Craft ingredients have replaced sour mix; lounges and speakeasies have emerged.
It is Wednesday night in Sacramento and the whole city seems to be out for drinks. Snippets of conversations buzz through the air, while the rhythmic sounds of cocktails being shaken provides a singular timbre to the night. Craft cocktails aren’t the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks about Sacramento California, but they should be.
With a location approximately half way between the bright lights of San Francisco and the beauty of Lake Tahoe, Sacramento now hosts its own cocktail week and its numerous bars and restaurants have created a cocktail scene that blends hospitality and passion in equal parts.
Twenty years ago, I cut my teeth bartending in Sacramento, back in the days when hand-crafting cocktails meant adding hot water to powdered sour mix and stirring. Back then, Sacramento was known for cheap dive bars and sports bars. A lot has changed since then as Sacramento’s cocktail scene has blossomed.
From speakeasy style saloons to hip, modern lounges and funky, offbeat bars, Sacramento’s cocktail scene has something for everyone.
“I think the most exciting part of the Sacramento cocktail scene is that it is almost a blank slate”, notes Red Rabbit bartender Christopher Sinclair. “I don’t think anyone in Sacramento is resting on their laurels. Everyone is pushing for something new, something better.”
The birth of Sacramento’s cocktail renaissance started in 2007 with the opening of Ella Dining Room and Bar. The brainchild of Chef Randall Selland and family, Ella offers creative cocktails to complement its local and sustainable menu. Located just steps away from the state capitol, legislators and lobbyists enjoy Bar Manager Chris Dooley’s tonic water program in a variety of libations, such as the Lavender Tonic, featuring a London Dry Gin paired with a lavender-infused tonic syrup or the house signature Real Gin and Tonic featuring Dooley’s house-made rainforest quinine tonic.
The whiskey program is equally impressive. Patrons are greeted at the door with a display of rare and custom bottled whiskeys and the whiskey selection spans several pages of the cocktail menu. My server steered me to an expertly crafted house Manhattan featuring Ella’s own personal selection of Kentucky Straight Bourbon whiskey, and the Usual Suspect, a cocktail blending Irish whiskey, scotch, amaro and lemon was the perfect drink to sip while watching power brokers negotiate deals at the bar.
At the Red Rabbit Kitchen and Bar, bartender Christopher Sinclair met my order of a “Dealers Choice” with a expertly made Seelbach Cocktail. Banana Daiquiris and a Harvey Milk Punch (Galliano, aged rum, milk and sugar) share the menu with classics like a Singapore Sling and a Pimm’s Cup in the lively bar space.
Red Rabbit has a unique feature behind the bar, a glass-walled liquor room filled with artfully arranged bottles from floor to ceiling, giving patrons the opportunity to peek into a usually hidden part of the bar. The room is crowded and crackling with energy on this night. Sinclair and the rest of the staff seem to feed off of the excitement in the room, producing intricate cocktails with the same ease and insouciance as they might pour a draft beer.
Courtesy of the Red Rabbit
- 1 1/2 oz. Old Forester Bourbon
- 3/4 oz. Cointreau
- 3 dashes each Angostura and Peychauds Bitters
- Champagne, to Top
- Orange Swath, for Garnish
Preparation: Stir first three ingredients until chilled. Strain into a coupe or flute. Top with Champagne and garnish with orange swath.
A short stroll south leads to the Shady Lady Saloon, arguably the most lauded craft cocktail bar in the city. House-made cola, tonic and ginger ale lead the way in this speakeasy style saloon, which features live jazz on weekends and a menu of Southern favorites to complement the libations.
The Northside Cocktail, with Krogstad Aquavit, lemon, mint, sugar, agave, grapefruit bitters and soda is a refreshing option on a warm Sacramento night. Sinclair notes, “The bartenders are always working on something new and are usually pretty eager to show it off”, so a conversation with your bartender can let them experiment with their latest creation.
Over at Block Butcher Bar (1050 20th St), a butcher’s case filled with house-made charcuterie and sausages greets patrons inside the door. Walk through and into the bar though, and an understated elegance is apparent. While the glass-enclosed butchering area is visible and creates a striking centerpiece to the room , the bar itself is hand-crafted wood and soft Edison bulbs glow above. The mood here is soft and romantic, and a beverage menu focusing on brown spirits and wines reinforces the notion that these drinks deserve quiet contemplation. The Brazilian Gentleman, a simple flip made with Avua Amburana cachaca is sublime. The drop shot for two, the Islay Smoke Bomb, Laphroaig 10 year single malt scotch whisky, citrus, orgeat and Einstock toasted porter, may just be the perfect icebreaker for an awkward first date, and the Hemingway Daiquiri is expertly crafted with Pilar Blonde rum.
Housed in a sleek and stylish space that looks to be converted from a Quonset hut is Hook & Ladder Manufacturing Company (1630 S Street). Here classics hold court with creative takes on modern cocktails. A barrel aged Cosmopolitan takes a common drink and updates it for modern tastes. So too does Hook’s take on a Cuba Libre, with Bacardi 8 rum, Mexican coke and a lime. Ginger beer is made in house, and three rotating draft cocktails are featured at any given time.
Or channel your inner Japanese salaryman and order the White Oak Mizunari, “mixed with water”, the classic Japanese whiskey cocktail. Before moving on, be sure to try a unique Sacramento specialty. Referred to locally as “Morning Beer”, Hook & Ladder’s nitro coffee on tap from local roaster Chocolate Fish is a delicious and unique coffee experience, with a taste reminiscent of a good stout.
The last essential stop on the tour of Sacramento cocktail hotspots is the Starlite Lounge. Formerly the Townhouse Lounge, a long standing Sacramento institution that had fallen on hard times, owner Shannon Cannon re-imagined the space into a mid-century modern classic. With live music and entertainment most nights, this is the place to enjoy great cocktails and listen to Sacramento’s best musicians. With a funky décor including a bar top inset with unique collectables from Cannon’s own collection, lighters, matchbooks, beer labels and other kitsch, Starlite’s focus is clearly on fun.
“Words don’t really explain the fun and hospitality of the folks in the industry here. When most people experience it [Sacramento], they almost always say how much fun it is. It may not be the most cutting edge, but we make drinks that taste great and are fun to drink”, according to Sinclair.
Cannon supports this notion at the Starlite by eschewing the traditional printed cocktail menu and instead relying on conversations between bartenders and patrons to create drinks to suit the mood. Classic American burgers and sandwiches complement the mid-century vibe, and the Starlite’s Irish coffee, tasting strongly of Jameson Irish whiskey puts me in the mood to watch some local Sacramento bands.
Sacramento isn’t the same sleepy city where I learned to bartend. In its place is a vibrant cocktail scene that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and yet produces great cocktails in a uniquely Sacramento way. From speakeasies to mid-century modern and all points in between, Sacramento’s cocktail scene offers some great places to explore and deserves a place among America’s must-see cocktail destinations.