacramento has its advantages, including camaraderie and local produce for garden-to-glass creations.
“Bartenders call each other for ideas,” Savala says. “It’s not like that in other cities. The information is proprietary and they keep things to themselves like it’s a secret. Sacramento isn’t like that.”
Though the bartender scene has long been cozy, it hadn’t always locally sourced its ingredients. Savala remembers switching over to using fresh lime juice in margaritas at Zócalo in the mid-aughts. Other bartenders were taken aback.
“They would taste the fresh juice and the light would kick off: ‘I can make a cocktail with a fresh juice—and the juice changes everything,’” he recalls. Many cocktails use a sour element, and crisp produce enlivens the interplay between sour fruit and bitter alcohol.
These days, bartenders are responding to a superficial trend: Instagram. Wacky glasses or elaborate garnishes vie to become social-media sensations. And some of them are. The Jungle Bird’s tiki glasses and luau decor have inspired 159 Instagram location-tagged posts in the month of August alone, starting with the image of a lone man behind a $100 bucket of booze that’s shaped like a giant flamingo.
There’s a plus side to the Insta-madness: Consumers know their Luxardo from their Amaretto.
“The cocktail climate has really changed where your consumers at your bars are really educated on spirits and social media,” Savala says. “Bartenders have to be extremely well-versed because customers have educated themselves. The game has really changed.”
If anything, Savala would like to see Sacramento consumers become more knowledgeable and adventurous. Don’t just order a whiskey soda—say you like brown liquors and ask the bartender for their suggestions, he says. Curious patrons enable mixologists to broaden their skills and earn a living all at once.
That’s where Cocktail Week comes in. This September 10-16, liquor lovers can attend a packed lineup of free and ticketed events, including watching a documentary on Peruvian pisco and its ties to California while sipping on pisco sours, or sampling an amuse bouche-and-cocktail pairing inspired by a David Garibaldi painting.
“Cocktail week isn’t about going out and being irresponsible,” Savala says. “It’s the art of the cocktail and being educated.”
For more inspiration for your urbane imbibing and—let’s be honest—social-media posts, we’ve snapped 20 of the best and most visually arresting cocktails around town. Pinkies up, cameras out. -@R.H.