You could walk by it without ever thinking twice. It certainly doesn’t look like the home base for a heroic team of radical mixologists. Which, you know, is pretty much the point of a secret headquarters.
Inside, up two flights of stairs, is a homemade bar fashioned from reclaimed wood and repurposed dresser drawers. It’s here that the five members of Cocktail Lab gather to laugh, plot, research, and, as might be expected, have a drink or three. Recently, I joined the quintet after one of their regular Tuesday afternoon meetings to find out how – and why – they have taken San Francisco’s cocktail world by storm.
As originally conceived, Cocktail Lab was not the heady mix of science and booze that we know and love. As Ethan Terry freely admits, “We just wanted to get good jobs at cool bars.” In pursuit of this goal, Ethan joined with the like-minded Timothy Zohn, Brandon Josie, and Danny Louie to throw a series of themed events that were as successful as they were outrageous.
There was ’80s Shades & Switchblades, which offered reimagined versions of the somewhat dire cocktails of the era. Rather than raiding the well, Cocktail Lab’s version of a Long Island Iced Tea employed Coca-Cola foam and a tea-infused gin. Meanwhile, the cloying sweetness of a Midori Sour was transformed into something that people over 15 might want to drink, in a version that combined homemade melon cordial with jalapeño juice to bring heat and color.
The mere mention of the Bollywood-themed party at Dosa in Japantown brings smiles to the group’s faces. “Oh man,” laughs Danny. “Bollywood!” Among the many beverages consumed that raucous night were a duck-fat Manhattan and tiki drinks shaken in young coconuts.
But as the group found success – and got the very jobs they had coveted – they also came to realize that the discovery and development of new techniques was even more exciting. The word “passion” was thrown around a lot during my visit with Cocktail Lab. “We’re all passionate. That’s what drives us,” says Brandon, as his fellows nod.
The final member to join the team was Anne Sauer, who began as a self-described “Cocktail Lab groupie” but has become invaluable as the group’s main organizer. “The early parties were fun, but they were also unsustainable,” explains Anne. Ethan jumps in: “The best part for all of us was the interactive component. It was really exciting to see people play with the tools we had given them.”
Hometown: St. Louis
Time in SF: 2 years
Where to Find Her: Soda jerk at Ice Cream Bar and Soda Fountain
Superpower: Operations. “Anne is the one who gets us where we need to be,” says Brandon.
Hometown: Salt Lake City
Time in SF: 5.5 years
Where to Find Him: Bartender at Bloodhound and AQ
Superpower: Execution. “Brandon makes great drinks,” says Timothy.
Hometown: SF native
Where to Find Him: Bartender at Alembic
Superpower: Research and development. “I really enjoy learning the process.”
Hometown: Small-town Illinois
Time in SF: 8 years
Where to Find Him: He’s the self-described “co-lead bar ninja” at AQ.
Superpower: The Idea Man. “We all contribute, but Ethan always has some crazy idea,” explains Danny.
Time in SF: 7 years
Where to Find Him: He’s AQ’s other “co-lead bar ninja.”
Superpower: “I’m the face,” laughs Timothy. Ethan winces, “Please don’t put that in the article.”
Over the past year, Cocktail Lab has embraced interactivity with a fervor that borders on the pathological. Everything came together at their Shaker & Flask event during SF Cocktail Week in September 2011. Cocktail Lab created drinks and demos that allowed partygoers to participate in the creation of their drinks.
A punch could be customized with different “flavor pearls” that could infuse drinks with everything from herbaceous Fernet to sweet cherry Maraschino. The result was delivered via a booze luge carved into an ice sculpture of the Cocktail Lab emblem. Guests could also create their own gin, choosing from a mix of botanicals that were then “quick infused” with whipped cream canisters. An industrial paint mixer was even repurposed to make egg white fizzes.
Partygoers drank, marveled, and drank some more. Ass was kicked. Timothy grins, remembering the success. “That’s when we realized that Cocktail Lab was something we wanted to, like, actually do.”
