The Mixology Madness: Has the Cocktail Movement Exhausted Itself?


With so many of our bartenders gone to New Orleans for the world's premier cocktail forum, I thought I'd take a moment here in SF by taking a look at where this cocktail thing of ours is heading.

In my opinion, the cocktail movement is most significant gastronomic movement in San Francisco of the last several years. It's big, and it's great. We've always been a city that liked to drink, but not always liked to drink well. But things have changed drastically from the era of Herb Caen and Vitamin V, to the days when now-celebrity bartender Tony Abou-Ganim created the Cable Car and ruled the Starlight Room, to Marco Dinoysus' original program at Absinthe, to this very week's opening of an amazing temple to drinks, the Rickhouse.

A lot of the push in the cocktail movement, though, has been in the last few years, as bartenders have flocked en masse to join the bartender's guild and stylish cocktail joints have proliferated throughout the city and restaurants have featured elaborate mixed drinks right alongside wine and food.

Unsurprisingly, it's not just the scene that has amplified in the last decade, but the drinks themselves. Whereas, at most bars, it used to be common to find dour and commercialized spirits collections ranging from Midori to Jim Beam, now bartenders pride themselves on their large collections of unusual spirits (pisco, cachaca, amaro), which they put to good use in ever more baroque drinks.

Now it's not uncommon to find barmen like Neyah White of Nopa, who modulates his drinks with a spice rack of exotic tinctures of his own creation, carrying names such as Sunshine Bitters and Hellfire Bitters. Fresh juicing, once an anomaly, is now de rigeur in this town. Cocktails have become increasingly more obscure, like the Vice Grip at Alembic, which features "Araku coffee rum liqueur, brachetto d'aqui, and porter foam—that's liquor, wine, coffee, and beer all in one glass." And they've become more baroque, forcing customers to wait longer and longer times for their drinks. The new restaurant Wexler's has even made this frequent complaint a badge of honor with its "Five-Minute Julep" cocktail (I have yet to get in there, but am looking forward to trying the food and seeing if the drink is worth five parched minutes.)

But the real question is, what is left to do? Has the cocktail movement ramped up to such a climax in the last couple of years that it's already exhausted itself?

I don't think so. But it has proliferated so vigorously that its novelty and creative energy are beginning to slacken. As far as altitude, how much higher can it go? Not much, I think. Molecular mixology never really took off here, nor do I expect it to (it didn't happen for food)--and that's a good thing, solid cocktails just don't really move me. The complexity and time it takes to make a fancy drinks has intersected with the time people are willing to wait (5 minutes, I guess) for a drink, meaning that things can't get too much more complicated. And homemade bitters, infusions, tinctures and fresh-squeezed juices are so common that no one raises an eyebrow anymore.

So the continued expansion of the modern cocktail movement will be lateral and backward. Backward in the sense of mining the past for styles and trends, as New York has done with its speakeasies. That view is here too, as the vest-sporting bartenders and antique-looking menu at Rickhouse attest, as does the imminent return of high Tiki. The other direction, lateral, is a given. There's always room for another derelict space or skanky dive bar (just, please, not all our skanky dive bars) to be converted by some fervent young soul into the newest temple to aquavit or mezcal or pisco (oh, that's already happened). The more great places to get a drink there are in this city, the happier we all will be, though it will probably mean that the phenomenon of the celebrity "startender" will fade somewhat (no complaints from me there). The fact is, there are still a lot of people ordering Red Bull and vodka, a lot of people to convert to the true pleasure that comes from a delicious, handmade, orginial drink. There are also a lot of bars and restaurants with bad spirits collections--lots of room to grow there. And the lateral vectors have an even longer path to expand once you get outside the borders of San Francisco, which is where many bartenders will ultimately head, spreading the gospel to other corners of the country.

I myself have seen a simplifying reversal in my own drinking habits. When confronted with a fine, creative cocktail menu I'm likely to try one or two things from the list (it is my job, after all). But I'm probably secretly craving a simple, easy classic like a Plymouth gin martini, an Old Fashioned, a Negroni, a Pimm's Cup or even a gin and tonic (as long as it is, ahem, made with Fever Tree). Unoriginal, maybe, but satisfying nonetheless. While all this is fun to think about, I'm not really concerned about the state of the cocktail in this city. Drinking well is about relaxing and having a good time. And that's something SF has never had a problem with.

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