Bar Review: Pagan Idol, San Francisco

025

For years, San Franciscans have had one primary spot for tiki drinks: Smuggler’s Cove. Now a new temple to rum and tropical fruit juices has opened: Pagan Idol.

Pagan Idol is part of the Future Bars group, which owns Rickhouse, Bourbon & Branch, and other high-end bars. Pagan Idol fits right in, taking the tiki theme to its hilt.

Step inside and you enter a shipwreck-themed front room, complete with LCD underwater scenes playing out in the “portholes.” Step up a small staircase and you’re onto the “forbidden island,” complete with spooky totems, a starlit sky, and a flowing, LED volcano.

The focus is of course on drinks, and Pagan Idol has all the classics and then some — many spun with a slight twist. Maybe Grog is a twist on Navy Grog, mixing up three rums, lime, spices, and a rock candy stick into a dangerously drinkable cocktail with a racy edge. The Witch Doctor is served in a classic tiki mug — rum, lime, passion fruit, spices, egg white, and “ancient curse.” Heavy on the spice, the egg white turns it into a sort of pirate slushie.

Banana Life is a fun drink that focuses on, yes, bananas, and is even garnished with plantain chips. As an alternative to a dull banana daiquiri, it’s a nice little concoction. Of course, you can’t go wrong with Pagan Idol’s Mai Tai — nicely heavy on the almond orgeat, with strong orange notes thanks to a good slug of triple sec.

Naturally, Pagan Idol has plenty of “bowl” drinks for groups, and you’ll find many, many people partaking of giant troughs of rum and juice, complete with floating flowers or set on fire. Never have I seen so many grown men walking around with oversized straws… and such big smiles on their faces.

paganidol.com

Bar Review: Bar Mia, San Francisco

002

There are whiskey bars. There are rum bars. There are even vodka bars. Bar Mia is the first amaro-focused bar that I can recall ever visiting.

Housed in San Francisco’s Mission District, Bar Mia only just opened, the libation side of Nostra Spaghetteria, the Italian-focused eatery which it shares space with. Under the direction of barmeister Adam Mardigras (his real name!) — that’s him with his back turned in the photo — Bar Mia has taken an Italian classic, amaro, and built a line of cocktails around them. If you’re not into the bittersweet stuff (what’s wrong with you?), there’s a number of delightful, non-amaro cocktails on the list too. (I highly recommend the Cable Car Sour, with bourbon, Benedictine, green Chartreuse, falernum, and kumquat juice.)

Mardigras recently took us on a trip through the amaro cocktails on the list, on the first Friday Bar Mia was open. His goal: Offer a little something for everyone, but spin cocktails in a slightly different direction.

Case in point: the Cold & Foggy, a distinctly San Francisco cocktail that spins the Dark & Stormy by mixing ginger beer, lemon juice, and IPA beer with an Averna float. The hoppy notes in the beer work a lot better with the ginger and bittersweet amaro than you’d think — but it’s the candied ginger garnish that really caps off a neat drink.

If you like your cocktails much more amaro focused, try the Fernet me Not, which blends Jameson, Fernet Angelico, Averna, ginger liqueur, egg white, and orange bitters to create a foamy, Fernet-driven, slightly gingery concoction that looks positively beach-like. Another solid beverage with a heavier amaro weighting is the Monkeys in Manhattan, a spin on the Manhattan that uses Monkey Shoulder scotch, nonino, and Fernet Branca to create a big, menthol-driven, slightly smoky concoction that will likely knock more than one patron on his ass in short order.

