Jon Beckhardt

Fresh sips



Spring is positively bursting with wacky holidays. Arbor Day? April Fool’s Day? Patriot’s Day? How the heck are you supposed to celebrate those with a cocktail or two? Figuring out what drink to pair with which spring holiday can become an overwhelming ordeal. Sure, the first few are easy: St. Patrick’s Day and green beer, Passover and four glasses of kosher wine. But what about the others? After a careful and tipsy review, I’ve paired some of my favorite local cocktails with these unusual days of celebration.

Rusty Robot Of all the major Christian holidays, Palm Sunday seems the least alcoholically celebrated, even though feasting is the order of the day. Why not figure in a Rusty Robot from Homestead? A combination of Wild Turkey, Tuaca, lemon, and bitters, it’s perfect for vigorous consumption. The lemon flavor is as wild as the Turkey, but the drink achieves a simplicity missing from most cocktails — the tastes don’t just augment one another; they smack together, almost like two palms. Get it? Homestead, 2301 Folsom, SF; (415) 282-4663.

Green Man Tea Just as we’re getting over our green St. Paddy’s Day hangover, we’re immediately hit with St. Joseph’s Day on March 19 — or more familiarly, the day the swallows return to Mission San Juan Capistrano. Bird lovers across California, rejoice! But with what? I encourage you to stick to something green-related, like Green Man Tea at Nihon Whisky Lounge; your system may not yet be ready for other colors. Made with lime and pineapple juices, green tea liquor, and single malt Scotch, this drink brings together two distinctly different flavors — the Scotch’s smokiness and the other ingredients’ fruity tang — to take delicious flight. Nihon Whisky Lounge, 1779 Folsom, SF; (415) 552-4400,

Vieux Carre How do you raise a glass to a good April’s Fools Day prank? Since only rush-hour radio hosts and nine-year-olds actually carry out pranks, you probably don’t. So relax, there’s no need to fuss over this "holiday." Instead, take the time to savor a fine local drink. The Vieux Carre is a version of a classic New Orleans cocktail with its amalgam of rye, cognac, and sweet vermouth. It tastes more like Manhattan in 3-D, however, than it does an Old-Fashioned, Sazerac, or Sidecar — a high-powered, cheek-parching blast. Alembic, 1725 Haight, SF; (415) 666-0822,

Take Your Pick Few outside Massachusetts, Maine, or Wisconsin celebrate Patriot’s Day, which falls on the first Monday in April. But it’s a great excuse to patriotically hoist one. Head to Dimples on Post and order whatever. The mirrored-out decor and neon light overload is so dazzling that your cocktail choice won’t matter — it’ll be like an early Fourth of July, but indoors. Go, USA! Dimples, 1700 Post, SF; (415) 775-6688.

Blue Tokyo Come Earth Day, the Blue Tokyo at Festa Wine and Cocktails should be the perfect drink to remind you that our island cities will soon be submerged, once the sea levels rise high enough. An unfussy mix of vodka, pineapple, and Curaçao amid Festa’s menu of ostentatious pear cosmos and pomegranate martinis, the drink is a useful aid to celebration — it’s almost a frat house cocktail in its simplicity. It wouldn’t jive at most bars, but at this kitschy lounge overlooking Webster — complete with fake skyline behind the karaoke stage — it works perfectly. Festa Wine and Cocktails, 1581 Webster, suite 207, (415) 567-5866.

Bohemian Forget the corporate beer and margarita mix branding that’s attached itself to Cinco de Mayo. Do something different, dammit, and head to Blondie’s Bar and No Grill in the Mission for a Bohemian. Along the same taste lines as, but more full-bodied than, a Cosmo, this well-balanced drink contains a generous dose of 151, so you can feel sunny and in sync with Cinco. Blondie’s Bar and No Grill, 540 Valencia, SF; (415) 864-2419,

Sangre Amado Few complicated cocktails are as rooted in earthy flavor as the Sangre Amado, and no place in town makes it better than Catalyst Cocktails. After a fulfilling, tree-hugging Arbor Day, cozy up with this drink made with either vodka or gin, rosehips-hibiscus syrup, grapefruit juice, and fresh strawberries. For all its contents, the concoction is far from overwhelming, and it easily plants the seeds for another round. Catalyst Cocktails, 312 Harriet, SF; (415) 621-1722,

Dark and Stormy Despite its name, this semiclassic cocktail — which gets its best treatment at Koko Cocktails — is the perfect way to kick off Memorial Day weekend and ease into the summer season. The taste brings to mind yachting through the Caribbean, which is why I hope the name is ironic. A smooth mix that falls halfway between a mojito and a whiskey ginger, this bevvie consists of ginger beer, lime, and a mild rum that makes it soar. KoKo Cocktails, 1060 Geary, SF; (415) 885-4788

