Top 10 Cocktails of the Month

From mid-November to mid-December, here are the 10 standout cocktails and new menus I’ve been tasting around the Bay Area.

El Capitan's
El Capitan’s Port of Call & Maximon

1 & 2. El Capitan’s Port of Call & Maximon

Blackbird's Mighty Healthy
Blackbird’s Mighty Healthy

Recently returning to El Capitan (festive on a Friday night with Christmas lights and a convivial crowd), the food is better than ever, from silky crudo to fry bread tacos. The drinks are no slouch and there was more than one standout of the six I tasted, including the cold brew/coconut milk/rum cream/bourbon goodness of Old Santiago ($11).

But it got really good on the spirituous, booze-forward side. While I’ve seen too many bacon-washed whiskey cocktails over the years, Maximon ($11) is winner and not the usual, featuring pork fat-infused Del Maguey Vida Mezcal and Cynar, (Italian artichoke herbal liqueur) mixed with Punt E Mes sweet vermouth, Aztec Chocolate bitters and a touch of sea salt. It’s savory, lush, lovely. So is the fall-spiced, almost meaty Port of Call ($11) showcasing Compass Box’s Great King St. Glasgow Scotch with Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, tawny port and dashes of house clove and cumin bitters.

3 & 4. Blackbird’s Mighty Healthy and The Big Picture

Blackbird always has plenty of goodness on offer behind their bar, including playfully-themed cocktail menus (hip hop, Game of Thrones). On the current menu, I like the refreshing ease of The Big Picture ($11) combining fig-infused Calvados, Barolo Chinato, lemon and toasted pumpkin seeds over crushed ice. But winter might best be spent sipping on a hot, steaming cup of Mighty Healthy ($12). Though there are great hot toddys around town (and drinks like Belcampo’s meaty bone broth toddy), Mighty Healthy uniquely recalls Thai tom ka gai soup in its Thai coconut broth base highlighted with lime and ginger. While I’ve tried cold cocktails with that inspiration, this is the first time I’ve had a hot one more closely aligned to the soup that inspired it. Though there is a choice of gin, go with the option of St. George Chile Vodka where all that savory, green chile-pepper goodness sends the drink into the stratosphere.

1300 on Fillmore's Pecan Old Fashioned
1300 on Fillmore’s Pecan Old Fashioned

5. 1300 on Fillmore’s Pecan Old Fashioned

Ken Furusawa, who was bar manager at Ichi Sushi + Ni Bar (and was long behind the bar at Range), has just come on as bar manager at 1300 on Fillmore, bringing his gracious service and twists on classic cocktails to the upscale Southern restaurant, an SF fixture since 2007. I loved 1300 from day one for its gorgeous wall commemorating the Fillmore’s Harlem of the West/jazz history and for chef David Lawrence’s shrimp and grits and refined Southern cooking. With the recent addition this fall of Jake Whitlock (also from Ichi Sushi) as chef de cuisine, the focus is more on Low Country cuisine than ever before, one of my favorite American cuisine categories.

Furusawa plays with Low Country/South Carolina influence in his classic drinks, featuring Charleston’s longtime staple, Madeira, in a Madeira Cobbler (although without the traditional crushed ice) or Cognac in the lovely house Sazerac ($12), as the drink was first created and served. His Pecan Old Fashioned ($14) is bracing with Scotch balanced by muscovado sugar and subtle pecan bitters. One large chicory ice cube imparts intriguing woody notes as it slowly melts. PS — don’t miss Furusawa’s classic Brandy Milk Punch, especially during gospel brunch (it’s a staple of jazz brunch of New Orleans).

Barbarossa's red glow
Barbarossa’s red glow

6. Barbarossa’s Bandit’s Way

Barbarossa's Bandit's Way
Barbarossa’s Bandit’s Way

I’ll be honest: the drunken patrons in the lounge-y, new Barbarossa (which opened officially November 19) is a bit of a turn-off. But Christina Cabrera’s (who also created the menu at Old Bus Tavern) cocktail menu ($12 each) holds a number of delights and the staff are accommodating and friendly.

The former Bubble Lounge space — still owned by Eric Benn along with Arash Ghanadan of Novela —  has been transformed in seductive reds, blacks and chandeliers housed in birdcages. Cocktail names are inspired by infamous historic figures, like the red-bearded, 16th Century pirate the bar is named after.

Seasonally changing house grog with choice of spirit goes down easy and is a general crowd-pleaser. The most fun might be Bandit’s Way, a cocktail served in a glass milk bottle with a straw. A mix of Irish whiskey, bourbon, house cereal milk and Old Fashioned bitters, sprinkled with Hawaiian nutmeg, it recalls a classic Brandy (or Bourbon) Milk Punch, creamy-yet-light, making you feel like a kid again — but with booze.

Spaghetti Bros.' Elixir No. 4
Spaghetti Bros.’ Elixir No. 4

7. Spaghetti Bros.’ Elixir No. 4

Just opened in November, Spaghetti Bros. inviting, spacious restaurant is warming up the Marina with plates of pasta and a twist on eggplant parm (sans breading) in a dreamy red and white (vodka sauce-style) sauce. The cocktail menu ($12-13 each) is appropriately heavy on variations on the Negroni, while a standout is a house drink, Elixir No. 4. Playing like a classic with three spirits — rye whiskey, Benedictine and Green Chartreuse — it’s the subtle addition of lime that adds backbone and a bright, crisp profile to the herbaceous drink.

Liholiho Yacht Club's Coconut Telegraph (right/foreground)
Liholiho Yacht Club’s Coconut Telegraph (right/foreground)

8. Liholiho Yacht Club’s Coconut Telegraph

A meal at Liholiho Yacht Club is always pleasure replete with Hawaiian island breezes and sunny creativity in chef Ravi Kapur’s creative fusion dishes — and now nearly one year old, it’s better than ever. At the bar with that incredible off-menu house spam, aioli and rice dish, a Coconut Telegraph ($11) feels right. Though a simple variation on a classic Daiquiri with three ingredients, the use of a good rum (Banks 5 Island Rum) and proper balance of house coconut syrup and lime make it vivacious and ideal with Liholiho’s food.

Two Sisters Bar & Books' Night Vision (left/foreground)
Two Sisters Bar & Books’ Night Vision (left/foreground)

9. Two Sisters Bar & Books’ Night Vision

I’ve been visiting and writing about intimate, cozy Two Sisters Bar & Books since the month it opened (just a couple past articles at SF Bay Guardian and Zagat). Recently, I tried some of their seasonal cocktails ($12) and the orange glow of Night Vision stood out. Del Maguey Vida Mezcal adds smoke to subtle garam masala-infused Burnett’s Gin, mixed with a balanced amount of fresh carrot juice and house grenadine.

The Keystone's Guadalupe
The Keystone’s Guadalupe

10. The Keystone’s Guadalupe

Though off to a shaky start, The Keystone in the Mosser Hotel is invigorated with new life from chef Banks White‘s (who you may recall years back as chef of FIVE in Berkeley — he’s been cooking in NYC the last couple years) new menu. He pulls from his Southern (Texas) roots influenced by Asia: try his killer soy calamansi ribs or the beautiful things he does with vegetables as with a carrot quinoa dish that is more exciting than it sounds.

I already recommended beverage director Kelly Naughton’s Porcini Negroni this summer. During lunch, a light-and-breezy Guadalupe ($12) does the trick combining Arette blanco tequila, dry vermouth, pineapple gum syrup and a touch of frankincense for intrigue.