In bars and restaurants across the Sacramento region, a liquid revolution is taking place.
Made-from-scratch drinks. Hand-muddling. Housemade syrups, tonics, mixers and infusions. Fresh, local ingredients. Boutique distilleries. A farm-to-table ethic. Classic recipes. Novel flavor combinations. Quality over quantity. These are the hallmarks of what Jason Boggs, co-owner of Shady Lady Saloon, calls not a trend but “a renaissance” in the city’s bar scene.
Inspired by the seasonal-and-local movement that’s rocked the food world over the past decade, today’s bar patrons are now demanding the same authenticity in their cocktails. Sacramento’s artisan bartenders are responding, glass by glass.
“I really think we’re in the grass roots of changing the way Sacramento drinks,” says Joe Anthony Savala, beverage director at Zócalo restaurant and co-founder of Midtown Cocktail Week.
As barkeeps grow more discerning, so do their customers. “People are more savvy not just about the cocktails but the ingredients going into them,” according to Rene Dominguez, bar manager at Ella Dining Room and Bar.
In some respects, what’s old is new again. “It’s a return to how things were done way back when,” says Chris Tucker, bartender at L Wine Lounge & Urban Kitchen. “There was a time when the person behind the bar had to know everything about wine, about beer, about spirits, about food, and have an understanding of how all those things work together.”
A small but growing legion of local bartenders (most eschew the term mixologist) is striving for that breadth of knowledge, fueled by what nearly all of them describe as a passion for their craft. What else could inspire a person to spend weeks preserving lemons or hours hand-cutting ice for a drink? “You have to have that desire and that passion for it,” says Tucker.
There’s no question the cocktail landscape is changing in Sacramento, and newer venues seem to be paving the way. That 19 of the 21 craft-cocktail establishments featured below did not exist 10 years ago speaks to the infu-sion of new talent in the city. What the future holds is anybody’s guess. We just hope there’s a shaker involved.
In the local craft-cocktail scene, all roads lead to Shady Lady Saloon. Virtually every scratch bartender in town has launched his or her career at, sought inspiration from, moonlighted for or perfected the trade at the Prohibition era-style bar. In fact, the bench of talent runs so deep here that places like San Francisco’s highly regarded Bourbon & Branch have snagged some of it for themselves.“We’re like the farm team for San Francisco,” jokes co-owner Jason Boggs. Expect faithful replicas and clever reinterpretations of old-timey libations like the Negroni, the sidecar and planter’s punch.
In Old Sacramento, Crescent Club has jumped on the speakeasy wagon with a rustic basement venue (downstairs from Cafe Americain) and a cocktail list that would have been perfectly appropriate a century ago.
The city’s chicest dining establishments also are serving up some of its most inspired cocktails. At Grange Restaurant & Bar, bartender Ryan Seng’s artistic sensibilities (he’s also a painter), coupled with the restaurant’s local-and-seasonal bent, result in creative libations where, as he puts it, “the relationship with the farmers comes into the drinks.” Housemade ingredients such as boar bacon, preserved Meyer lemons and five spice-infused honey are delicious evidence that Seng works really tightly with the kitchen to craft one-of-a-kind beverages.
At Ella Dining Room and Bar, bar manager Rene Dominguez admits he was both amused and flattered when a patron, having enjoyed his now legendary White Linen (Leopold Bros. American Small Batch gin, St-Germain elderflower liqueur, lemon juice, simple syrup, muddled English cucumbers) at another restaurant, asked him recently if he knew how to make one. It’s further evidence, he says, that the cocktail culture is gaining ground in Sacramento, and Ella is helping lead the way.
In keeping with the seasonal approach of executive chef Molly Hawks, Granite Bay’s Hawks restaurant has conceived a house cocktail list that reflects a penchant for fresh-squeezed juices and drinks that round out, rather than compete with, the food menu, including a nicely done Bronx cocktail (Plymouth gin, sweet and dry vermouths and orange juice).
Bartender Dan Mitchell of Mulvaney’s Building & Loan says his approach to tending bar is more about entertaining the customers than inventing newfangled drinks. Classics like his Negroni made from seasonal blood oranges are in keeping with the philosophy of the restaurant, where locally sourced ingredients are the stars.
New on the Scene
At The Press Bistro & Bar, David English (formerly the executive chef at Ella) says he was striving for well-rounded drinks to complement a seasonal menu filled with Mediterranean flavors. Bartenders Scott Martin and Jordan Anderson deliver a nice selection of food-friendly cocktails, from a puckery Italian lemonade (Citron vodka, Campari, lemon juice and agave nectar) to the savory Hemingway (thyme simple syrup, rum, blood orange juice, limoncello).
The concept may be kitschy, but the cocktails at Dive Bar on K Street are the real thing: compelling combinations made from scratch with fresh ingredients. Spice lovers will dig the Holy Mackerel (reposado tequila, ginger liqueur, mango, Tabasco, Thai basil, lime juice, housemade simple syrup).