Falling flat


It was clear early on that the Slow Beer Festival, presented March 1 by Slow Food San Francisco and the San Francisco Brewers Guild, was more of an excuse to get drunk in a convention hall on a Saturday afternoon than to explore how beer could be sustainable. Twelve NorCal microbreweries lined the green-hued cement walls of the County Fair Building — Marin Brewing, Speakeasy, Anderson Valley, Red Seal, and so on. An administrator at the front desk, though, couldn’t tell me what the difference was between a Slow Beer and your everyday microbrew (though she did say it was "a good question"). The man at the nationally distributed Gordon Biersch stand said bluntly, "Yeah, we’re a corporation."

Normally I’d say, "Fill up my glass and pass me another Gambone-mushroom-and-cheese skewer [drizzled in salsa verde]!" Here, though, I began to actually wonder how beer could be incorporated in the Slow Food ideology. As the manifesto says, "May suitable doses of guaranteed sensual pleasure and slow, long-lasting enjoyment preserve us from the contagion of the multitude who mistake frenzy for efficiency."

The Slow Foodists seek not just to change the food we consume but to change how we consume it as well. So isn’t a sterile room for beer tasting just stripping beer down to its flavor, and not about the way we experience it? At the festival, on one side of the gate there was a crowded room with a slender outdoor food garden and (by my estimate) 200 gallons of beer; on the other side, a park blanketed in sunshine. The latter setting might be better for bringing out the true sensual pleasures of beer. Next year, why not save money on the room deposit and hold the event in Michael Pollan’s backyard?

Nog on the noggin



For a drink that holds as much tradition as it does taste, one might think an integral part of the eggnog experience would be gathering around a pot and stirring up this year’s batch. For most, though, the experience comes from throwing a carton in your shopping cart and popping it open later that night. This year I figured, if I’m not making it myself, I should at least find out who was – and who was doing it best.

Straus Family Creamery Organic Eggnog

If you woke up one morning and McDonald’s food was healthy and local, made only by well-paid workers, outside on warm days, would it still have that lingering gross taste? Or is that just a function of knowing about its production line? This is what I began to wonder when I learned about the Marin County creamery’s eggnog, which tastes like a rich, decadent McDonald’s treat but is also made with only four ingredients, all organic. (Unfortunately, the over-crisp nutmeg and yolk flavors also make it hard to drink more than a glass or two.)

The handsome, if not too wholesome, president of the company, Albert Straus, said coming up with his special recipe was simply a matter of trial and error. He tried a few variations of the basic ingredients – sugar, egg, milk, and nutmeg – in the company’s test kitchen. Once he found the right combination, he asked California Custom Fruit in Irwindale to make a concentrate, which Straus Family Creamery then adds to their milk.

Clover-Stornetta Organic Eggnog

In the late seventies, says Herm Benedetti, Clover-Stornetta whipped up eggnog for friends and close customers, spiking it with bourbon. “People loved getting it”, says Benedetti, director of Product Research & Development and one of the sons of the company founder. But liability issues forced the Petaluma-based company to stop serving the alcoholic concoction.

Four years ago, though, Clover-Stornetta was finally able to source the ingredients to make an organic eggnog. The first test batch was too sweet and the second too flavorful, said Benedetti. But like the Goldilocks story, the third was just right. “We felt we had a winner,” he said. “So we stuck with it.”
Eggnogs are required by law to have six percent milkfat, and Benedetti’s version lets you taste it. The yolk and nutmeg are soft complements to a drink that makes you think you’re sucking down the middle of a huge Oreo. In fact, the greatest flaw of this eggnog, my favorite in the list, might be this eminent creamy drinkability. After all, if eggnog were supposed to be so drinkable, it wouldn’t be around just two months a year.

Organic Valley Eggnog

Maged Latif, Director of Research and Development for Organic Valley Coop, says the Flavor Order Profile for his eggnog starts with sugar and ends with nutmeg. It took Organic Valley 12 months to get the recipe right right, including time for market feedback research.

When I sipped it, I felt the egg flavor came first, followed quickly by a cream-brigade that put out the sweetened yolk taste before it got gross. The nutmeg came somewhere in between. But both Latif and Emily Strickler, Fluid Category Associate, are proudest of the nutmeg.

“What makes ours unique is that we don’t add [fake] nutmeg flavor,” Latif said. Strickler agreed, “We pride ourselves on our nutmeg flavor profile.” Because Organic Valley is a countrywide coop of farmers, including many in the Bay Area, eggnog provided the company with a great way to use more of the farms’ resources. “[It offered us] great synergy between poultry farmers where get our eggs with our dairy farmers,” said Latif.

