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Top Craft Cocktails/Mixology in San Francisco?

I have gotten recommendations from some very trusted sources at home in Boston, but am looking for your recent, local experiences, feedback and recommendations regarding the following list of reportedly top spots for terrific cocktails in San Francisco - the mixology is the focus (my favorites include Josie/Misty/John at Drink in Boston, Death & Co. in NYC, and Murray at Zig Zag in Seattle for a reference level on the type of place I seek):

1. Heaven's Dog
2. The Alembic
3. Cantina
4. Praesidio Social Club
5. Bar R
6. Baretta

What are the not to miss and don't bother spots on this list? What's missing from the list? When are the best times to experience them? What are your favorite libations or individual mixologists at them?

We will have a car and are willing to drive for something unique and special but are really focused in the city.


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  1. Def hit The Alembic.

    Check out Bourbon and Branch, youll go apeshit.

    I like Rye, but its slightly trendy for some.

    NOPA has great drinks with some great small plates as well.

    1. Classic cocktails
      1. Bourbon and Branch
      2. Alembic

      For some interesting drinks along with good food, check out Aziza.

      1. Slanted Door and its off-shoot Heaven's Dog

        1. Another vote for Alembic. I also like Absinthe, better than Beretta.

          1. My most recent recommendations from Tamir at Slanted Door (formerly Fonda): Beretta, Heaven's Dog, & I believe he might have said Camino but it doesn't really matter because they're in Oakland. I haven't been to these places yet, but I trust the source 100%.

            Bourbon & Branch -- Cucumber Gimlet (sounds girly, but incredibly bright & balanced & clean - just beautiful), Claremont Affair, Classic Martini, and something or other that has apple and whiskey in it. Don't even think about asking for anything with vodka.

            NOPA -- I haven't been here in a year, but used to go fairly often. Pisco Sour, Elderflower Gimlet, friends often ordered the Old Cuban but I'm not a rum drinker so couldn't help you there.

            1. 1. Bourbon and Branch
              2. Alembic (love the carved-from-ice ice cubes)
              3. Nopa and Beretta

              Then comes Heaven's Dog (cocktails as good as Nopa and Beretta, but not as good value, I think.) Cantina's cocktails are good, but they are more fruit-oriented, rather than highlighting the liquor.
              Heaven's Dog cocktails are good, but pretty pricier than the other places

              1. 15 Romolo. Adesso in Oakland. Forbidden Island in Alameda.

                Check out the participating bars and bartenders in SF Cocktail Week, which starts Monday: http://sfcocktailweek.com

                2 Replies
                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                  I like Alembic, Absinthe and would add the Orbit Room at Market and Laguna for tasty and original cocktails. Aziza (Geary and 22nd Ave.) has a very attractive bar and creative drink recipes

                  1. re: saffrongold

                    Can you provide more of a current update on the Orbit Room? It used to be in my top few places when Alberta Straub worked there, but she moved away and for a time they didn't have bartenders who were up to the standard she set. I haven't been back in a year or more, however, so I'd love to know what's changed.

                2. * Alembic is the best in town with beverages. The Sazerac and Hemingway Daquaris are my faves there.
                  * Bourbon and Branch is also quite good. They have a shtick. They do take reservations, which is a plus, although most of the seating is at booths. As another poster noted I do enjoy the Cucumber Gimlet.
                  * Beretta also makes outstanding drinks, but be aware that it is a restaurant with cocktails and the bar area gets swarmed and the wait can get long.
                  * Heaven's Dog is a restaurant first, although it does have a long bar. There are several great bartenders, including several named Eric. All of the eric/eriks are good.
                  * Absinthe does make great drinks, much better beverages than food.

                  1. I'd second pretty much all of the previous recs.

                    Slanted Door's drinks are superb, and they've got a great location. The down side is that they are quite popular for their food, so it can tough to snag a seat at the bar. I generally find the best time to go is between lunch and dinner service. Heaven's Dog is fantastic as well, and is using the Gentleman's Companion as their drink guide, so it's a good place to see their tweaks to Baker's drinks. They've also got a pretty rock star line up of bartenders, so it's a great place to choose the "bartender's choice" option from the menu.

                    The only downside of the Alembic, is that they are pretty small, and very popular so it can be a bit difficult to get a seat. The drinks are worth it though. Another thing worth noting is that once a month on a Sunday they do Savoy night where they swap out their menu for the Savoy cocktail book. Obviously it's a long shot as to if you'll be in town for one of those Sunday's but you can keep an eye on their blog for announcements -- http://alembicbar.blogspot.com.

                    Cantina focuses on Latin spirits and cocktails if that sort of thing is of interest to you. If you can, drop by on a Wed. by as you'll find co-owner Duggan McDonnell behind the bar.

