“Oh, King Alcohol!” cried Happy Jack. “Great is thy sway! Thou makest meaner creatures, kings, and the unfortunate fellow of the gutter forget his miseries for a while!”
– Herbert Asbury, “The Barbary Coast,” 1933
Tiny café tables with wooden chairs sit in corner nooks, high-backed wooden booths abound, and there’s even a small sitting room tucked off to the side, complete with velvety settees and a little wood-burning stove. The tinkling of an upright piano wafts down from a balconied nook high above the bar room floor.
Fine, I’m gushing. But sleuthing out the perfect bar for every mood can be a full-time occupation, and as I cozy up to the huge mahogany bar I know I can knock at least one off my list: historical preservation. Besides, let’s remember who we’re talking about. As a lady who surrounds herself with old wooden ships and the men who love them, I’d say I’m a bit of a preservation piece myself. A smile creeps in as I adjust my hat in the handsome beveled mirror and an equally handsome bartender smiles back. It’s like a nice clean slice of rough-and-tumble heaven.
A great deal, if not all of this sensation, is owed to the respect with which saloon keepers Jonny Raglin and Jeff Hollinger have treated their endeavor. Rather than setting out from Absinthe with the idea of creating another hip throwback establishment, it was the building itself that called out what it wanted to be. In fact, before finding the space at 155 Columbus, it was assumed they’d be opening a much more modern showcase for their classic cocktails.
I get the story from Jonny, who tells me that while digging through records of the former home of the San Francisco Brewing Company – where Comstock now resides – they found that the building has stood there since 1907 (the first incarnation having been wiped out by the earthquake and fire) and was always in service as an operating bar. What this means is that, while The Saloon, a few blocks away at 1232 Grant Street, might hold court as the city’s oldest bar (established in 1861 and not quelled by flames), the Comstock’s building could well be the last standing bar of the Barbary Coast.
Thus, it became their mission to restore it to its former glory while adding their own historical touches. Look above the bar and you’ll find a statue and inscription commemorating Emperor Norton (though nothing for poor Oofty Goofty). The bar is named after Henry Comstock and his famous Comstock Lode, one of the first mining discoveries that brought money to San Francisco. As if that’s not enough, there’s not a bad-looking bartender to be seen – especially if your fancy runs toward bow ties and suspenders. Shaking hands with the mustachioed Jonny is like coming face-to-face with one of the original San Francisco Seals.
When questioned about the “local” cocktails on the menu, Jonny is quick to point out the reigning king – Pisco Punch. Created in the mid-to-late 1800s by Duncan Nicol, proprietor of the Bank Exchange Bar on Montgomery Street, Pisco Punch was by far the most popular drink in San Francisco during its heyday. While Nicol was reputed to have taken the secret of his concoction with him when he moved six feet under, he must have leaked it to someone, as the Comstock serves up a mix that I can only assume is pretty damn close to the original: Pisco (a Peruvian brandy), pineapple gum (a mix of the fruit’s juice, simple syrup, and gum arabic) and lime.
While all these ingredients would have been prevalent among the shiploads coming into port from South America in the late 1800s, it’s easy to see how the advent of Prohibition, followed by the drying up of that style of shipping trade put Pisco Punch out of vogue for many a year. Thanks in part to the folks at the Comstock (and, one should think, the venerable order of E Clampus Vitus, whose plaque immortalizes it inside the Transamerica Pyramid), Pisco Punch is back in all its understated glory.
Served up in an elegant stemmed punch glass, it’s reminiscent of a spiked lemonade, with that same slightly weightier viscosity due to the gum arabic. It’s cool and delicious and I could drink it all day long (and knowing me, probably will at some point). Jonny then offers up a small glass of the Pisco by itself. While the punch didn’t appear particularly dangerous, a sip of its main ingredient gives one pause. As far as I’m concerned, Thomas W. Knox summed it up in 1872, and I’d be a fool to try and do better:
“It is perfectly colourless, quite fragrant, very seductive, terribly strong, and has a flavour somewhat resembling that of scotch whiskey, but much more delicate, with a marked fruity taste. The first glass satisfied me that San Francisco was, and is, a nice place to visit. The second glass was sufficient, and I felt that I could face small pox, all the fevers known to the faculty, and the Asiatic cholera combined, if need be.”