Feast: 6 top-notch tipples


Vanguards of the gastronomic West, we San Franciscans no longer teeter through establishments that struggle over cooking a steak or making a dry martini. Now it’s heirloom this, house-made that. But yet, too often we find menu exoticism riding roughshod over care and competence. Go to a grill in Millbrae and you may sooner find mustard-encrusted salmon than a truly good burger; likewise, walk into a lounge in SoMa and you might see a bartender rolling up his sleeves to make a Thai-basil gimlet, only to then throw some Jameson into decaying java to pass off as an Irish coffee. Fortunately, though, there are still some bars that don’t get caught up in this culinary hullabaloo and can pull off even the easiest drinks. Following are some of our favorites.


If the intended goal of making a cosmopolitan is a cocktail that is at once darlingly pretty and also scrumptious to the average palate, then a couple of monkeys with a couple of bottles of liquor could make a whole tasting menu. The cosmo at Americano, though, is made with the same care the staff gives a martini: real sugariness matches the tartness, the cranberry juice is nothing more than a soft touch, ice chips float atop it all, and an astonishing amount of alcohol is fitted into the space provided. Americano, replete in hotel swank, also provides the perfect place for kicking back and mingling with fellow business types.

8 Mission, SF. (415) 278-3777,


There is a growing movement to put rye instead of bourbon in manhattans. While some followers of this ethos hold office hours at Elixir, the manhattan made here with Elixir’s hand-selected barrels of Eagle Rare Bourbon is a treat. Too often a manhattan’s distinguished tones will come together all hunky. Here, though, those same flavors are coaxed into a cuddle puddle of dignity. The drink’s insane smoothness doesn’t come from sanding away the subtler notes either but from polishing the whole thing up.

3200 16th St., SF. (415) 552-1633,


According to Esquire, Bourbon and Branch is one of the top bars in the country. It feels, then, a little perverse to recommend getting a gin and tonic here (not to mention a waste of time even bringing it up). But in a world where so many gin and tonics are rendered impotent with second-class tonic, Bourbon and Branch is clearing a path by making its own. Even with its slight orange flavor, this mixer is the perfect way to sparkle out even the nicest gin. (Of course, no Bombay Sapphire here). One terrible caveat: get here on a lucky day — the homemade tonic goes quickly.

501 Jones, SF. (415) 346-1735,


It’s not hard to find bars in San Francisco that cater to beer aficionados. It’s a little more difficult finding one that appeals to refreshment devotees. Such a person may appreciate an obscure microbrew but will really yearn for a Tecate that’s ice cold. Sadly, bar refrigerators in San Francisco are rarely chilly enough to bring out all the refreshment qualities of beer — but not Ace Cafe’s. The refrigerator here pumps out beers that make your palm burn if you hold them too long. If that’s not enough, Ace Cafe chills its glasses as well. And wait — what’s this? Are these pretzels to munch on? This place knows how to serve a beer.

1799 Mission, SF


You wouldn’t think Laszlo, with its blaring techno, European clientele, and postindustrial decor, would be the place to relax with a White Russian at the end of an evening. But as the bar apparent of Foreign Cinema, it can consistently make a creamy but still cutting nightcap. Plus, the sidewalk tables provide a charming space for enjoying the Mission Street show.

2534 Mission, SF. (415) 401-0810,


The overwhelming mai tai–ness of Li Po comes across in everything from its bizarre, saturated decor to its sometimes even more bizarre bands and mishmash clientele. In fact, being here is like swimming in a giant mai tai. This wouldn’t be so bad, except the bartenders here maintain that their mai tai has a secret ingredient — and that could be bad for the skin. Fortunately, this secret ingredient does wonders for the taste of the drink. More than just your typical fruity cocktail, Li Po’s version will have you rocking out alone in the basement, only to come drooling back to fork over $7 for another. Yes, the place can sometimes attract tourists. But since when is having the chance to buy a mind-blowing beverage for a sexually confused Minnesotan a bad thing?

916 Grant, SF. (415) 982-0072*

Considering chloramine



For three years, dozens of Bay Area residents have alleged the water disinfectant used in San Francisco and other cities causes a variety of symptoms ranging from asthma to fainting to rashes. The San Francisco Department of Public Health has spent more than $100,000 to study the chemical, chloramine, but it has not done a full scientific study that might prove or disprove a connection between the chemical and the reported symptoms.

Responding to the lack of scientific studies on the dermatological and respiratory effects of the chloramine, Assemblymember Ira Ruskin (D–Redwood City) introduced legislation to further study the chemical, but the measure was held up in the Appropriations Committee as the June 8 deadline for advancing it passed, frustrating those who hoped to finally get some answers.

