Sacramento… Sac Town, our California Gold Country capital, known for its politics, surrounded by the boundless produce of inland California which us city dwellers richly benefit from. It’s a town I stop to dine in on the way to or from Tahoe but have only stayed the weekend in a couple times, despite its close proximity to San Francisco. A recent revisit meant I trekked to at least eight spots a day, combing the city’s restaurants, bars, coffee houses and more (read about food/dining here; and my slideshow article on Sacramento highlights for PureWow.
While they’ve been a beer town for awhile, the formerly non-existent cocktail scene has grown exponentially the last five years, throwing its 5th Cocktail Week this August. Innovation isn’t the town’s strong suit, compared to what’s long been happening in other cities around the world – the focus is instead on approachable, straightforward drinks using quality spirits. Wine is growing in sophistication with some small producers exhibiting Old World restraint despite inland heat, as at Revolution.
Getting the worst out of the way, there was an appalling four spots in one weekend (far more than I experience at home or in frequent trips around the world) where service was lackluster to downright bad. In fact, for those I bothered to give a second chance to (something I typically cannot do, particularly when visiting eight places in a day), service only improved when meeting with a manager. A warm welcome, if not knowledgeable, engaged service, should be standard in raved-about places. Given the wealth of amazing spots in Nor Cal, it’s maddening to pay to be treated with indifference, or, as happened at a renowned cocktail bar, to leave a watery, tasteless drink virtually untouched, and not even be asked if everything was ok when I paid for it.
Compared to what we’re surrounded by in San Francisco, Sac might not (at first glance) seem to be making waves. But it’s a town that has grown by leaps and bounds in the last few years. Though you might see trends (gourmet donuts & hipster, third wave coffee, etc.) that have been established for years in other cities, Sacramento seems to be finding that sweet spot of embracing the bounty surrounding it and expressing it straightforwardly. Food and drink aficionados can find plenty to satiate here, graced with a California heartland freshness.
At Revolution – a winery, restaurant and tasting room in the heart of town – Winemaker Craig Haarmeyer graciously tasted me through their wines from the barrel and the bottle. The whites are a balanced pleasure, like a crisp St. Rey Albarino ($22 per bottle) or grassy, floral, whole cluster Sauvignon Blanc ($19), rested in stainless steel. There are also nuanced reds like the Celeste Sacramento County blend ($30) or pepper-berry notes of a blessedly acidic Zinfandel ($26).
Haarmeyer is experimenting with Syrah grapes grown at over 2500 feet above the nearby town of Auburn. He wisely picks early, veering away from overripeness, ensuring elegant balance to his wines (not to mention the value for the quality). I was privileged to sample an experimental dry vermouth, made with rose petals, rosemary, black pepper, gentian, quinine and sage. I immediately began picturing its best gin pairing, imagining it in a martini – I hope it might be a future release.
TRACK 7 BREWING
Sac Town’s cult brewery, , recently turned 1 year old, celebrating with a double-hopped version of their popular Panic IPA, a pleasingly bitter, lively release I had on draft at nearby Red Rabbit.
Friends and former home brewers, Geoff Scott and Ryan Graham, run a welcoming garage brewery where you can bring in your own food or eat from a revolving lineup of food trucks (like Chando’s Taqueria, Krush Burger, Orale Mole, Mama Kim Cooks, etc…), fill up growlers, and sample beers.
After sampling eight beers at the brewery, my favorites (besides the passion fruit bitter of the Panic IPA) are a bright and bready Delta King Saison or malty-earthy Soulman Stout. There are countless fantastic breweries in California, and Track 7 is one of them.
Besides being the kind of restaurant that serves winning fusion combinations like a pastrami stir-fry ($14.50), The Red Rabbit is a laid back, friendly, all-day watering hole.
Barman/Owner Matt Nurge (one of the cocktail pioneers in the area who helped open The Shady Lady) ensures quality cocktails ($8-9), heavy on classics like a Boulevardier or Chappelle Cocktail (gin, sweet vermouth, lime, falernum, pineapple). Try the signature house cocktail, Krakow Salt Mine, a salty-sweet refresher of Zubrowka vodka, apple cider, lemon, ginger beer, and kosher salt. The vibe is right at Red Rabbit: relaxed without sacrificing quality.
At Grange in the Citizen Hotel, engaging Bar Manager Ryan Seng (also one of the opening crew at Shady Lady) has created a strong cocktail program, and from what I could see, trains staff well based on the gracious service I encountered even when he was not around.
Seng runs a smart house barrel program with three personally-selected barrels of Bols Genever, Herradura Reposado tequila and Woodford Reserve bourbon he selected in their home country/distillery of origin (in fact, I saw his barrel of Bols Genever in the Bols warehouse outside of Amsterdam when I visited this May, ready to be shipped to California).
My favorite cocktail at Grange is Seng’s blend of all three house barrels into a boozy-elegant (yes, elegant) Long Island Iced Tea. I’ve never liked that sloppy, booze monster of a drink, but this version makes me reconsider. Another standout is the Grange Margarita ($14) made with their Herradura double barrel reposado tequila, house curacao, lime and agave, rimmed with smoked lime sea salt.
Tusk ($10), a savory-sweet blend of Four Roses bourbon, bacon vermouth and absolutely delicious candied bacon, is sweet and gratifyingly robust. Though I’ve seen bacon-infused whiskey many a time over the years around the US, Seng’s version is a crowd-pleaser. Spectacular Spectacular ($12) is the aperitif of choice, using Hendrick’s Gin and Grange select barrel aged Bols Genever, mixed with plum, lemon and topped with Prosecco, making a dry, pre-dinner refresher.
