There aren’t many days left in 2022, and after another year of harrowing headlines, it's understandable if you’ve got the urge to take the edge off. How about giving yourself a little high-octane history lesson?
Each of these quintessential San Francisco cocktails comes with a side of local lore. So go ahead and treat yourself by sinking into a few educational libations.
After all, Dry January hasn’t started—yet.
While Pisco Punch is not commonly found on San Francisco menus today, this cocktail was once a certified tourist attraction, right up there with riding a cable car and crossing the Golden Gate Bridge.
It’s said that Duncan Nicol invented the drink in 1853 at the famed Bank Exchange saloon—which stood at the current site of the Transamerica Pyramid—making it one of the oldest cocktails in the world. The drink was so strong and celebrated, that many believe the original formula contained coca leaves. That stands to reason: Pisco is the national drink of Peru, where the herbal precursor to cocaine grows in abundance.
With all this history, it’s no surprise that the best place to drink a Pisco Punch is also the oldest—the Old Ship Saloon is San Francisco’s longest continuously operating bar, built on top of the Arkansas, a Gold Rush-era ship that first came to shore in 1849. The light yellow, pineapple-forward concoction comes with a round of lemon floating on top, and the elixir transports you to another era.
Trader Vic Bergeron—the father of the modern Tiki movement and inventor of the Mai Tai—was born and raised in San Francisco. So it’s not surprising we have our fair share of Tiki bars, including one that bartenders from around the world travel to visit. Within the nautical-themed walls of Smuggler’s Cove, you’ll find the most perfect Mai Tai in the city. It is neither sickly sweet nor an ungodly hue, and it is served without a heap of garish garnishes. A real Mai Tai should have a nutty flavor, which comes courtesy of orgeat, an almond-based syrup.
The Buena Vista Cafe, named a legacy business in 2022, has been in operation at the corner of Hyde and Beach since 1891. While the cafe didn’t invent the Irish Coffee, it’s the establishment most associated with the whisky-laden drink, which has been serving it up in its signature glass mugs since 1952. Sidle up to the bar and spy the long line of goblets ready to be filled with the creamy sweet perfection, just the thing to chase away the gloomy shroud of San Francisco fog.
While cocktail historians (mostly) agree that the Martinez predates the Martini, both San Francisco and the East Bay city of Martinez lay claim to inventing this potent concoction. On the San Francisco side, famed bartender “Doctor” Jerry Thomas is said to have created the Martinez some 150 years ago at the Occidental Hotel, which stood only a couple blocks away from the Comstock Saloon, the best place to find the gin-vermouth cocktail in the present day.
San Francisco loves its bitters, as the city’s obsession with fernet demonstrates, and the Negroni is no exception. The city has hosted a Negroni week, and when Locanda was still open, you could score a Negroni flight. It may seem like a faux pas to recommend a new bar for an old drink, but the beautiful Sprezzatura is an ode to Italian aperitivos. There’s—count ’em—five Negronis on their bar menu, which includes spritzes, non-alcoholic drinks and curated house cocktails. You can soak up all those bitters with light bites, full plates or pizza al taglio.
Julie Zigoris can be reached at email@example.com