Chloramine replaced chlorine in San Francisco’s water system in February 2004 after the Environmental Protection Agency tightened regulations against trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids, chlorine by-products that may be carcinogenic. Chloramine, which doesn’t produce high levels of these by-products, is the only other distribution-system disinfectant with EPA approval. It has been in use since 1917, and 29 percent of water utilities in the United States now use it. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission was the last major Bay Area water utility to adopt it, placing it in the water that also supplies nearby cities.

Soon after the switch, though, people began to report problems. Denise Johnson-Kula of Menlo Park said she fainted while taking a shower two days after the chemical was introduced.

"My sinuses filled up; my nose was running like a faucet… I coughed and wheezed until I could not breathe and slid down the shower," she told the Guardian. "I heard the doorbell like I was dreaming; I didn’t realize I was sitting on the bathroom floor."

After throwing out all her soap and shampoo and still having allergic reactions while bathing, she avoided the shower altogether. She still washed the dishes, though, and noticed she got rashes where the water touched her. Once she took herself completely off the water, Johnson-Kula’s symptoms went away.

She now avoids the city water altogether, spending $200 a month on bottled water and traveling more than an hour to take a shower on weekends. She started a group called Citizens Concerned About Chloramine, which claims more than 400 members and has led to the creation of similar groups in Vermont, New York, and Maine.

Other stories play out similarly. Jo Yang, 24, of Los Altos, for example, developed debilitating rashes across his body and face while drinking chloraminated water in San Diego in college. When he came home in 2005 to Los Altos, which was then using chloramine, his rashes didn’t clear up until he avoided the water. Marylin Raubitschek, 81, of San Mateo, says she is "very healthy," but days after chloramine was introduced, she got welts and scabs across her body. Once off the water, she said, her symptoms cleared up. Raubitschek is currently moving to a district that does not use chloraminated water.

In response to these allegations, the SFDPH spent six months from late 2004 to early 2005 studying the chemical. Although the SFDPH reviewed the available medical literature, the existence of complaints in other utility districts, and the chemistry of chloramine, it did not undertake a correlative study between the symptoms and the chemical. Such a study, it estimates, would require a sample of more than 142,000 people.

However, June Weintraub, a senior epidemiologist at the SFDPH, says the public health community would back a study if there were reason to believe the chemical might cause problems in some people. Part of the decision not to pursue further studies was based on an informal investigation into the dermatitis symptoms. Individuals were invited to call in to report symptoms and answer questions.

But Johnson-Kula says few knew about the investigation. Even as president of the CCAC, she did not know about it until there was a month left. She said that when people finally called in, "they were told the survey was over."

Seventeen people took the survey in the end. The results were published in a peer-reviewed journal and concluded that the symptoms were too heterogeneous to warrant further study. But Weintraub noted, "It is possible that people might experience different symptoms from the same irritant."

One SFPUC report adds that there was no change in the number of water-illness complaints between 2002 and 2006. The only change experienced was a decrease in dirty-water complaints.

"Given the evidence that we have available now, it absolutely points that there is not a public health concern," said Weintraub, who notes that 12 percent of people have dermatitis, which could explain the symptoms.

But how does that square with the city’s precautionary principle, which demands it err on the side of caution about the use of chemicals, even if that is not immediately cost-effective?

"There is less research on chloramine than on chlorine, [so] I don’t blame the SFPUC for moving over to chloramine," said Jennifer Clary, a water policy analyst at Clean Water Action. "[It’s] avoiding the devil you know for the one you don’t."

The precautionary principle may guide us to use chloramine, but it also demands we invest the resources to understand its potential effects. The recently defeated bill would have directed the UC Center for Water Resources to do a $140,000 study of the disinfectants used by the SFPUC and their by-products.

The director of the UC Center for Water Resources, Andrew Chang, told us, "If this study is not done, there is not much lost from a scientific point of view…. As far as we’re concerned, chloramine at the kind of level [one to two parts per million] is safe."

Marc Edwards disagrees. A professor at Virginia Tech, Edwards discovered that the switch to chloramine in Washington, DC, caused lead to be leached into drinking water.

"As a general rule … you ignore homeowner complaints at your own peril," he says. "More often than not, there is something to those complaints."

Edwards points to a recent case in Maui. Citizens were reporting rashes and breathing difficulties after chloramine was added to the water. He says authorities considered their stories "half-baked," but eventually the symptoms were linked to Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a bacterium whose presence was triggered by the addition of phosphates to the chloraminated water.

"Someone could and should be looking into this in a systematic and scientific way," Edwards said.*