Bar Review: Bar Mia, San Francisco


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.

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

Bar Review: The Franklin, Philadelphia


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!

Bar Review: Third Rail, San Francisco


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


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!

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+

Bar Review: Trick Dog, San Francisco

trick dog cancerA quick pre-dinner stop at San Francisco’s new Trick Dog became a fun diversion into oddball mixology. The cramped space is carved into the newly resurgent corridor surrounding the unfathomably popular restaurant Flour + Water, and many of the patrons (like me) seem to be folks who come here while they’re waiting for their table at F+W.

There’s beer and wine to be had here, but the focus is on a collection of 12 cocktails, each named for a sign of the zodiac. My wife and I sampled three of the dozen, and enjoyed them all. The Gemini was my least favorite, a bit overpowering and featuring two kinds of amaro, Noilly Prat vermouth, a sour orange tincture, sesame, and cava.

My favorite: The Cancer (pictured), including Black Grouse, Ardbeg 10, salted pineapple, peanut, and sage, all on a big fat block of ice. This was the strangest sounding conflagration on a list that features a lot of really oddball combinations (sherry and kiwi soda? guava and stout? whiskey and whey?) and I ordered it just for that reason. The combination of pineapple and smoky scotch was surprisingly on point — and the peanut notes were just as much fun.

Good but not great: The Libra, which serves tequila, tangerine, dill, lime, egg white, and maccha powder in a coupe. This fell somewhere between a margarita and pisco sour… and works quite well on the whole.

Trick Dog has a variety of bar snacks on offer (table service is available upstairs for diners), but you’ll need to arrive early if you want a seat downstairs in order to nosh on them, otherwise it’s standing room only.

Fun place.


Bar Review: Hard Water, San Francisco

Hard Water, located on San Francisco’s waterfront just a block from the Ferry Building, is a tiny little place, a restaurant that serves Cajun cuisine and has no tables. Everyone sits either at the bar, a big horseshoe that juts out from the kitchen, or at a ledge around the walls. You’ll take your barstool and you’ll be thankful for it!

Hard Water isn’t particularly famous for its cuisine — which was very good in my encounter there — but rather for its specific devotion to Bourbon whiskey. The back bar, stretching to the ceiling, features over 300 bottles of the stuff, everything from plain old Buffalo Trace ($4/oz.) to Michter’s 25 Year Old ($150/oz.). The super-rare stuff, like Pappy Van Winkle, can only be ordered in flights. The current top shelf listing on the menu is 1/2 oz. each of  A.H. Hirsch 16 year old, Michters’s 20 year old 2012, Pappy Van Winkle 23 year old 2009, and Rittenhouse 21 year old rye. Total price: $250 for 2 ounces of whiskey.

While the bar has some interesting cocktails on the list — the Presbyterian my wife ordered with Wild Turkey 101, lemon, ginger, and soda, was breezy and tart — I turned my attention to the exotic Bourbons on the list. You’d think with 300+ whiskeys listed there’d be plenty I hadn’t tried, but that wasn’t quite true. The few I hadn’t encountered were heavily focused on newer craft distillery releases… and “single barrel” releases that Hard Water had purchased from the big guys.

I focused my attention on these for the evening, ordering 1 oz. pours of Elijah Craig 12 Years Old Hard Water Barrel (94 proof), Four Roses Hard Water Barrel (108.2 proof), and Willett 10 Years Old Hard Water Barrel (128.6 proof). (Well, I ordered the Weller Hard Water Barrel and was brought the Willett Hard Water Barrel, but such is life in a restaurant where we had other people’s orders misdelivered to us on two other occasions.)

None of these was more than $10 an ounce; the Elijah at $5 an ounce is an insanely good deal — the same price as Johnny Drum, for crying out loud!

Both the Willett and Elijah Craig were exceptional, the former a fireball loaded with wood and vanilla that really softened up and brought forth chocolate notes with a hearty splash of water (droppers are provided). The Elijah Craig was ready to go at 94 proof, a creamy caramel candy with mint, citrus, and cinnamon touches. The wild surprise was the Four Roses, a wholesale flop that is easily the worst 4R I’ve ever encountered. A 10 year old made from the OBSO mashbill (which I’ve never encountered in a single barrel or small batch release outside of the company’s standard offerings), this was a dead, flat, and dull whiskey. Herbal and earth notes dominated the body, and the finish was nonexistent. It’s hard to believe someone tasted through Four Roses’ inventory and picked this oddity as a signature barrel.

Whiskey tasting aside, my experience at Hard Water was modest and memorable more for its curiosity than its intrigue. The place is loud and dim, the food (and most of the drinks) overpriced, and the seating uncomfortable. Even the menu is tough to parse. Why have several dozen bottles of Buffalo Trace’s Single Oak Project here if they aren’t really for sale? (It says “flight only” next to their listing… but no flight is listed.) I suppose those who are really determined will simply have to ask, and hope they don’t bring Smooth Ambler instead.

B /

Tasting the Classic Cocktails of New Orleans

Ah, New Orleans… it’s not just the home of some of the best food in the world, it’s also the birthplace — a spiritual birthplace in some cases — of some of the most classic cocktails ever invented.