I save the best for last, and that’s Mardigras’ crowning cocktail achievement, The Night Cap. An avowed after-dinner drink, it blends spiced rum, amaretto, chocolate-chili syrup, and amaro with a Port-infused coffee, topped with whipped cream. Decadent and addictive, it isn’t overdone in any of its constituent elements, the coffee balanced by chocolate-covered cherries and a hint of bitter edge. It’s the best White Russian meets Hot Buttered Rum meets Irish Coffee you’ve ever had, I promise.

nostrasf.com

Review: The Exclusive Malts Batch #8 – Speyside 1991, Invergordon 1984, Balmenach 2007, North Highland 1995, Irish 2002, Laphroaig 2005

exclusive malts

It’s quite a mixed bag in The Exclusive Malts’ latest batch, which includes a single grain release, two unnamed distillery releases and — a first for The Exclusive — an Irish whiskey release. With this batch I’m excited to announce that received the entire lineup to review, 6 whiskeys in total. Quality is all over the map. Thoughts follow.

The Exclusive Malts Speyside 1991 23 Years Old – This mystery Speyside whisky was distilled in 1991, but no other production information is offered. It appears to be bourbon-cask-aged all the way, starting off with almost pungent boozy/grainy notes on the nose. Lightly medicinal on the tongue, the palate ventures into dense wood, a touch of coal dust, and some pastoral notes. Perfectly drinkable, but surprisingly simplistic. 102.6 proof. B / $160

The Exclusive Malts Invergordon 1984 30 Years Old – This is a single grain whisky, distilled in the Highlands near Dornoch Firth and aged in a refill oak hogshead. There’s lots of granary character on the nose with this one, then notes of orange peel, clove, and some occasionally intense lumberyard notes. The key component though, is the grain — racy, chewy, and full of cloves and allspice. It’s a hot whisky that takes some time to settle down, but once it does it reveals some charm. Whether that merits the supports the price tag is another question. 104.6 proof. B+ / $200

The Exclusive Malts Balmenach 2007 8 Years Old – Slightly pink, a clear sign that this is a Port-matured whisky. The Speyside-based Balmenach is primarily used for blending, so this is a real rarity. Unfortunately that doesn’t amount to a particularly special spirit; youth is still having its way with this bottling, which is heavy with granary notes and an almost musty, funky edge. Hospital notes mingle with raw wood notes, coffee grounds, and mushroom… a bit of a mess, ultimately. 105.2 proof. C+ / $79

The Exclusive Malts North Highland 1995 20 Years Old – Another mystery malt, sherry matured from somewhere in the north Highlands. (Note that labels may just read “Highland,” not “North Highland.”) Rich with citrusy sherry notes on the nose, the nose here also showcases notes of walnut, coffee, and a not insignificant amount of tar. No slouch in the body department, the palate is pushy with notes of menthol, burnt orange, matchstick heads, and ash. There’s fruit up front — figs, plums, and citrus — but the fade in to this melange of more savory notes is quick and a bit unforgiving. 109.2 proof. B- / $135

The Exclusive Malts Irish Whiskey 2002 13 Years Old – Distilled near the northern border of Ireland at an unnamed distillery (which sounds like Locke’s/Kilbeggan based on the description). It’s quite a lovely expression of Irish, beginning with rich honey and caramel notes before delving headlong into butter toffee, butterscotch, and milk chocolate. There’s just a touch of grain on the back end, a nod toward the rolling hills of Ireland. Supple and sweet, this whiskey isn’t overcomplicated but it offers an intensity and richness that is rare in the typically light-bodied world of Irish. Cask strength certainly helps with that. Gorgeous. 108.4 proof. A / $106

The Exclusive Malts Laphroaig 2005 10 Years Old – Last but not least, we close with young, peaty, cask strength Laphroaig. No surprises here, with gentle peat smoke and barbecue notes kicking things off on the nose, and a body that blends smoke with citrus, petrol, licorice, and dried herbs. Lots of character from the Laphroaig playbook here, but fans will find the high proof expression worth exploring. 108.4 proof. B+ / $146

impexbev.com

Bar Review: The Franklin, Philadelphia

172

Philadelphia isn’t exactly known as a hotspot for craft cocktails, but those of discriminating tastes do know at least one spot to go for elevated libations: The Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co., a cheeky name for an underground bar and seemingly one of the only drinking establishments in Philly that doesn’t have a TV.

