As much as it’s our M.O. to be M.O. (that’s modus operandi is to be masticatively omniscient) we’re not too proud to admit that we don’t know everything. I mean really, how arrogant and unbelievable would it be if we said we were perfect? I can think of at least two—three if you count our incessant use of the first-person narrative—areas where we could use a bit of improvement. For example, we struggle with telling “short” stories, which in today’s digital age is a problem, because being succinct is a sought after skill—and, well, we’re anything but binary. Our second flaw is that we’re not cocktail connoisseurs, which was a shock to my liver, because she knows firsthand how much we like to drink. But our boozey brawn seems concentrated in wine and not spirits! So it should come as no surprise that when grasping at the handlebars of San Francisco’s bustling craft cocktail scene, we called in the big guns.
And our experts of choice were the food sherpas over at Edible Excursions who now offer a bar crawl, I mean, walking cocktail tour, to some of San Francisco’s hottest mixology meccas.
Our tour started with a brief introduction to Quinn, our resident libation expert, in front of our first stop, Cantina—home of the pisco punch. Just outside the bar we got to know our guide—a dead ringer for actor Cory Monteith who played Finn on Glee—and got a sense of what we were in for with regards to drinking, drinking, and more drinking. “Who doesn’t love an excuse to throw a few back on a weekday afternoon?” he asked, and we stepped into the first stop.
Cantina – 580 Sutter St. @ Mason St.
Just off of Union Square, Cantina is a small pisco bar tucked a few meters in from the street. The kind of place you’d miss if you blinked. But once inside, you’re immediately transported to some pirate’s tropical South American fantasy of a saloon that’s been bestowed with the best pisco punch cocktails in San Francisco. Celebrating the liquors of Latin appellations and locally brewed beers, the proprietors behind Cantina pay homage to the “bar environment” throughout history, offering a cultural exchange—much like what’s happening on the streets of San Francisco—through shaken cocktails made solely from premium spirits, homemade bitters, syrups, infusions, and hand squeezed fruit juices. For us, this was embodied in the singularly fantastic pisco punch. Pink in color with a pineapple base, we pursed our lips with each tart sip.
General Manager, Brian DeConinck, greeted us in our own private sitting area in the back with a tray of pisco punches and a bottle of pisco for us to examine. While we asked our questions about where pisco comes from (Chile or Peru typically) and what it’s made of (grapes….like grappa in Italy…it’s a grape brandy) we realized there are tons of different pisco drinks, many of which Cantina’s bartenders can create on the fly. And if you doubted whether or not Cantina takes pride in their product, the owners of the bar actually own the Campo de Encanto Pisco distillery in Peru.
Cafe Royale – 800 Post St. @ Leavenworth St.
Just a few blocks away, was stop number two—Café Royale. This place was taken over by a bunch of young mixologists who were mixing cocktails at some of the best restaurants in SF until they decided to just join forces and open up their own spot; one that’s not pretentious, and is constantly evolving and riffing on the latest trends in craft cocktails and local beers. The interior looks a little rough around the edges, which sort of mimics the grit of its location (perched at the northern edge of the Tenderloin District), but this is all part of the charm of Café Royale, a historic venue with one of the most impressive calendars of live music, comedy, restaurant pop-ups and art. Think of it as a bohemian sanctuary where young professionals and neighborhood locals can enjoy the pulse of the city buzzing by from seats along the floor to ceiling windows to the street, or the more private mezzanine up above. Our group watched the hot (as in sexy) bartender make us one of their signature cocktails (not one they created as much as one they’ve perfected thanks in part to it’s revival brought on by Seattle-based bartender Murray Stenson), a drink from the prohibition era called the “last word.”
A gin-based cocktail, the Last Word has a floral splendor from green chartreuse liquor, and a subtle sweetness from fresh lime juice and maraschino liquor. It’s delicious! And once we got over the hotness of the bartender pouring (hard to tell from my photo, but trust me….he was cute!), we took our drinks to the comfy booth seating in back where our tour guide Quinn was waiting with food.
“It would be criminal if we conducted these tours and didn’t at least give you a little something to nosh on along the way!” he said, unpacking a white plastic bag filled with food wrapped in white paper.