Yessir, I’ll most definitely have another.
For round two (or is that three?), I’m introduced to the Martinez, another local favorite that made its entrance around the same time. While legends abound (it originated in the town of Martinez, was named after someone of that name, is grandfather to the Martini, and so on), the story I get from Jonny is that it was mixed up by one of the waterfront bartenders (possibly again at the Bank Exchange) for a customer in need of a libation to carry him on his journey across the Bay to Martinez.
A nice, stiff drink was poured (remember this trek would have been a just a hair more complicated sans bridges) consisting of Old Tom gin, sweet vermouth, maraschino liqueur, and bitters, complemented by a bit of lemon for garnish. Comstock uses these same ingredients, put down in writing by “Professor” Jerry Thomas in his 1887 Bar-Tender’s Guide and, yes, that is not a cocktail to be taken lightly. It’s very strong, quite sweet, and nothing like your run-of-the-mill Martini. Which begs the question of whether they’re even related.
While it’s possible that playing with the two main ingredients (gin and vermouth) did in fact create the latter over time, Jonny finds it much more likely that the Martini was a fabricated product of vermouth company Martini and Rossi, with a nod to the older recipe for inspiration But as the two are so completely different in taste it’s pretty much a moot point.
The attraction of the Martinez, and many of the old-time cocktails offered by Comstock, is sweetness. The argument has been made many a time that back in the day, sweet ingredients were used to cover the taste of awful (and awfully strong) alcohol. Jonny’s in disagreement with this assessment, in part because pre-Prohibition alcohols wouldn’t have been made in any less traditional a manner than good spirits are today. More importantly to him, though, is the idea that the sweetness was a virtue, a deliberate desire for something like dessert; an adult treat, if you will. And who doesn’t like to give themselves a little treat?
Another classically San Franciscan libation Jonny's quick to note is the Irish Coffee. While formally branded by the Buena Vista and commonly neglected by those actually residing in the city, Jonny quite eloquently points out that there’s probably not a bartender worldwide who wouldn’t know how to make it, and few who wouldn’t agree about its origination, or at least the legend at large.
As the story goes, one Stanton Delaplane (a travel writer for the SF Chronicle, no less) happened to sip the frothy wonder at Ireland’s Shannon Airport sometime in the early 1950s. After returning to our fair city, he raved about it to Jack Koeppler, owner of the Buena Vista and the two set out to re-create the effect sans recipe. Many an unsatisfactory replica went down the hatches before the assistance of San Francisco’s own mayor – who just happened to own a dairy farm – produced the desired effect, and 1952 became a good year for anyone who likes a lot of cream with their whiskey.
As coffee’s seldom my bag, and definitely a no-no after dark, I continue my tippling with a Hop Toad – a combination of Jamaican rum, apricot brandy, lime, and bitters. Though Jonny’s mentioned that it’s another San Francisco contribution, he defers to Jeff for the backstory. Jeff’s not entirely certain of its origins without digging into the archives. The mystery remains, and it’s fine by me. If our city can lay claim to that heady concoction, all the better for us, otherwise bless the man who did create it – she’s a doozy. I polish off the last of that glorious elixir, wolf my way through a plateful of pickled eggs on rye toast, and set off wobbling into the night, hoping I don’t get shanghaied on the way home.
If it’s the history of these great old cocktails that tickles your fancy, pick up a copy of Cocktail Boothby’s American Bartender (written in 1903 by the well-known head barman at the Palace Hotel) newly reprinted and available at the California Historical Society. While you’re there, see if there’s a copy of Herbert Asbury’s The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld – part truth, part legend, and a wonderful inspiration. Reading material or no, make your way to the Comstock, as nothing beats a trip to the saloon itself to savor that ambiance and good cheer, not to mention the handsome and knowledgeable barkeeps serving up those glorious concoctions.