By Lauren Sloss
In doing my daily cocktail reading (it’s a tough job), I came across an article from a few years back about variations of the classic Manhattan cocktail. And it got me thinking. San Francisco’s a liquor-loving city with a rich cocktail culture; where’s the San Francisco? A cocktail so ubiquitous, so known, that you can walk up to any barkeep worth his salt and order one? And no, I’m not talking about a shot of Fernet.
Well, there is a San Francisco cocktail. Two, actually — one is sloe gin-based, and served up with dry and sweet vermouth, orange and aromatic bitters, and a cherry. The other is vodka-based, and is served over ice with Triple Sec, Creme de Bananes, fruit juice, and grenadine. Following some decently extensive internet research, I was unable to find a history for either of these variations, though the gin drink may have been included in the Savoy Cocktail Book.
Regardless, neither of these scream San Francisco to me. But what exactly would go in a drink that epitomizes the punch of flavor our fair city has to offer? I turned to the experts, San Francisco’s bar stars, to find out. In addition to some great suggestions, I came across a few existing San Franciscos on cocktail menus around town. Spoiler alert: not one of them includes Creme de Bananes.
Kevin Diedrich, Gaspar Brasserie
“I personally have never heard of a San Francisco cocktail. There's the Frisco and the Frisco Sour. I can't imagine a classic cocktail from SF with vodka and bananas. A classic would most likely either have Pisco or whiskey in it.”
Shanan Carney, 620 Jones
“Inspired by the red and orange hues of the Golden Gate Bridge and our unique experience of a SF 'summer:' a little sour (lemon) and a little sweet (sugar) we created a drink on the Jones menu called the San Fran-Tastic.” The drink is comprised of Ketel Oranje vodka, Aperol liqueur, strawberry puree, lemon Juice, and a dash of sugar.
Daniel Patterson, Plum Bar
This DP-approved drink has beet, fennel, and Meyer lemon juice, plus Fernet and vodka. Why these ingredients? “Beet, because the red color references, and ‘I left my heart in...’ Fennel, because it grows wild here. Fernet, because it is loved by the SF cocktail industry. And vodka, because we wanted an interesting and different vodka-based cocktail.”
Matt Grippo, Blackbird
“If I were to make a cocktail named the San Francisco, it would have a lot of Fernet Branca in it. That's our trademark as an industry here. Actually, I would probably just pour a shot of Fernet and call it a day. But when I think of SF cocktail culture, I think of Pisco Punch.”
But the most comprehensive answer of all came from Brian McGregor of Wingtip:
“After paging through numerous tomes of cocktail books, the earliest reference to the San Francisco Cocktail is in the Cafe Royal Cocktail Book, published in London 1937.... It has no reference to Creme de Banana but is unique blend of equal parts Sloe Gin, Dry Vermouth, and Sweet Vermouth along with a dash of Orange Bitters and Angostura bitters.
I tried three riffs on the classic recipe, plus a modern version with more Vermouth than gin. The verdict? The classic, featuring a well-balanced Vermouth (like Martini Rossi Sweet Vermouth) is the winner. That includes equal parts Plymouth sloe gin, Dolin Dry Vermouth, Martini Rossi Sweet Vermouth, and a dash of each bitters. The resulting cocktail is well balanced and herbaceous without being too sweet. It works as an apertif cocktail without being over alcoholic.
If we were to create a modern day San Francisco cocktail, I would have to argue that it must be whisky based. After bartending in this town for close to a decade, the one thing that is prevalent is its love of the brown spirit. That being said, NYC has many drinks named after its many distinctive neighborhoods – that is the route that we should be taking here in SF. I know there used be a Ward Haight at Alembic. I used to have the Western Addtion at Jardiniere. Absinthe had the 21 Hayes named after the bus route. This leaves for much more creative naming, and a wider breadth of cocktails.”