My Top 10 Cocktails of Early 2015

Peanuts & a Witch Doctor cocktail at Hawker Fare
Peanuts & a Witch Doctor cocktail at Hawker Fare

Of the wide number of cocktails I taste in a month, here are 10 January-early February standouts from restaurants, bars and events around the Bay Area.

1. Hawker Fare’s Witch Doctor

Festive Hawker Fare
Festive Hawker Fare

Chef James Syhabout (of Michelin-starred Commis in Oakland) just opened Hawker Fare SF a couple weeks ago. Though I was disappointed in the food at Oakland’s Hawker Fare since it first opened, Syhabout’s recent travels in Thailand and completely different (far cooler) decor in the brand new SF location have breathed fresh life into the concept.

Under strings of lights, vibrantly-colored tablecloths and pressed tin “roofing” over the bar, SF’s Hawker Fare feels like dining streetside in Thailand, which I experienced in my months all over the country, calling for cheap Thai beer and rounds of sticky rice and grilled meats (the authentic highlights here). 

Cocktails ($12 each) feel fitting, with a standout being Witch Doctor, showing off funky rhum agricole (specifically, the unaged style of rum from the French island of Martinique). Ingredients are Neisson Blanc Rhum, lime and grapefruit juices, Dolin Genepy, banana liqueur and chocolate bitters. It is as refreshing and tart as it is funky, complex and layered.

Holy Mountain's
Holy Mountain’s Batida (cachaca, sweetened condensed milk, coconut)

2. Holy Mountain’s Trinidad Sour

The real fun begins with the new bar hidden upstairs inside Hawker Fare: Holy Mountain. Bar managers are Christ Aivaliotis and Troy Bayless, who also oversee other Syhabout restaurants and they opened Oakland’s Duende and consulted on the drink menu for brand new Mourad.

At Holy Mountain, there are a couple lovely house originals, like Down & Out (rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, maraschino, Elisir MP Roux, bitters) and New Orleans favorites, such as A La Louisiane and a Hurricane. I was thrilled to see a Suissesse (here, it mixes Cocchi Americano, Herbsaint, crème de menthe, egg white) on the menu, which is one of my longtime, more rare New Orleans go-tos, a drink I seek out to officially usher in my regular visits to Nola, particularly the perfect, exemplary one made by Chris McMillian at Kingfish.

But my top (in terms of taste) Holy Mountain drink after tasting through the initial menu, is their richly spiced Trinidad Sour (a creation of New York bartender Giuseppe Gonzalez), which, like the great Charles H. Baker classic cocktail, an Angostura Fizz, is a heavy pour of Angostura bitters as the base, mixed with Small Hands Orgeat, rum, lemon.

3. Trick Dog’s No. 6

Trick Dog's No. 6
Trick Dog’s No. 6

On Trick Dog‘s playful new Chinese take-out-esque menu, it’s a tough call between two cocktails. No. 6 is an intriguing mix of Tanqueray Old Tom Gin, Tempus Fugit’s Alessio Vermouth de Torino, Mandarine Napoleon (Cognac & orange), almond and jasmine. It’s bracing, subtly nutty and floral, with the clincher being a chocolate-covered olive garnish, an oddly fantastic pairing with the cocktail.

No. 7 is also fascinating and more subtle, combining Hacienda de Chihuahua Sotol (an agave spirit), raisin liqueur, lemon and oatmeal, the latter of which is steeped in the drink but barely detectable, adding nuance and texture, as does the notes of raisin, contrasted with fresh agave and bright lemon.

4. Boxing Room’s Hurricane

Boxing Room Hurricane
Boxing Room Hurricane

The one thing missing from New Orleans-centric Boxing Room from day one was classic Nola cocktails (the city that birthed many of the world’s great cocktail recipes, from the Sazerac to the Ramos Gin Fizz).