I’ve had craft cocktails all over the country, but I have to say the tasting menu at The Franklin is one of the most interesting and avant-garde cocktail experiences I’ve ever encountered. Head bartender Sara Justice (at left, above) keeps things unique and fascinating — yet she avoids the trap of turning your cocktail into, say, a puff of smoke that you inhale.

Recently I had the pleasure to enjoy Justice’s “Thaw” menu, which had been created as a nod toward winter’s turning to spring. I was catching Thaw on the tail end of its seasonality — summer was in full effect in Philly as the temperature outside hit 93 during my visit — and The Franklin noted that a new summer menu was in the works (and probably available by the time you read this).

Thaw is a five-course tasting menu of cocktails, not including various amuses and surprises sent out from the bar. For example, we started off with a homemade cucumber soda — slightly sweet, slightly green — before diving into a spin on the hot toddy called It Begins With a Seed: tequila, mezcal, malva flower, and a sunflower seed syrup… quite a smoky/herbal/warming experience and welcome even on a hot day.

One big highlight of the menu came with drink #2, Sweater Weather, a complex concoction comprising Elijah Craig 12 Year Old bourbon, a ton of Peychaud’s Bitters, fennel, and a grapefruit syrup which is topped off with a whipped Earl Grey tea honey. The presentation alone is dazzling, but the layers of flavor in the drink really elevate it into something special.

A clear crowd-pleaser comes with the fourth drink, Berry Patch, which adds Barbados rum, strawberry syrup, wheat berry syrup, cream, and egg white, plus a sprinkle of nutmeg. The drink is meant to recreate all the flavors in a strawberry shortcake — and it does, perfectly, right down to the cake. As a “dealer’s choice” cocktail, Justice sent out a drink called What Life Hands You — a liquid version of lemon meringue pie that included a graham cracker syrup made from the real thing.

All the drinks served at this establishment were worthwhile, and it was hard to believe that the bar has only been around for six years — making it the oldest craft cocktail joint in town. At $65, the price may sound steep, but considering the time and ingredients (and ingenuity) that goes into some of these libations, I am sure any true cocktail fan will find that to be money well spent. Go now!

thefranklinbar.com

Bar Review: Third Rail, San Francisco

046

Here’s a cute idea: A bar that specializes in custom cocktails… and bespoke jerky.

Third Rail, in San Francisco’s Dogpatch region, is a cozy little joint where you can get a small beer, shot, and a bit of jerky all for 10 bucks during happy hour. This seemed like the most popular choice among the post-work regulars during my recent visit, but I focused on the cocktails during my encounter.

It’s rare, but in sampling four different libations, I didn’t have a single bad drink. Arguably my favorite was the Crossbow (tequila, blood orange, lime, Punt e Mes, and bitters, on the rocks), but the Evil Twin (mezcal, grapefruit, lemon, Aperol, chili bitters, served up) gave it a run for its money. Whiskey-based cocktails including the eponymous Third Rail (bourbon, Lillet, honey, lemon, orange bitters) and the Bone Machine (bourbon, oloroso sherry, amaro, bitters) were both quite good.

Then there’s the jerky — we tried the Sonoma Smoke and it vanished into our gullets all too quickly. It’s closer to chunks of smoked meat rather than anything you typically think of as jerky, sweet, salty, and succulent as all get-out. Artisan chicharrones (pictured) are also on the menu, but these aren’t house made and include quite a bit of sugar used to dust the puffy bits of pork. In an understated bar filled with excellent options, it’s the only item that’s even close to a miss.

Bar Review: John Colins, San Francisco

011

John Colins is a bit of a wacky place, located in the heart of San Francisco’s South of Market area. One wall beyond the bar shows off a moving beach scene. Upstairs there’s a sushi bar with 20 seats. Gourmet coffee is also available. And no, the name isn’t misspelled.

John Colins has a (mild) focus on beach-like cocktails, though it’s far from a tiki place. Recently I dropped by on a (busy) Friday night to sample some of the bar’s most popular offerings.

