What began as a routine shot of Jim Beam to go with my beer back in my punk rock days has evolved into a cultivated appreciation of small batch bourbons and their myriad caramel complexities. So no one was happier than me when the artisan cocktail movement began to pick up steam and embraced the liquor that has historically been left to cowboys and grandpas.
But as much as I like an authentic Old Fashioned or a Julep with hand-crushed ice, my wallet doesn't have the girth to support more than an occasional indulgence. Drinks like that run at least $10 a pop – more if your eyes stray to the top shelf brands.
As such, I decided to set out into the city on a DIY mission of great importance: I would learn the high art of bourbon drinking and then figure out how to do it at home on the cheap.
My first move was a trip up to The Alembic, located at the top end of Haight Street. There, Daniel Hyatt tends bar with the combined grace of an old saloon jockey and a mad scientist. I lucked into a seat right in front of his workstation at the bar and spent the better part of two hours watching him stir, shake, crush, swirl, and mix one brilliant cocktail after the other.
The Alembic has an immensely impressive array of esoteric and top shelf liquors. The back bar is crowded with bottles bearing colorful labels and names like “Death's Door.” The display is an artful study in chaos, with each of the hundreds of bottles in seemingly near constant use. I was tempted to simply close my eyes and point, knowing that Daniel would work magic with whatever booze fate brought me.
However, my mission for this night focused solely on bourbon. At Daniel's suggestion, I decided to stick within the limited field of classic bourbon drinks. First up was the old southern standby, the Mint Julep. Daniel loaded some block ice into a burlap sack and cracked it by hand with a small hammer. The frosty nuggets were then transferred to a steel drinking vessel, chosen for its ability to keep the Julep ice cold.
In a pint glass, Daniel gently muddled fresh mint and sugar. When I commented on his delicate touch, he explained that the point was not to beat the mint to death. "All you gotta do is wake it up a little bit," he said. With the addition of two fingers of Old Fitzgerald 12 Year Old, the cocktail was transferred to the sweating metal chalice and topped with a bouquet of mint leaves.
Needless to say, that drink went down fast, and I was soon ready for my next libation: the Old Fashioned. This is a bourbon drink that's been growing in popularity as of late. As a dyed-in-the-wool bourbon drinker, I love it for its simplicity. At The Alembic, Daniel makes his with a house barrel of Evan Williams. That means he found an individual batch of bourbon that he especially liked, and then The Alembic bought the whole barrel. In other words, this particular bourbon cannot be had anywhere else in the world. In addition to this exclusive liquor, Hyatt added orange peel and sugar, plus a dash of handmade aromatic bitters. Poured over a handful of ice, it made for the perfect bourbon cocktail.
At this point I would have been happy to simply bask in the warm amber glow of my bourbon buzz, but Daniel instead went for a bourbon cocktail trifecta. To cap off the night, he literally whipped up a variation on the country club standard Whiskey Sour.
The Alembic version starts with high-end bourbon, gum syrup, and fresh lemon juice. This is where most people would stop, thinking they had a pretty good cocktail. Of course, Daniel took it to the next level with the addition of egg white and something mysterious and green, squeezed out of an eyedropper. "Absinthe," he said with a wink.
Hyatt pulled off the spring from his cocktail strainer, dropped it into the mixing glass and shook the whole thing vigorously for at least a minute. The resulting cocktail was frothy, sweet, and haunted by a faint hint of licorice. I threw it back and, bolstered by Dutch courage, declared that I too would learn to work magic with bourbon.
This would of course entail a trip to the liquor store, and not just any store would do. I wanted a selection of small batch bourbons and handmade mixers. I wanted the right tools for the job and, more importantly, I wanted somebody who could tell me how to use them. In San Francisco there is no better place than Cask, the high-end liquor store run by the booze experts behind Beretta and Bourbon & Branch. I stopped in early the next afternoon and talked shop with store managers Amanda Womack and Amy Murray.
I told Amanda about my mission and the bourbon I usually like to drink. I thought I was a sophisticated bourbon drinker, using words like "maple" and "aged barrel wood" to describe my tastes, but Amanda quickly broadened the conversation to include things like wheated bourbon and the alcohol content necessary to kill bacteria (just 8%, for those playing along at home).
Instead of rattling off the virtues of Cask's entire small batch bourbon selection (which looked to consist of at least 50 or 60 varieties), Amanda gave me a choice of a few brands within my price range and then did a quick compare and contrast. Rather than feeling overwhelmed, I quickly picked out two bottles that together cost less than one bottle of my usual brand.
Amanda then handed me over to Amy who walked me through Cask’s selection of handmade mixers – syrups, orgeat, sours, and bitters in every imaginable flavor. The only thing I recognized was the classic paper wrapper on a bottle of Angostura bitters. I asked if I need any special garnishes or umbrellas for my drinks. "Not if you take your cocktails seriously," Amy said.