He had a variety of Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches from Saigon Sandwiches (arguably one of the best places for banh mi in San Francisco) on Larkin Street just a few blocks away. He ran and got them fresh, while we listened to the bartender give us the history of the Last Word cocktail, so it was all seamless to us on the tour. Quinn cut the sandwiches in half so we could choose what we wanted: pork, chicken, beef, vegetarian/tofu, and meatballs. It was the perfect bar crawl snack and rejuvenated us for the next stop on our tour.
Rye – 688 Geary St. @ Leavenworth St.
At Rye, a cocktail lounge with a sleek modern-industrial aesthetic of polished wood counters, cool poured concrete floors, exposed brick walls, glass, and black steel; we were greeted by the manager who gave us a little history lesson on the “gimlet.”
The gimlet is essentially any cocktail of vodka, or gin, with lime juice. Gimlets, often called “sours” are simple and potent, but when made correctly, totally drinkable. Rye is known for their amazing basil gin gimlet. And to prove how simple it is to make this drink that’s simultaneously sophisticated and elegant, they gave us the recipe so we could make them at home. Rye is an intimate venue covered in artwork from a local SF artist who is also responsible for the mural on the walls at NOPA (one of our favorite restaurants in San Francisco). It was clear from our short time inside, why this has become a favorite nightspot for locals.
Basil Gimlet (sour)
- 2 oz London Dry Gin
- ¾ oz fresh lime juice
- ½ oz simple syrup
- 3 frsh basil leaves
In a shaker, lightly muddle the basil and add the ingredients and ice and then shake everything vigorously. Fine strain the cocktails into a chilled coup or whatever shape glass you’d like and garnish with a sprig of fresh basil.
Tradition – 441 Jones St. @ O’Farrell St.
The fourth stop on our bar crawl was Tradition, a whisky and bourbon lounge by the same folks who brought us Bourbon and Branch, a modern day speakeasy paying homage to JJ Russell’s Cigar Shop, the actual speakeasy that operated in that same location (a block from Tradition) during 1920’s prohibition. Tradition distills some of their own whiskies in-house and has tons to choose from in their library. Feel free to “geek out” with the malt-obsessed staff and find the perfect selection based on age, smoke, etc.
In keeping up with the “tradition” of the American bar, they’ve got these private booths you can reserve along the side of the main room that can be closed off from the bar so a small group can gather and enjoy food and beverages in private. The backstory we got from Quinn, is that these were originally for women to use, because it was considered uncouth for women to be talking and drinking with strangers (IE: men) in a bar. Back in the day, women used to use these private stalls to enjoy a round of drinks without the lingering looks from the bearded lush across the bar.
One of the managers met our group upstairs at a smaller library bar that overlooks the rest of the venue. Up there, we could see the 100+ mini barrels, bottles and jars of amber-colored libations, the result of a staff that’s been collecting and mixing cocktails for some time.
They made us a round of old-fashioned cocktails consisting of whisky, some bitters, a splash of soda, some sugar, and a lemon peel. To be honest with you, at this point on the tour, I was feeling good and saucy! So it’s possible Tradition’s old-fashioned recipe is slightly different (IE: ice that will melt instead of water or soda), but here’s Esquire Magazine’s recipe that you can modify accordingly.
Jasper’s Corner Tap and Kitchen – 401 Taylor St. @ O’Farrell St.
Our last stop on our San Francisco bar crawl was Jasper’s corner tap and kitchen at the base of the Serrano Hotel. Known for their cocktails “on tap” Quinn wanted us to enjoy some of the innovative ways the bars and mixologists today are serving up cocktails paired with bar bites worthy of the trendiest gastro pubs around. By that time, it was happy hour for the hard working professionals of downtown San Francisco and Jasper’s was bumpin. Thankfully, our tour got the VIP treatment and the staff had reserved several tables for us to gather around. Within seconds they brought us a round of negroni cocktails from the tap, which was the perfect bookend to our boozy afternoon.
Knowing we’d need a little more food to sop up the sauce before they sent us on our way, we got a round of double sliders (angus beef and shropshire bleu cheese topped with a cornichon). I devoured at least two (maybe three) and spent the next hour enjoying the company of my fellow tour mates.
All in all, if you’re looking for a great way to see San Francisco on foot, and you fancy yourself a good stiff drink or two along the way, I highly recommend the Edible Excursion’s craft cocktails tour (aka late afternoon bar crawl). Not only will you get the special VIP treatment that comes with a staff member welcoming you to each stop with delicious craft cocktails ready and waiting, but the food and education you’ll get really adds some depth to this activity.