Chris Dooley, bartender, Ella Dining Room & Bar

Chris Dooley, bartender, Ella Dining Room & Bar

Awakening the Spirits

Sacramento bartenders revive cocktail classics

Back Article Jan 1, 2013 By Kristen Lowrey Larson

Chris Tucker rolls a lemon across an electric branding iron at Hook & Ladder Manufacturing Co. in downtown Sacramento. Tucker, the restaurant’s beverage director, began using this signature garnish for a number of craft cocktails after watching a video of a bartender in Japan using a similar technique.

Tucker considers himself one of a growing number of Capital Region bartenders promoting craft cocktails, which use exotic or unusual ingredients in mixed drinks. Alcohol aficionados say the trend is piggybacking on a more recent cultural embrace of sustainable local agriculture consumption, namely the farm-to-table and Slow Food movements. 

Recently, a group of Sacramento bartenders started a chapter of the United States Bartender’s Guild, which Tucker says is “about raising the craft and the level of professionalism for bartenders.”

“Being able to call myself a part of [the bartending] community is really special and really unique,” says Tucker, who has worked at numerous reputable local cocktail establishments, including the Shady Lady Saloon, Red Rabbit Kitchen and Bar, Grange Restaurant & Bar and the former L Wine Lounge & Urban Kitchen, which closed in 2011 but was considered one of the first bars in Sacramento to put craft cocktails on their menu.

Ella Dining Room & Bar, which opened in 2009, has also staked a claim in the movement. The farm-to-table restaurant does not include spirit brand names on its menu, which bartender Chris Dooley says “allows the quality of the product to speak for itself” and gives the restaurant flexibility with the products it keeps on hand.

Concealing information about the base liquor is a practice that dates back to the prohibition era, but for a different purpose. Back then, producers of foul-tasting moonshine would enliven their drinks with sugar or other flavors to make the liquid more palatable, explains beer blogger Rick Sellers. Today, historians still debate whether this practice paved the way for the cocktail as it is known today, he says. 

“Whether the origin (of the cocktail) was to make a bad drink palatable or to make something unique is still a point of discussion,” says Sellers, who works as a bartender at Samuel Horne’s Tavern in Folsom. 

The challenge for bartenders today is to cement a bar’s finances with established drinks in order to allow the introduction of more exotic varieties, says Joe Anthony Savala, who works as a representative for Southern Wine & Spirits.

“The key is finding workhorses on your menu that are inexpensive, that you can make a little more money on, that have better percentages to have your other cocktails on your menu that are a lot more expensive,” says Savala, who is also a co-founder of the Midtown Cocktail Week competition, an annual event held by the Midtown Business Association. “The ones that are going to sell heavy have to be profitable in order to balance out the menu.”

Ryan Seng, who won the cocktail competition last year, has been developing drink menus for Grange since the restaurant opened four years ago. Seng faces the challenge of appealing to the local crowd plus travelers because Grange is also the main bar for The Citizen Hotel. His cocktail menu must always include spirits designated by the hotel’s parent company, Joie de Vivre, based in San Francisco.

Seng is also an artist (one of his paintings hangs on the wall inside Shady Lady) and builds a drink menu by drawing the cocktails and garnishes to visualize a balanced list. In designing a quality cocktail, Seng says small details such as ice and glassware ensure a customer’s “tastebuds go on the right roller coaster when drinking.” 

Restaurant bartenders sometimes consult with kitchen staff to create flavor profiles that include seasonal produce and other non-liquid flavors. Such collaboration can be a mixed blessing, however. At Grange, a bourbon drink called the Tusk, which features a strip of candied bacon, was recently added back to the menu after many customers requested its return. It had been removed because of the time that goes into making the bacon each day.

Matt Nurge, who opened The Red Rabbit Kitchen and Bar a year ago, grew up in El Chico’s, a Sacramento bar on Broadway where his mother worked. Nurge has held jobs at numerous local establishments, including Randy Paragary’s R15 where he worked with the three future founders of Shady Lady. Years ago, Nurge would drive with his coworkers to San Francisco to drink classic cocktails unavailable in the capital. 

“We didn’t want to have to drive two hours to get a well made Negroni or Manhattan,” Nurge says. 

Around the same time that Ella and Grange opened, Nurge was asked to be a member of the opening crew at Shady Lady. Within months of opening, the bar became a catalyst for the craft cocktail movement in Sacramento.

Their approach to cocktails was fresh, and their program has unintentionally become a training ground for many bartenders in based Sacramento and San Francisco. 

Shady Lady co-owner Garrett Van Vleck says the re-emergence of cocktails is representative of a bigger movement around local consumption and culinary craftsmanship. “It’s a community of people who would rather put out a good product than just make money,” he says. 

That said, major corporations are also joining the scene. Some chain restaurants are now using freshly-squeezed juice mixers instead of canned juice. And in October, Absolut Vodka introduced Absolut Craft, a liquor series spiced with unusal raw ingredients and herbs and marketed exclusively to bartenders making craft drinks.

“People care about what’s going into their food and their drink,” says Tucker. “You’re starting to see the market react to that.”

Drink and Be Merry

Hook & Ladder De la Cenizas

  • 1 ounce mescal
  • 1/2 ounce apricot brandy
  • 3/4 ounce grapefruit juice
  • 1/4 ounce lime juice
  • 1/4 ounce agave syrup
  • 3 dashes orange bitters

Shake and double strain into an ice-filled, old-fashioned glass. Garnish with grapefruit peel.

Shady Lady Old Fashioned

  • 2 ounces bourbon or rye whiskey
  • 1 sugar cube
  • 2 dashes of Angostura bitters
  • 1 orange peel
  • 1 lemon peel
  • 1 brandied cherry

Pour over ice.

Grange Tusk Cocktail

  • 2 ounces Woodford Reserve or Four Roses Small Batch bourbon
  • 1 ounce bacon vermouth
  • 1 piece candied bacon

In a mixing glass, stir bourbon and vermouth over ice. Pour over fresh ice and garnish with candied bacon.


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