There’s a little bit of something for everyone here. If you’re into simplicity, the namesake John Colins (a John Collins is a Tom Collins with whiskey instead of gin) goes down easy, and the use of a honey syrup instead of simple sugar syrup gives it a slight tropical kick. One of my favorites of the night was the Sicilian, a combination of bourbon, sour mix, and amaretto, with an IPA float. The kicker here is the brandied Luxardo cherries — nibble on one, then take a sip… they go together perfectly. (You’ll certainly have to ask for extras.)

008The Pepino Paloma mixes up a very tall blend of tequila, smoky mezcal, cucumber, agave, grapefruit, and Squirt soda. This one’s all about the chili salt rim. Ditch the straw and get a big bite of that spicy-salty mix with each sip (lest the cucumber element overwhelm you). Another high point is the Hemingway, a traditional daiquiri with a twist — rum, agave, Luxardo maraschino, lime, and grapefruit. This starts off crazy sour, but keep things stirring and mixing to bring the fruit forward.

Thrillseekers can check out the Beso de la Muerte (“The Kiss of Death,” pictured), a spicy margarita made with habanero and Thai chili plus ginger-infused tequila. Spicy doesn’t quite cut it. I couldn’t muster more than about a quarter of this drink — and tales from the bartenders indicate that it’s taken down more drinkers than have successfully downed it.

John Colins is a somewhat rowdy place with a mixed crowd of downtown techies and older patrons out for a cocktail before dinner. That said, I was still able to carry on a conversation both with the staff and my wife, and service was quite attentive when seated at the bar.

Next time I look forward to giving the sushi a try — from what I saw, it looks quite delightful. In fact, I’m now hungry. Thanks, John Colins!

johncolins.com

Tasting Beers and Stout Ice Cream at Peter B’s, Monterey, California

A recent trip to Monterey, California took us to Peter B’s Brewpub, back behind the Portola Hotel. A rowdy place full of pool tables and TVs blasting sports, it’s also home to Monterey’s biggest brewpub operation, with about a dozen beers on tap at any one time.

This time we came in search of something special, a not-yet-released ice cream flavored with Peter B’s own stout. Made by local icecreamateur Butch Adams (pictured below), who runs a small operation just off of Cannery Row called Kai Lee Creamery, it’s quite a treat, very mild up front, with a modest chocolate and nutty character to it — not quite stout, but not coffee or chocolate either. Lovely and restrained, I can’t think of a better way to end a session of sampling craft beers — unless you maybe drop a scoop of this into an IPA. A-

While we were there, we naturally sampled the five “always on” brews that Peter B’s offers, plus a couple of barrel-aged seasonal releases. Some quick thoughts follow on each of the beers.

Belly Up Blonde – A classic blonde ale, quite rich and malty. Fresh and chewy, with a slight oatmeal character. 5% abv. B+

Fort Ord Wheat – Unfiltered wheat ale. A bit musty, this is missing the bracing citrus of good witbiers. A little muddy on the back end. 5.8% abv. B-

Inclusion Amber Ale – Nice body on this, a good bridge to Peter B’s stronger brews. Mocha notes are prominent here, with some decent hops, though it’s far from bitter at 35 IBUs. Dried fruit and mushroom notes on the finish add interest. 5.13% abv. B+

Legend of Laguna IPA – The big guy (60 to 80 IBUs, depending on where you look). Ample citrus all around, with a ton of bitterness behind it. Hang in there for the evergreen finish, plusa touch of rum raisin. 6.5% abv. B+

Stout Resistance – The stout used in the ice cream, you get big coffee and cream notes on this black brew. It’s mouth coating and rich, but a lot of mushiness in the body mars this otherwise capable stout. 5.7% abv. B

Scotch Ale (seasonal) – Nutty with roasted grains and a slug of raisins. Nice balance here, and it’s quite different and fun. A-

Port Barrel Aged Stout (seasonal) – A real change of pace. Extremely cherry-fueled from start to finish, with a smattering of plums and raisins. Big body with a bracing, bitter finish that works well with the lightly sour body. B+