It might come as some small surprise that, despite deft deployment of liquid nitrogen and sodium alginate, not one member of Cocktail Lab has any scientific training beyond standard high school stuff. Everything they do comes from genuine curiosity, mixed with a heavy dose of experimentation. For Danny, this discovery process often begins in the kitchen. “Having an understanding of the kitchen part really related to what I can bring to the bar.”
Ethan reveals that many of Cocktail Lab’s techniques come from others. “We camp out on a lot of blogs. We’re really not always looking to discover something,” he says. But he thinks the group’s role as a conduit from “bar geeks” to the masses is important. “We want to be that part on the Venn diagram, to bring those worlds together.”
For now, much of Cocktail Lab’s development process takes place either at the Western Addition headquarters or at the members’ places of employment. But the group pines for something more than half of a living room in a third story walkup.The holy grail would be a dedicated Cocktail Lab space, a true laboratory where they could explore as far as their interests might take them. “We would feel official, like a company,” says Brandon.
This lab would function as an event space, a kitchen, a place to prep for parties and competitions – and a home for the “crazy equipment” Brandon covets. “Stuff we couldn’t fit at our house without pissing off our roommates,” he gushes, excited by the very idea. “A homogenizer. Infrared thermometers. A centrifuge!”
The team revealed plans to build out their website which is currently empty. The future will bring blogs, recipes, and instructional videos. The passion that connects the five returns as they start brainstorming. A book! A movie! A mobile bar! A moonbase!
If even one percent of what these five concocted that afternoon comes true, we’re all going to be drinking very well for a long, long time.
Keep your eye on the Cocktail Lab site and Twitter for upcoming events. The Bold Italic is teaming up with Cocktail Lab for a series of workshops. Or you can visit the members of Cocktail Lab while they work their day jobs at some of SF’s best places to drink. Ethan and Timothy are at AQ along with Brandon, who splits time between there and Bloodhound. Danny’s at Alembic, and Anne is at the Ice Cream Bar and Soda Fountain. Until then, try out the original Cocktail Lab recipes below. And make enough to share!
(makes two cups)
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup water
1 cinnamon stick
Combine everything in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir until the sugar has dissolved, then remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature before using. The syrup will keep indefinitely in a sealed container in the refrigerator.
2 oz bourbon
¼ oz Brown Sugar–Cinnamon Simple Syrup
5 dashes Angostura bitters
barspoon of peated Scotch*
2 or 3 ice cubes
strip of lemon peel
*1 full barspoon is approximately equal to 1 teaspoon.
Combine everything except the lemon peel in a rocks glass and stir to chill and dilute. Garnish with the lemon peel by twisting the peel over the drink to release the oils, then setting it in the glass.
Lab Tip: Simple syrup is simple to make, but its flavor can be as complex as you like! Try using different sweeteners (raw sugar, honey, agave), different liquids (fruit juice, tea), and adding different herbs and spices (crushed peppercorns, fresh rosemary, coriander, kaffir lime leaves).
2 oz pisco
½ oz fresh lime juice
½ oz 1:1 evaporated cane sugar simple syrup
dash Angostura bitters
1½ oz water
Combine pisco, lime juice, simple syrup, bitters, and water in the Twist ’n Sparkle bottle. Follow product directions to insert the charger and carbonate the liquid. Chill until ready to serve.
Combine egg white, lime juice, simple syrup, and bitters in a mixing glass and stir just to incorporate. Pour mixture into the whipped cream foamer base, then follow product directions to screw on the top and activate the charger.
To make the cocktail:
Pour the chilled carbonated base into a cocktail glass, then gently spray the egg white foam onto the top of the liquid to create a foamy head.
Lab Tip: Always dilute your cocktails for proper balance! This is especially important to remember if you’re carbonating a cocktail without using soda water or chilling a cocktail without adding ice directly to it.