The concept behind Kupros Bistro, says executive chef Matthew Robinson, is to re-create the friendly atmosphere of the famous TV sitcom bar “Cheers,” so you can sip a Kentucky lemon drop (bourbon, Cointreau, fresh lemon) in a place where everybody knows your name.
The sophisticated cocktail lineup at Lounge on 20 proves that this sleek, shiny hangout is more than just a pretty face. Many of the city’s most respected bartenders have done tours of duty at this midtown venue, where drinks like the Silent Night (blackberry gin, crème de violette, sage, lemon juice) show off the behind-the-bar talent.
It’s a wine bar, yes. But L Wine Lounge & Urban Kitchen also is a don’t-miss cocktail destination owing to the talents of bartender Chris Tucker. Like chef Ame Harrington in the kitchen, Tucker spotlights local, seasonal ingredients whenever possible. His heirloom-tomato Bloody Mary is the essence of summer. Come winter, don’t miss Tucker’s 12 Days of Toddies, a dozen variations on the soul-warming drink.
MIX Downtown boasts one of the most inviting patios in town and a respectable menu of quality handcrafted beverages. The lemon-grass cooler and ginger litchi Collins are serious drinks for people who don’t take themselves too seriously.
Off the grid, the new Pause Lounge & Kitchen in Roseville has brought the craft-cocktail revolution to the suburbs. Expect boutique spirits and a farm-to-table approach from bar director Chris Dooley (formerly of Ella), whose scratch drinks complement an enticing small-plates menu. “I consider myself more of a chef than a server or bartender,” says Dooley. “This is, from the beginning to the end, a passion project.”
Expect the Unexpected
Ignore the old adage about a book and its cover and you could miss some of the finest cocktails in the city. At the tatty but lovable The Golden Bear, Russell Eastman, who cut his bartending teeth at Lounge on 20, practices his craft by revamping classic drinks for a modern audience. He forages through old recipe books, searching for concoctions he can elevate from ordinary to amazing. “I will find certain pieces of a cocktail intriguing, then try things at home” to improve upon it, says Eastman. “That’s where my creative process comes out.”
At Socal’s Tavern in East Sac, bartender John Huerta’s drinks reflect the neighborhood bar’s unvarnished sensibility. Says Huerta, a 15-year veteran of the craft who is a devoted reader of the cocktail columns in the San Francisco Chronicle, “I make drinks that I think people are going to enjoy, standbys that have been eclipsed by other drinks.” Think manhattans, vodka Collinses and fresh strawberry daiquiris.
A Break From Tradition
Forget what you think you know about cocktails at a Mexican restaurant. Zócalo will change your expectations of what a margarita can and should be: made by hand with fresh-squeezed limes, muddled seasonal fruits and quality Latin spirits. Beverage director Joe Anthony Savala fields calls from San Francisco bars fishing for new talent, and he’s been known to send bartenders there to sharpen their skills and bring back new ideas.
Billy Ngo, the wunderkind chef at midtown’s Kru, is known for borrowing—then breaking—from tradition, blurring cultural lines and rewriting culinary rules to create dishes that are uniquely his. At his second restaurant, Red Lotus Kitchen & Bar, the cocktails follow suit, with bar manager Mark Neuhauser and crew using classic drink recipes as a jumping-off point for new and original taste combinations. “It’s really fun to see the faces of friends or patrons light up when they try a cocktail that they didn’t even know was possible,” says Neuhauser.
Even the trendiest folk long for the familiar at times, places where the drinks aren’t froufrou but straightforward and well made. Several local spots fit the bill. The efficient bartenders at the underappreciated Bandera make a tasty basil sidecar and Pimm’s Cup, both of which exemplify the restaurant’s upscale-casual vibe.
The watermelon-and-basil martini at Sienna, a destination for contemporary comfort food in El Dorado Hills, pairs two classic summer flavors with vodka and lime juice—perfect refreshment for when the mercury rises.
Tazzina Bistro & Vintage Lounge in downtown Woodland serves house specialty cocktails in addition to tried-and-true classics like the Sazerac, proof positive that imbibers can live large in a small town.
It would be a shame if tourists were the only ones to kick back on the pretty patio at Old Sac’s Ten 22. It’s the ideal setting for enjoying a Bloody Mary, with its spicy housemade mix and crispy bacon garnish. We’re crossing our fingers that the seasonal ginger-and-fig cocktail returns in the fall.
GOT COCKTAIL RELIGION? These 10 drinks will make you a believer.
The Martinez—Shady Lady Saloon
Gin, dry vermouth, orange bitters, orange peel
You could while away many an hour quaffing at Shady Lady and still not make a dent in the lengthy (and helpfully descriptive) drink menu, but The Martinez is as good a place as any to start.
The Oaxacan Old-Fashioned—Zócalo
Muddled orange peel, agave nectar, angostura bitters, anejo tequila and mezcal
Margaritas and mojitos may be the bread and butter of Zócalo’s bar business, but this Latin twist on one of the oldest cocktails around is evidence that the Mexican restaurant is capable of some delicious innovation in the spirits department.