Properly equipped, I headed home to try my hand at the classic bourbon cocktail. I had spent less than $100, and I had a large enough arsenal to slake the thirst of myself and several others. I called a few friends and they willingly agreed to be my guinea pigs for a night of stay-at-home bourbon experimentation.
I started simple, mixing us a round of Old Fashioneds. This drink was pretty easy. The bourbon I got from Cask was good enough to drink on its own, and the sugar and orange peel simply added an essence of deliciousness that made me seem like a pro. Amy had also talked me into using a bottle of gum syrup instead of plain sugar, and this gave the drink a strangely appealing viscosity. It was hard to say after only one drink, but I was definitely thinking the Old Fashioned was my favorite.
Next I pulled out the mint and my bottle of 100 proof bourbon for a round of Juleps. (Amanda had recommended using a high proof bourbon for sweet drinks, since it would help the booze stand up better against the sugar.) I muddled the mint and sugar the way Daniel had shown me, and then I added bourbon, some ice, and a splash of soda. I topped the whole thing with a sprig of mint and presented the drinks with an emphatic "ta-da!"
The Julep was well received, but I felt that it didn't live up to the one I had enjoyed at The Alembic. Maybe it was my inferior ice cubes or the ambiance of my kitchen versus the vintage speakeasy feel of The Alembic, but my Julep was just not as good as Daniel's. He had warned me that some drinks are as much about the experience as the cocktail itself. The Julep, it seems, might be one of them.
Of course, the Julep still had plenty of kick to it. By the time we reached the bottom of our glasses, we were ready for something a little quirky. I got out the lemons and eggs and deconstructed my strainer in preparation for the Whiskey Sour. In went the bourbon, the syrup, and the lemon. When I cracked open the egg, my impromptu cocktail party let out an "eeewwww," collectively. Still, they were game and at least one person declared the Whiskey Sour to be her favorite cocktail of the evening.
It has been said that alcohol is the great equalizer, but in this case I would say it served as a great unifier. Forced into thriftiness by a bad economy, I learned to drink like a king on a pauper's pay. Using the city as my resource, I was able to pick up the necessary skills and supplies from recognized experts in their field.
While I'm no Daniel Hyatt, my friends were certainly happy to come over to my house and drink the fruits of my labor. Perhaps this is the liquor talking, but I feel a deep affection for a city that provides for its citizens in this way. But just in case it is the liquor talking, I'd like to say thanks to bourbon too.
When you go to The Alembic, try to get a spot at the bar. Watching Daniel Hyatt mix drinks is like watching Jimi Hendricks play guitar. He can mix a drink with one hand, stir with the other, and give a dissertation on small batch bourbon at the same time.
Speaking of which, if you want to expand your horizons – or just your liquor cabinet – check out Cask. They have bottles of bourbon from $20 to $200, and it's all very good.
1 bottle of W.L. Weller 12 Year
This wheated bourbon is especially smooth, making it great for drinks like the Old Fashioned – or by itself on the rocks.
1 bottle of Elmer T. Lee
This single barrel sour mash has a rich caramel flavor and packs a 100 proof punch. I used it for the Mint Julep and Whiskey Sour.
1 bottle of Small Hands Foods’ Gum Syrup
Use this instead of sugar to give your drinks weight and viscosity.
1 bottle of Angostura bitters
Cask carries a wide variety of handmade bitters, but this classic bottle is a bit of a commodity these days. Due to a strike at the bottling factory, Angostura hasn’t produced any new product in over a year. It has become increasingly difficult to find, but of course, they have it at Cask.
Cocktail shaker/strainer kit
Hard wood muddler, hand-crafted in San Francisco
by The Mojito Man
The Old Fashioned
_ In a bucket glass (wide body, 8–10 oz.), lightly muddle a slice of orange peel and 1/2 tsp gum syrup
_ Add 2–3 large cubes of ice, followed by 2 oz. of wheated bourbon (W.L. Weller or similar)
_ Top with a splash of club soda and stir gently with swizzle stick
_ Garnish with bourbon soaked cherry (optional)
_ In a pint glass, gently muddle 8–10 leaves of fresh mint and 1 tsp gum syrup
_ Add 5–6 large cubes of ice, followed by 2 oz. of strong bourbon (90 proof or above)
_ Cover pint glass with cocktail shaker and shake firmly for about 5 seconds
_ Transfer contents to bucket glass or chilled metal julep cup and top with a splash of soda
_ Garnish with a large sprig of fresh mint
Whiskey Sour (courtesy of Daniel Hyatt at The Alembic)
_ In a pint glass, mix together 1/2 tsp cane syrup, 1 tsp each fresh squeezed lemon and orange juices, the whites of one egg and 2 oz. of Elijah Craig 94 proof bourbon
_ Fill glass with ice, cover with cocktail shaker and shake vigorously for 20–30 seconds (optional: remove spring from cocktail strainer and put it into glass before shaking for added frothiness)
_ Strain contents into an up glass and top with 2 drops of authentic absinthe