There's a growing trend among higher end cocktail establishments to offer lower-alcohol, aperitif-style cocktails alongside more high-octane options – perfect for the casual weeknight dinner, when you're not looking to leave the place super buzzed. But several spots around town are taking the trend one step further by offering three-course cocktail tastings, graduating from easy-sipping aperitifs to spiritous lowballs and digestifs.
TBD, the six-month-old restaurant from the AQ team, offers a selection of "loophole" cocktails – since they don't have a full liquor license, they need to keep things under 24 percent alcohol. These include a "Negroni" made with juniper fino sherry, sweet vermouth, and Peychaud's bitters; and a beer cocktail made with barrel-aged stout, oloroso sherry, and Angostura bitters. Plus, any of these could serve as a precursor to a full-fledged drink at AQ next door.
At the new Gaspar Brasserie, opening Thursday, May 22 in the former Hecho/Midi space at 185 Sutter Street, barmeister Kevin Diedrich is serving a half-dozen French-inspired aperitifs and champagne cocktails in addition to a regular, brandy-driven cocktail menu.
Places like the six-month-old Range spinoff, Third Rail, clearly break out their cocktail offerings in menu sections: Aperitif, Seasonal, Citrus, and Spiritous. For aperitifs you have things like the Preview, made with Prosecco, grapefruit, lime, and aquavit; and the inventive Spotlight, with Manzanilla sherry, pear brandy, ginger liqueur, and celery bitters. You could move on to something seasonal like the Envy (gin, kiwi, tarragon, genepy, tonic), and finish the night with a Double Date (date-infused rye, whiskey, sweet vermouth, amaro, and cinnamon bitters).
At the three-year-old bar-within-a-bar Wilson & Wilson (inside Bourbon & Branch, but with its own separate reservation system), there's been a three-course prix fixe structure from the outset – it's $30 if you want all three, otherwise the drinks are $12 individually. For aperitifs they mix things like the delicious Red Scarab, made with Applejack, Lillet Blanc, lemon, brown sugar cinnamon syrup, hibiscus tincture, and sparkling wine. The "mains" include the Skull Island Sour, with Pampero Anniversario rum, lemon, orange-honey syrup, egg white, sarsparilla bitters, and butterscotch tincture. And my favorite digestif among several rotating choices is the Hard Boiled, made with Hayman’s Old Tom Gin, Laird’s apple brandy, Zucca amaro, Cardamaro amaro, and cinnamon-infused orange bitters.
On the current menu at Trick Dog, you could fashion a three-course experience starting with one of their low-octane options on the back of the menu, like the Pink Moon, made with Dolin Blanc vermouth, creme de banana, orgeat, and lime juice. You could move on to one of the unique highballs, like one made with Ancho Reyes chile liqueur and prickly pear soda. And finish things off with one of the astrology-themed drinks on the main menu, like the spicy and spirit-driven Aries, made with mezcal, chile liqueur, rum, Pedro Ximenez sherry, and black tea bitters.
Committing to three cocktails, especially on an empty stomach, probably isn't advisable for most non-professional drinkers, at least not on a school night. But the next time you're in search of liquid dinner – or a great way to break the ice on a second or third date – you may want to sign up for one of the boozy programs above. It's not a bad way to spend a couple hours, and it's obviously more fun than drinking three of the same thing like you usually would.