HOOK & LADDER
Hook & Ladder is a go-to for low key drinks, rotating cocktails on tap, and a solid collection of craft spirits. The bar is run by Chris Tucker, who was one of the pioneering bartenders to usher in Sacramento’s cocktail renaissance (another in the opening crew at The Shady Lady). He’s got other potential projects in the works, but at H&L, he’s the one person in town featuring a hand-cut ice program and an unusual (and smart) designated driver drink section where house ginger beer, honey blueberry lemonade or a strawberry shrub with soda ($3 each) are free for designated drivers.
Besides local draft beers like Berryessa or Track 7, there’s wines on tap (like Saintsbury Chardonnay) or nearby producers I’ve enjoyed in recent years such as Lee Family Farm Rio Tinto ($9/32). The cocktail menu is straightforward and fun, offering Cheekies (one-ounce social shots), highballs, bucks, and rotating draft cocktails ($8-9) of classics like a Negroni, Bijou, Martinez, all barrel aged in a 6-gallon French oak barrel.
Pimm’s Proper ($8) is a variation on the Pimm’s Cup combining Pimm’s, gin, lemon juice and ginger beer, or there’s a Grappling Hook ($8) showcasing Candolini Grappa Ruta with Punt E Mes sweet vermouth and Luxardo Maraschino liqueur. My favorite cocktail is seemingly simple: Tucker’s La Fresa ($9) mixes Espolon Blanco tequila with a house strawberry shrub. The shrub is all tart, vinegar brightness – as a good shrub should be – restrained strawberry made complex and savory by salt, pepper, coriander.
HOCK FARM CRAFT & PROVISIONS
New Hock Farm Craft & Provisions, serves farm-fresh food sourced from nearby farms – far from a unique concept (think ubiquitous gourmet deviled eggs, fried green tomato BLTs, etc.), but it’s well-executed and comforting, the menu featuring a map highlighting the wealth of nearby produce and animal sources, county-by-county.
What stood out at spacious, well-designed Hock Farm was Bar Manager/Managing Partner Brad Peters’ cocktails. “Bubbled and bottled” cocktails ($9) are straightforward – Aviation gin and house tonic or Papa’s Pilar rum and a house cream soda, effervescent and lively. An Irish banana colada ($10) combines Jameson Irish whiskey infused with banana and Perfect Puree of Napa Valley coconut and pineapple purees. It’s creamy, tropical goodness – with a touch of Irish.
Hipster Germanic fare it is, but what sets LowBrau apart from other such artisan sausage and craft beer joints around the country is damn good sausages on pretzel buns, killer sauces (they perfect curry ketchup), and alongside the beers, the addition of elegant cocktails, and an impressive collection of rare herbal liqueurs (Schwartzhog, Killepitsch, Rossbacher) and schnaps/eaux de vie (Schladerer Himbeer Liqueur, Schonauer Apfel, Freihof Marile Apricot brandy) from Austria, Switzerland, Germany.
Cocktails ($9) and beer cocktails ($7) include the likes of the Zimmerman Plan, giving smoky Del Maguey Vida Mezcal a kick of refreshing lime, orange juice, cilantro simple syrup, jalapeno and a fizzy splash of Hefewiezen. There’s also rare beers from Copenhagen or hot US craft beers like Prairie Ales.
Enotria is arguably the most advanced dining menu in Sacramento at the moment with impeccable wine pairings from Tyler Stacy. Cocktails ($12) by Russell Eastman likewise surprise, and are worth a visit to a somewhat generic-looking bar (the white light-draped outdoor patio is preferable). Employing savory and herbaceous elements in his drinks, Eastman avoids the “same old thing” a cocktail geek is used to expecting (i.e. classics), and instead creates cocktails more in line with a Scott Beattie ethos, utilizing produce and showcasing California bounty.
Eastman’s Electric Relaxation combines tequila blanco, Lillet Blanc, mezcal (for a hint of smokiness), lemon and thyme with a vibrant blueberry-white pepper shrub, resulting in a vivacious drink. A Salvador Dali mixes gin, Campari, lemon, lemongrass and sesame – blessedly heavy, almost textural, with the sesame, though I tasted little lemongrass.
Thankfully, one of the Sac’s best restaurants is also a great place to drink.
From the exterior, Corti Brothers looks like the 1940’s-era grocery store it is, a bit dingy and plain in a nondescript area of Sacramento. Besides boasting an old school deli (take a number and expect a bit of wait) churning out hearty sandwiches, Corti surprises with solid beer and wine sections and an unexpectedly dense spirits selection – the best in the area. This is not an elevated liquor store like Cask in San Francisco or Hi-Time in So Cal, but it may be the best grocery store liquor selection I’ve ever seen. There’s an impressive array of small batch spirits, amari from Italy, Eastern European liqueurs and other rarities one would not expect to find in a place like this.
Find Sac’s best artisan, third wave coffee at Temple, Insight Coffee, or local’s favorite, Chocolate Fish. Insight in particular is obviously hipster and trendy (think artful graffiti, ubiquitous beards and handlebar mustaches, Chemex and Hario v60’s lining the walls) but the coffee is strong at all three coffee houses, providing a robust fix whether you order a cold brew or a pour over.