What happens when Sacramento bartenders are asked to go off menu?

Photo by Shoka

Anna Schaubach of the Shady Lady Saloon prepares a Ramos Fizz

Photo by Shoka

A truly great bartender should have a grasp on the classics—a martini, a Manhattan, a sidecar, et al—yet also be flexible enough to tailor a drink to tippler’s tastes, even if it means creating a cocktail on the fly. Thanks in part to the advent of the Shady Lady Saloon, Sacramento is experiencing a cocktail renaissance of sorts. Within the grid, you’ll now find numerous places to sip fig-chipotle vermouth or watch a bartender spank a naughty sprig of mint. But how to these cocktail alchemists respond to offbeat requests that force them to go off-list. We put four area bars to the challenge—two drinks per establishment—and what follows is an entirely unscientific (and more than a little boozy) attempt to find out which local bartenders can expertly rise to the drinking occasion

Shady Lady

Challenge No. 1 A rye-based cocktail

Result: Bartender No. 1 directs me to the bourbon page of the cocktail list and says she can make a Red Hook Manhattan with either bourbon or rye; she also points out that a Sazerac (which is available on the menu) has rye. I ask, instead, if she can make me an Old Pal with rye, dry vermouth, Campari and an orange twist; she’s not familiar with it, but is game to try. The drink, made with the bar’s well rye (Bulleit), is candy-apple red with a strong citrus flavor and a palate stimulating bitter streak

Challenge No. 2 A fizz cocktail

The only fizz on the Shady Lady menu contains basil—a trendy touch, which is rather uncharacteristic for this retro establishment. I have something more traditional in mind, so bartender No. 2, Anna Schaubach, quickly goes off-list and offers me a Ramos Fizz—a cocktail composed of gin, orange flower water, lime, cream, soda water and pasteurized egg white—which she proceeds to mix expertly. This drink is airy, redolent of lime and flowers, and has that pleasing, chalky texture that the dairy imparts. Other patrons start to buzz as she hands it over, and the man to my right confides that he mixes Silver Fizzes for his family on Christmas Eve.

Ella’s Chris Dooley whips up a Smoking Barrel.

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Knowledge of the classics Perfect for the Ramos Fizz.

Improv skills Game to try, but only when I offered a recipe.

Bonus round Used a Collins glass and Old Tom Gin for the fizz, which is absolutely correct.

Would order again? A Ramos Fizz and a sunny seat on the patio sound like heaven.

Ella Dining Room & Bar

Challenge No. 1 A cocktail made with mescal

I want something really smoky and heady, so bartender Chris Dooley points me toward the smoking barrel—tequila, lime, ginger, mescal and arbol chili cocktail—that’s featured on the menu. I protest, however, that I would rather have a cocktail that’s made solely with mescal—not a mix of mescal and tequila. He wryly posits that mescal is just a variety of tequila. Well, kinda, in that they’re both distilled from agave, but I’m after smoke here. The Smoking Barrel is pleasant, but doesn’t completely live up to its name.

Challenge No. 2 A dessert drink to pair with the restaurant’s vanilla panna cotta

Here, Dooley goes to work, and his mad genius starts to show through. He makes a drink with Punt e Mes, a vermouth made by Carpano that is both bitter and sweet, orange bitters and fino sherry; wine director Joe Vaccaro deems is a “sherry Manhattan.” It’s a deep burnt-orange color with an herbal complexity and a long, dry finish. “I love Sherry,” Dooley proclaims.

Photo by Shoka

Knowledge of the classics Hard to assess, but he mixed my companion a good Old Fashioned.

Improv skills Like a mad scientist

Bonus round The only bartender in town who’s hip to the powers of a dry sherry.

Would order again? The sherry Manhattan and the vanilla panna cotta.

Grange Restaurant & Bar

Challenge No. 1 A cocktail with absinthe

I ask for a Corpse Reviver No. 2, which uses gin, lemon juice, Lillet, Coinreau and absinthe, but bartender No. 1 hasn’t heard of this classic; his cocktail book only has a recipe for Corpse Reviver No. 1, which is totally different. He suggests a Sazerac. He rinses the glass with absinthe, and then adds Woodford Reserve Bourbon—instead of the requisite rye—and bitters. The Bay Area-produced St. George absinthe has a wonderful anise aroma, but the bourbon is cloying and overpowers the drink.

Challenge No. 2 A cocktail made with Chartreuse liqueur

The bar is only stocked with the yellow Chartreuse, which is lower in alcohol and sweeter than the green variety. Bartender No. 2, Pete Tachibana, improvises a drink containing the Chartreuse, Distillery No. 209 gin, and a dash from the largest bottle of bitters I have ever seen, Tempus Fugit Gran Clasico. He sniffs the shaker between each new ingredient until the aroma is right, and then garnishes it with an elegant lemon twist. The resulting drink packs a punch; it’s bracingly bitter and slightly vegetal, with a hint of juniper. I ask if he has a name for the sunshine-yellow drink and he quips, “Jaune.”

Knowledge of the classics Not so good for the first bartender, but Pete Tachibana mixed my companion a variation on a perfect Manhattan.

Improv skills Very impressive

Bonus round Used obscure bitters, intuited that I love gin cocktails

Would order again? The Jaune, if Tachibana is behind the bar

Restaurant Thir13en

Challenge No. 1 A Corpse Reviver No. 2

This time I cut right to the chase and ask for this off-list cocktail by name. The bartender, Brian Botwell (the one and only person staffing this small but well-curated bar), nods and gets to work. The resulting cocktail is the best I’ve had in quite some time. The Swiss-distilled Kübler absinthe has a starring role; it tastes of both pine and black pepper.

Challenge No. 2 Something herbal and bitter

This time, Botwell reaches immediately for the Chartreuse—green this time—and mixes it with Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur, Plymouth Gin, and a squirt of lime juice. The Chartreuse is definitely herbal (it’s distilled with at least 132 plant extracts) and the Luxardo has a bitterness derived from cherry pits, so it fits the bill. I think that Botwell has improvised, but the drink turns out to be a prohibition-era classic called The Last Word.

Knowledge of the classics Excellent; Botwell boasts 19 years worth of experience

Improv skills Hard to tell, he seems to have a classic memorized to satisfy any request

Bonus round Best single cocktail of the challenge

Would order again? Yes, please