DRINK San Francisco: the best bars, mixologists, and produce — not to mention drinkers — in the country. And once the weather warms up (fingers crossed), can a bloom of excellent fruity cocktails be far behind? In honor of the lengthening sunlight, here’s a full day’s selection of spring drinks picks.
DAYTIME JAM: RICKHOUSE
This bustling bar nestled in the FiDi — and brought to us by the contemporary speakeasy minds behind Bourbon and Branch and Tradition (see below) — gets a lot of attention. In fact, I couldn’t stop hearing about its cocktails (most $10–$12) made with fresh fruit and local produce. And when I stepped inside early one sunny afternoon, I wasn’t disappointed. The bar was stocked with vibrantly colored jars of berries, citrus, and mint leaves. Joined by a friend, I quickly dived in.
Our first round of drinks consisted of the Kentucky Buck and the Paloma, a Mexican classic. The Buck, served with soda, is a combination of Bourbon infused with organic strawberries, fresh lemon juice, ginger beer, and bitters. It’s a smooth drink that still packs a punch, so don’t be deceived. The Paloma, a fizzy mix of tequila and grapefruit soda (in Mexico, usually Jarritos or Fresca; here housemade, of course), could be considered a more refreshing version of a margarita. True to the meaning of its name (“dove”), it’s light and floaty.
(Perhaps inspired by our fruit journey, our friendly bartender next treated us to his own invention, consisting of strawberries, cinnamon, and whiskey. It wasn’t named or even perfected yet — but when it’s on the house, I’ll gladly take it.)
Next round: the Pleasant Evening and my personal favorite, the Berry Bramble. With sparkling wine, crème de cassis, peach bitters, and grapefruit juice, plus a beautiful lemon twist garnish, The Pleasant Evening is also perfect for a warm and boozy afternoon. But the Berry Bramble topped my spring-quest list. Crushed berries and gin with crushed ice yields an invigorating but not overly sweet cocktail, uncloyingly fun, tropical without all the cheesiness.
246 Kearny, SF. (415) 398-2827, www.rickhousebar.com
HAPPY AND HALF-OFF: NIHON WHISKEY LOUNGE
I’d been dying to go to lovely Mission outpost Nihon for its expansive, Japanese-leaning whiskey collection — and its selection of half-off happy hour drinks (many of them $6) provided the perfect opportunity. When I looked at the impressive cocktail menu, I knew I wasn’t ordering anything neat.
I asked our waitress for her recommendation for a nice springtime cocktail and she came back with the California Love, a pretty bourbon cocktail with orange juice, yellow chartreuse liquor, and orange oil. The citrus snaps the bourbon to life, but the drink is a bit too strong for early afternoons: you’ll want to sip this one after work while watching the sun set through Nihon’s windows. (Warning: it does get a bit crowded). If you want my advice, though, grab the Luxury Mojito instead. Topping off silver rum, nigori sake, mint, lime, and sugar with a dash of champagne turns this summer favorite into a bubbly springtime joy.
1779 Folsom, SF. (415) 552-4400
FLY BY NIGHT: TRADITION
With its emphasis on presenting a global selection of cocktail favorites, there isn’t really a season you shouldn’t drink at Tenderloin hotspot Tradition. But I have a great cocktail for you to try during a cool spring night: the Paper Plane ($10). Made with bourbon, Aperol, bittersweet Amaro Nonino, and fresh lemon juice, its zing will launch you skyward. (The drink isn’t on the regular walk-in menu, but appears on the extended menu offered with table reservations, so call ahead.) A variation with honey, adding a level of smoothness, is also amazing. Before you know it, you’ve downed several of this babies, and left any lingering winter blues far behind.
441 Jones, SF. (415) 474-2284, www.tradbar.com