Now they have just that with their brand new bar and food menu (my Zagat look through the menus here). Though the aforementioned cocktails are easily among my all-time favorites and more obvious go-tos, I want to give a nod to Jonny Raglin (who created the menu) and bar manager Bobby Baker’s Hurricane. It’s a dreaded cocktail for me in New Orleans (though for nostalgia’s sake, I enjoy it at burger & Hurricane dive, Port of Call). It’s always too sweet and heavy on the juice. But at Boxing Room, balance is a relief: their icy, bracing Hurricane shows off light and dark rums with passion fruit and other fresh juices. It’s thirst-quenching but not at all cloying.

5. AL’s Place’s Ms. Brown

AL's Place Ms. Brown
AL’s Place Ms. Brown

It’s a joy to have chef Aaron London back with the opening of AL’s Place just a couple weeks back. From the thoughtful beer and wine selections on, drink menus are worthy food partners. Bar manager Alex Phillips (from Locanda and Oakland’s Camino) crafted a low-proof cocktail menu of drinks ($10 each) named after Reservoir Dogs characters. My initial top pick is Ms. Brown, which shows off dry, briny manzanilla sherry with Dolin Dry vermouth, Cocchi Torino vermouth and a dash of grapefruit bitters.

6. ABV’s Gin & Celery

15 Romolo's Ariel & Sebastian
15 Romolo’s Ariel & Sebastian

I’ve tasted through the entire cocktail menu at ABV since it opened in the Mission in July. Gin & Celery ($11) is my current favorite: straightforward, clean but blessedly vegetal. Old Tom Gin, lemon and tonic is refreshing, while a good dozen dashes of celery bitters and a dose of salt make it savory and garden-fresh, singing with whispers of celery seed.

7. 15 Romolo’s Ariel & Sebastian

SF Beer Week has turned out some fun cocktails over the past week or so. No surprise, 15 Romolo has a number of beer-tinged pleasures on their current menu. One of the brightest and most refreshing is Ariel & Sebastian ($11), combining Capurro Pisco, Martin Miller’s Gin and lime, tart with a house kumquat pale ale beer cordial.

Gather's Victory & Brightness
Gather’s Victory & Brightness

8. Gather’s Victory & Brightness

During a recent return to Gather in Berkeley to try dishes from their new chef, I sampled some of bar manager Charlie Crebs’ cocktails, notably Victory & Brightness ($12), which packs a punch utilizing the great St. George Terroir Gin, tart with Berkeley’s Shrub & Co. grapefruit shrub, Tempus Fugit’s Kina L’Aero d’Or for that bitter brightness, fresh grapefruit and subtle jalapeno.

Redd Wood's
Redd Wood’s Hallucina-Gin

9. Redd Wood’s Hallucina-Gin

During a recent weekend return to Yountville and Redd Wood, their amaro-focused cocktails ($10-12) are the right fit with their Neapolitan pizzas and modern Italian fare.

Hallucina-Gin stood out among the 5 cocktails I’ve tasted on their current menu over 2 recent visits, mixing Hendricks Gin, Amaro Montenegro, Campari, absinthe and bitters with a lemon twist.

10. Science of Cocktails

Science of Cocktails at the Exploratorium
Science of Cocktails at the Exploratorium

Science of Cocktails is always like being a kid, playing in the Exploratorium exhibits — sans herds of children who flock to the fascinating museum on a daily basis — with cocktails. This year, the event was held January 30 with numerous spirits pours and cocktails from a number of brands, distillers and local bartenders.

A couple standouts? Kevin Diedrich’s War of the Roses was balanced, light and refreshing with Junipero Gin, Christian Drouin Calvados, lemon, ginger vanilla syrup, Angostura bitters and a splash of rosé wine.

St. George Spirits’ Cooling Colada was addictive, showing off St. George’s just released Green Chile Vodka, a vibrant garden of numerous chilies, vegetal, green but not too spicy. Blended with pineapple juice, Coco Real Cream of Coconut and St. George Absinthe, it’s ridiculously good.