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September 15, 2014

Distilleries, Breweries, Bars & Bitters: A Brief Guide to San Francisco Liquor Trends

In 1919, Prohibition closed the historic Bank Exchange & Billiard Saloon, where the Transamerica Pyramid now stands, and the popular Pisco Punch was no longer served in San Francisco. The nationwide ban on alcoholic drinks produced other casualties as well: absinthe, beer, brandy, and other adult libations. In 1933, the 21st Amendment was passed and America’s “Noble Experiment” was over. San Franciscans marked the day with sirens and a parade.

San Francisco, not one to shy away from anything spirited, is now home to bars that specialize in once banned spirits and brews, and there is nothing bitter about the selection. Here are a few places where you’ll find an old-fashioned approach to cocktails.

Pisco Punch, the original, is rediscovered using Duncan Nicol’s “secret ingredient”

Pisco is a brandy distilled from grapes grown in Peru (originally planted by Spanish Conquistadors in the mid 1500s). Imported to San Francisco in the 1800s, “Pisco Italia” was the most expensive liquor in San Francisco, and was beloved by authors Rudyard Kipling and Herman Melville.

Duncan Nichol created “Pisco Punch” for the Bank Exchange in 1893 and the recipe was thought to have died with its creator in 1926. Historian Guillermo Toro-Lira researched the secret ingredient and in 2008 he recreated the “original recipe” for San Francisco’s favorite outlawed libation, introducing it at his Pisco Lounge.

Pisco Latin Lounge (Hayes Valley)
1817 Market St.

No absence of absinthe

Absinthe is an anise-flavored spirit derived from herbs, including the flowers and leaves of the herb Artemisia absinthium, also called wormwood. It achieved great popularity in late 19th- and early 20th-century France, particularly among Parisian artists and writers. Due in part to its association with bohemian culture, social conservatives and prohibitionists were opposed to the drink.

Known for its devotion to the “Green Fairy,” Absinthe Brasserie and Bar in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley recreates a Parisian atmosphere with absinthe and vintage cocktails.

Absinthe Brasserie & Bar (Hayes Valley)
398 Hayes St.

“Aqua vitae” – Prohibition’s “most wanted”

One of the most infamous of distilled spirits during Prohibition was whiskey, which has been popular since it arrived in Scotland in 1494. Also known as “aqua vitae” during the Renaissance, it is distilled from fermented grains, and has evolved to be an essential ingredient in sophisticated cocktails.

In the Bay Area, St. George Spirits/Hangar One distills two of the most historically notorious spirits – absinthe and Whiskey, and a newcomer since Prohibition, vodka.

Vodka was rarely consumed outside Europe before the 1950s (although it has been around since the 1750s). One of the reasons for vodka's popularity had to do with its appearance in British (and vicariously, American) culture due to James Bond. Bond always ordered his martinis with the famous line "Shaken, not stirred..." which indicates a vodka martini as opposed to a gin one. (Gin will 'bruise' if shaken, thus needing to be stirred, whereas shaking is preferable when mixing a vodka martini).

The distillery offers tours and has a tasting room at its plant in Alameda, just east of San Francisco and easily accessible by Ferry.

St. George Spirits/Hangar One (East Bay)
2601 Monarch St., Alameda, 94501

Grappa – banned but not banished

Grappa is one of Italy's most popular alcoholic drinks, with nearly forty million bottles of grappa produced each year. One of several liquors home-produced and named “moonshine,” grappa is a fragrant grape-based pomace brandy consisting of the grape skins, seeds and stalks that are left over from the winemaking process. While Prohibition hurt grappa sales in bars, many boarding house owners distilled their own “moonshine” for boarders, and patrons of Izzy Gomez’s café on Pacific St. and small cafés in other parts of North Beach during the era managed to procure grappa.

Nowadays, grappa has moved beyond moonshine. Bar 888 in the InterContinental Hotel has one of the largest collections of grappa, with grappa mojitos and grappa martinis on their menu.

Bar 888 (Yerba Buena)
InterContinental San Francisco
888 Howard St.

Beer – the underground brew

Beer is the oldest and most widely consumed alcoholic beverage in the world and the third most popular drink overall after water and tea. It is produced by the brewing and fermentation of starches, mainly derived from cereals—the most common of which is malted barley, although wheat, corn, and rice are also widely used.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the beer drinker was not a priority target of the temperance crusade. Rather, most of the crusaders saw whiskey and other distilled spirits as the primary menace. Still, Prohibition produced “near beer,” beer containing little or no alcohol, and distributed by bootleggers and mobsters alike.

Hardly the contraband of its past, beer is just as popular today, but has more varieties available, and a higher social status. San Francisco is home to several popular breweries:

Anchor Brewing Company (Potrero Hill)
Brewing handcrafted beer since 1896, Anchor Brewing Company is one of San Francisco’s oldest traditional brewing establishments. Group tours available.
1705 Mariposa St.

The Beach Chalet Brewery & Restaurant (Outer Richmond)
Golden Located in famous Golden Gate Park with spectacular views of Ocean Beach, the local brewery servse modern American cuisine and seafood with its hand-crafted.
1000 Great Highway

ThirstyBear Brewing Company and Spanish Cuisine
Located next to Moscone Center and SFMOMA, this award-winning brewery and restaurant specializes in organic handcrafted beers and Spanish cuisine.
661 Howard St. 

21st Amendment Brewery Cafe
The San Francisco Chronicle says, "A good microbrew selection and good rib-sticking food makes 21st Amendment the right place for any crowd."
563 Second St.

San Francisco Brewers Guild
The guild is dedicated to preserving, promoting and celebrating the heritage and craft of San Francisco’s artisan breweries. Learn more about the breweries of San Francisco including tour information by visiting the website. Group tours available by arrangement.

Photo by Jeremy Brooks / CC BY-NC

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