La Fresa—L Wine Lounge & Urban Kitchen
Blanco 100percent agave tequila, housemade strawberry shrub, lime juice with a chile de arbol and sea salt rim, and arugula garnish
Bartender Chris Tucker calls fresh berries “the pride and joy of springtime”—and with good reason. This drink mingles farm-fresh flavors in new and unexpected ways.
The International—Ella Dining Room and Bar
Johnny Drum bourbon, Dolin Rouge sweet vermouth, Bonal and Cocchi Americano
After observing many bar patrons order a whiskey before dinner, bar manager Rene Dominguez created this aperitif cocktail as a lighter, palate-cleansing alternative—perfect for enjoying right before a substantial meal.
The Bella Fragola—Lounge on 20
Vodka, fresh strawberry purée, lemon juice, simple syrup, basil
Lounge on 20 marketing manager Paul Grenier says that, thanks to the sweet scent of the basil, “you can actually smell this drink being made when you’re walking through the restaurant.”
Anything made by Russell Eastman—The Golden Bear
Trusting a gifted bartender to delight you with novel flavor combinations is one of the joys of the scratch bartending renaissance. With Russell Eastman, intrepid imbibers are always in good hands. His riff on a Bee’s Knees (pictured above)—with gin, fresh lemon juice, honey, Yellow Chartreuse and grapefruit bitters—is sunshine in a glass.
The Bouve—Pause Lounge & Kitchen
Genever, Cocchi Americano, Meyer lemon-infused honey syrup and seltzer
Pause beverage director Chris Dooley describes this cocktail, inspired by a traditional Collins, as a “bright, balanced introduction to spring. I wanted to add depth and layers of flavor to this drink that showcases lesser-known but higher-quality ingredients.”
Spiced Pear Martini—The Press Bistro & Bar
Spiced pear vodka, fresh-squeezed orange and lemon juices, muddled pear and balsamic reduction with a fresh-ground nutmeg and sugar rim
A perfect example of how an unexpected ingredient—in this case, balsamic vinegar—can round out a cocktail’s flavor profile. The savory effect is surprisingly subtle, yet you can’t imagine the drink without it.
The Scratch Manhattan—Grange Restaurant & Bar
House-blended bourbon, seasonal vermouth (think cherry or pomegranate), bitters made in-house with local botanicals
The seasons are the mother of invention at Grange. Even the manhattan’s bitters, which might contain local yarrow and cherry pits or scraps of pomegranate among other botanicals, are a liquid celebration of nature’s bounty.
The Old-Fashioned—Red Lotus Kitchen & Bar
Jim Beam Black bourbon, simple syrup and angostura bitters served over hand-carved ice blocks and garnished with a flamed orange peel
Classic old-fashioneds are everywhere these days, but Red Lotus puts its stamp on this one by lightly torching the orange peel, enhancing the citrus’s aromatic qualities.
FROZEN ASSET—Ice is the unsung hero of the cocktail world. It does its job—keeping drinks cold without diluting the liquor—with little fanfare, and yet more work goes into making drink ice than you might think. “Slow dilution favors the spirit, whatever it may be,” says Mark Neuhauser of Red Lotus. He hand-carves extra-large cubes of ice for premium drinks, first freezing distilled water in a plastic pan, then chiseling away at it with a sharp knife. At Grange, Ryan Seng experiments with ice, sometimes freezing ingredients into it or infusing it with smoke. He’s even rented a snow-cone machine to achieve perfectly shaved ice. As far as Rene Dominguez at Ella knows, no one in town has a “full-grown ice program” replete with a Kold-Draft ice machine for making 1-inch cubes. But, he adds, it’s probably just a matter of time.
This year, MIDTOWN COCKTAIL WEEK takes place Aug. 15–21. More than a dozen venues will participate, with guest bartenders, mixology classes and special food-and-cocktail pairings. For more information, go to MidtownCocktailWeek.org.
2232 Fair Oaks Blvd.
1150 Firehouse Alley, Old Sacramento
1016 K St.
Ella Dining Room and Bar
1131 K St.
The Golden Bear
2326 K St.
Grange Restaurant & Bar
926 J St.
5530 Douglas Blvd., Granite Bay
1217 21st St.
L Wine Lounge & Urban Kitchen
1801 L St.
Lounge on 20
1050 20th St.
1525 L St.
Mulvaney’s Building & Loan
1215 19th St.
Pause Lounge & Kitchen
1465 Eureka Road, Roseville
The Press Bistro & Bar
1809 Capitol Ave.
Red Lotus Kitchen & Bar
2718 J St.
Shady Lady Saloon
1409 R St.
3909 Park Drive, El Dorado Hills
5200 Folsom Blvd.
Tazzina Bistro & Vintage Lounge
614 Main St., Woodland
1022 Second St., Old Sacramento
1801 Capitol Ave.