                    To the list, I'd add Clock Bar in the St. Francis where Marco Dionysos is currently plying his trade.

                    I'm biased as I have some friends who work there, but you might also want to check out Elixir. They're a neighborhood type joint, that just so happens to be dedicated to making top notch cocktails.

                    4 Replies
                    1. re: boozemonkey

                      What have you loved at Alembic?

                      If I'm going for spendy cocktails that are entree priced, I like the idea of ordering the most difficult to construct drink possible. Alembic certainly fulfills my need for complex ingredients, and they bartenders work hard chipping ice and whatnot.... but the flavors never make it into my drink for some reason, and I want to actually taste the smoked maple bitters, or whatever it is. I always feel like I'm ordering the wrong drink at these places, thinking there must be one or two standouts.

                      1. re: sugartoof

                        I'm not an Alembic habitue, but the few times I've gone I've been struck by how balanced and cohesive the cocktails were, with complex flavor but not individual flavors poking out. I believe that is the result they strive for, but if you were interested in tasting individual flavors, I bet if you tipped well on your first cocktail or two, and you asked when they weren't super busy, they'd let you taste things like bitters in a small cup of soda water to try individual components.

                        When we went mid-afternoon on a Saturday or Sunday, it struck me as the ideal time to visit, because they were nearly fully staffed but only 2/3rds of the seats were occupied and nobody was standing around.

                        1. re: SteveG

                          That's just it though, these weren't balanced drinks in the least, since the flavors of the flowery sounding ingredients were lost entirely in the mix.

                          When done properly, it should add layers, balance, and complexity, otherwise, there's no point throwing 6 ingredients in a glass and then serve something that only tastes like the single booze element cut with a standard juice or mixer. I'm ordering the frilly drinks, and avoiding the classics that novelty ingredients might detract from, so I want something special. I'm not really interested in tasting their house made bitters alone either, I want to see them in action, and taste a concoction that's every bit as exciting as the description. Rather then spend hundreds of dollars pickling myself, I'm just wondering which of their more theatrical drinks they can execute well. What's not to be missed?

                          Thanks for the tip on a good time to go.

                        2. re: sugartoof

                          I'm afraid I can't be of much help here. I live near Alembic, and I pretty much just go there when I'm in the mood for a classic, and too lazy or don't have all the things I need to make it at home so I don't really order off their menu.

                          Have you not liked the drinks you've ordered, or is it just that they don't fit the flavor profile that's in your head? If it's the latter, I'm will SteveG on asking nicely for a taste of whatever it is that interested you in the first place. I've generally found that the folks at Alembic (or any good bartender) are happy to have interested, engaging customers at their bar. Provided they're not in the weeds at the time.

                      2. If you're every willing to leave the city, Flora in Oakland has outstanding cocktails. They use a lot of traditional and historic recipes, but update and tweak them a bit. Simply marvelous! By taking BART to the 19th Street station, a fun cocktail crawl can be had with Flora, Luka, Ozuma, Pecan and the Den at the Fox. Get a drink and a snack at each one and see how many you can do!

                        1. Aziza is very underrated IMO. It might not be for everyone but they have a vodka drink muddled with fresh basil and meyer lemon that is absolutely outstanding.

                          1. Thanks to all for the help and great recommendations. Alembic was a real home run last night - the cocktails, food, and service were all stellar. We were shocked at how GREAT the food was (even relative to our impromptu drop-in lunch earlier the same day at Chez Panisse Cafe) and the drinks were perfect as anticipated. The bone marrow and the scallop dishes were standouts.

                            Bourbon and Branch was a bit more of a contrived scene than I prefer with the password, waiting in the frat party library room, etc. but the cocktail craft was excellent (and more expensive than Alembic) and the low key, professional table service was pretty nice once we were seated. I liked it and was glad to have gone, but won't rush back.

                            2 Replies
                            1. re: rlh

                              Do you recall which cocktails you sampled at Alembic?

                              1. re: sugartoof

                                Sure - started with their Sazerac, which was the best of three among theirs, Bourbon and Branch, and Nopa, though all were good. The next one was a custom drink the bartender concocted since they didn't have the raspberry puree necessary for the Blinker I asked for - it was a really good combination of rye, grapefruit, grenadine, and a bitters I don't remember, then a Vow of Silence - good, but really spicy and my least favorite.

                                Their Vieux Carre was also great, but a surprise to see served up vs. rocks, and for the gin drinker among us, the Corpse Reviver #2 was just right, and the Last Word was also perfect.

                                Now, having also had a nice night out at Nopa last night, Alembic remains our definitely clear favorite for food and drinks in San Francisco and makes us wonder once again why we aren't living here!