I had the good fortune to travel through Louisiana, particularly New Orleans, on the eve of Mardi Gras recently, with a specific goal of seeing how these classics measure up to more modern fare. Whenever possible, I went straight to the source where the cocktail was first created.

Without further ado, here’s a rundown of some of NOLA’s biggest and most noteworthy cocktails… recipes included. (Note: I skipped the Grasshopper, reportedly invented here at Tujagues’. Next time, I promise.)

1 tsp. Absinthe liqueur (preferably Herbsaint)
1 1/2 to 2 oz. Rye Whiskey (preferably Old Overholt)
1 sugar cube
several dashes Peychaud’s bitters

Coat the inside of a cocktail glass with the Herbsaint and pour out the excess. Shake the remaining ingredients in a cocktail shaker with lots of ice. Garnish with a lemon twist.

I’ve covered this classic before. It’s one of my favorite drinks. It’s also the official drink of New Orleans, invented here in the 1850s. The Sazerac at the Roosevelt Hotel’s Sazerac Bar — as iconic a place to order one as you can find — isn’t the best I’ve had. Sweet and spicy, it was way too warm and — more importantly — absent of nearly any absinthe flavor, the quintessential part of the cocktail, in my opinion. Today the Roosevelt is better known for its Ramos Gin Fizz, another NOLA classic.

040Vieux Carre
3/4 oz rye whiskey
3/4 oz Cognac
3/4 oz sweet vermouth
1 tsp Benedictine
2 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
2 dashes Angostura Bitters

On the rocks with a lemon twist.

This is very close to the recipe that the Hotel Monteleone’s Carousel Bar — where this drink was invented — uses today. (Most others omit the Benedictine.) A powerful, bittersweet cocktail, the Vieux Carre (the French name for the French Quarter) makes for a near-perfect digestif, all the better while sitting at the Carousel… which actually rotates 4 times an hour as you sip your beverage.

032French 75
1.5 oz cognac
1 tsp lemon juice
1/4 tsp simple syrup

Briefly hake the first three ingredients and strain into a tulip glass. Top with Champagne and a lemon twist.

This is the recipe used at Arnaud’s French 75 Bar. Arnaud’s didn’t invent the French 75 — but it’s become an iconic drink in NOLA either way. (It’s also one of the most refined, service-oriented bars in town.) I really love this cocktail, but there are myriad ways to make it… many of which use gin instead of cognac.

2 oz light rum
2 oz dark rum
2 oz passion fruit juice
2 oz pineapple juice
2 tsp lime juice
1 tablespoon grenadine

Mix in a Hurricane glass (what else) and serve on the rocks with an orange slice and a cherry.

OK, that’s a legit Hurricane, and as with many Tiki-style drinks, recipes vary far and wide. Just reading that recipe makes my yearn for the beach. Sadly, you won’t get that cocktail anywhere in New Orleans, especially not at Pat O’Brien’s, where it was invented. Sadly, this bar, just steps from Bourbon Street, is now focused on pushing out huge quantities of crude, Frankenhurricanes in plastic cups (see photo), designed to get you sloshed on the cheap. Pat-O’s, as it’s known, doesn’t even pretend any more, listing the official recipe of this Kool-Aid-like concoction in the brochure it places on the bar here as such:

Pat O’Brien’s World Famous Hurricane
4 oz. Pat O’Brien’s Hurricane Rum
4 oz. Pat O’Brien’s Hurricane Mix

A souvenir glass is 3 bucks. Popcorn is free, though!

Fortunately you can still make a good Hurricane for yourself… at home.

071Doctor’s Orders
2 oz Woodford Reserve Bourbon
1/2 oz white creme de cacao
a few dashes Benedictine

Shake over ice and strain into a coupe.

And now for something new. Bartending legend Chris McMillan made me this cocktail at Kingfish on my last night in NOLA, asking what I liked to drink and whipping this up on a whim. (The measurements are estimates on my part.) This chocolatey-vanilla-honey drink hits on all cylinders, and it’s almost embarrassingly easy to make. Give it a go in your home bar and take the credit.

Return to Press Club San Francisco

It’s been about a year since we last reported on Press Club in San Francisco, and at the time it was overhauling its menu and management with some excited changes. Well, how has everything turned out?


Wine Director Mauro Cirilli has been doing some amazing things, with a heavy focus on both beer and wine. The wine program features an extensive list of wines available by the glass and in flights and — unique among most wine-focused bars — has a large number of wines available poured from magnums. How is this possible? Thanks to Coravin (pictured), a new wine preservation system that extracts the wine through the cork without removing it from the bottle. (I’m writing about this for Wired… stay tuned for hands-on coverage.) Want a glass of 2004 Tinto Pesquera Reserva from a magnum of this Ribera del Duero wine? It’s no problem here. (And it’s a great wine, too.)

Not to be outdone, the beer selections are even more exciting. We sampled a huge range of tastes from Cosentino’s carefully curated list, my absolute favorite being JW Lees Harvest Ale: Lagavulin Casks, a barleywine that is barrel aged in peaty Islay whisky casks. 11.5% abv, so watch out. ($11 for a 6 oz. pour.)

Head to Press Club and tell them Drinkhacker sent you!