As any boozehound worth his salt-rimmed glass will tell you, the City by the Bay is New York's only real rival for American cocktail supremacy. Yet the last time I was in San Francisco was in 2006, which was also, coincidentally, the year I began covering the cocktail beat. And in the accelerated world of mixological invention, seven years might as well be a few generations. In February, I decided to head West to reacquaint myself. The trick: I had a lot of catching up to do, and only a few nights to do it in. A whirlwind bar crawl -- sprint? -- ensued. I encountered a cocktail scene that features distinct leanings (citrus, pisco, Chartreuse, mezcal), but like New York's, one that is also impressively varied. Did I survive? You'll have to read to the end.
Trick Dog, San Francisco's bar of the moment, seemed a good place to start. This Mission District spot is the work of Josh Harris, Scott Baird and Jason Henton, who call themselves the Bon Vivants. The bar's look is all cement and open space, but the atmosphere manages to be warm. The clever cocktail list fans out like a paint wheel, the drinks named after actual Pantone colors. In the Polar Bear, aromatic and clear as melted snow, smoky mezcal is soothed by crème de menthe and vermouth. The Alligator Alley gives the mouth a savory shellacking with a base of olive-oil-infused gin. The highball pairings are oddball, but if ever a spirit cried out for Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray soda, it's aquavit.
Not too far away is Beretta, a haute pizza palace with cocktail cred. The place bubbled with a youthful din. A young blonde in braids and a leather jacket hugged a paperback copy of "Othello" in one hand, a flute of rosé Champagne in the other. I ordered an Airmail, a sort of fat, swaggering daiquiri made with honey and sparkling wine.
At Bar Agricole, in the SoMa neighborhood, adjacent to the Mission, a long, wooden ramp leads past under-the-stars seating to a bar serving Thad Vogler's cocktail program, widely considered one of the most advanced in town. The choices of spirits behind the bar is very selective, and the drinks well made. The spicy-fruity Bourbon Old-Fashioned, for example, is made with house-made stone-fruit bitters, giving what might otherwise be a standard drink an edge of individuality.
Back in the Mission, Dalva is a good-enough bar with a better one, appropriately called the Hideout, in the back. If there's a theme to the décor, it's irony: a Farrah Fawcett poster on one wall, a mounted jackalope on another. The space was packed, like every other tavern this night. The drink special, Lydia's Lunch, was straight out of the crisper: cucumber, lime, celery bitters, all on a base of gin. Fresh produce was once what distinguished the San Francisco cocktail world. It hasn't quite relinquished that calling card yet.
At 6 p.m., a collection of disparate people lurked outside an unmarked door at the corner of Jones and O'Farrell. On opposing corners, others loitered outside aging S.R.O.'s with perhaps more discernible purpose. The door finally opened. Welcome to Bourbon & Branch, a time portal to 2006, when neo-speakeasies were the thing. There is a rigor to the entry process: please wait here; these are your seats; I'll take your coat now. But, like many bars of its type, B&B is friendly once you're inside. The darkened space, with its tin ceiling and shadowy booths, is beautiful. Patron ages range from 20s to 60s. And the drinks are good: The Frank Lloyd Wright is dry and lightly spicy; the Stiletto, contrary to its name, full-bodied. Delve further in and take a couple of rights and you enter the velour-wallpapered Wilson & Wilson, a speakeasy-within-a-speakeasy.
Just across the street is Tradition Bar, run by the same team as B&B. It's easier to get in, but harder to get a bead on. Booths called "snugs" look made for 19th-century trysts. The thick drinks list contains several thematic mini-menus, including a catalog of barrel-treated spirits, like a Russell's Reserve Rye with a Chartreuse finish. The Afternoon Tea Sour, categorized as a "Traditional Public House" drink, tastes like tea and cakes in a glass. It all feels a bit mixed-up, but the drinking ain't bad.
Next up: a quick dash into Jasper's Corner Tap & Kitchen, which is vibrant and convivial -- instant fun. The Negronis on tap have become a city tradition. A little later, while drinking pisco sours at Cantina, a relative old-timer, Duggan McDonnell, an owner, commented: "This town loves its Negronis."
Further confirmation comes at my next stop, A/Q, where a man cries: "I'll have a Negroni on the rocks. I mean, it's Friday!" I go with a Fool's Wager, maybe the darkest gin cocktail ever: Islay Scotch, sweet vermouth and Gran Classico Bitter rough those junipers up.
I walked into darkness. Was Smuggler's Cove closed? No, I heard burbling water and Bobby Darin. Slowly, my eyes adjusted. On the ceiling were shapes resembling barrels and crates. A group of four sipped from a bowl, recently set aflame, through straws as long as fireplace matches. I had indeed found a Polynesian wonderland and arguably the best tiki bar in the country. Here, the banana daiquiri, mixed with house-made banana liqueur, is an elegant revelation, not a joke. The Expedition, eight ingredients strong, is anchored by a deep espresso note from Bittermens New Orleans Coffee Liqueur.
I wanted to linger, but duty called. I headed to the Comstock Saloon, which inhabits an ancient barroom space in the North Beach neighborhood. And it's a handsome scene within: repurposed trough around the bar; tall back bar; old-time ceiling fans; a jazz quartet perched on the balcony, throwing down atmosphere. I asked the bartender for a "very San Francisco cocktail"; I got a pisco punch, and a little history lesson. The drink's a bit tart -- or do I just have New York taste buds, all dark and bitter?
On to nearby 15 Romolo, located on a seedy-romantic uphill alley around the corner from a strip of girlie clubs. Twenty-something crowd, '80s soundtrack. My drink, called the Six-Toed Cat, is a rum and grapefruit concoction. Make that grapefruit and rum. Citrus strikes again.
By my final evening, I was running out of energy and brain cells. I returned to the Mission, which may be the city's best drinking neighborhood. The drinks list at the pork-and-oyster-focused Hog & Rocks is run by Michael Lazar, a Brooklyn-born bar manager who counts among his influences Scott Beattie, a local mixology legend known for his emphasis on fresh ingredients and foraging ways. Mr. Lazar's Calabria was one of the weekend's tastiest drinks, and certainly its most gorgeous. Wheels of lime and blood orange pressed against the glass like flowers in a child's craft project.
Nearby Mosto is devoted to tequila and mezcal, with an astounding collection of both. Bottles lurk in every nook behind the clean, crisp bar. The drinks list is appealingly simple. A bartender's choice called Heater is composed of mezcal, blood orange, lime and muddled jalapeño. Smokey-spicy-juicy, it was a winner.
Then it was across town to Tommy's, the old-timer where the Bay Area's respect for tequila and mezcal began. It doesn't look like much more than it is -- a standard Mexican restaurant -- but here was born the Tommy's Margarita, a once radically authentic mix of agave syrup, fresh lime and good tequila -- no mixtos and no Curaçao. Tommy's son, the agave evangelist Julio Bermejo, is about to add to the bar's already comprehensive tequila selection by releasing his own label.
The next morning, in search of a coffee fix, I turned the corner of Fresno and Grant, and accidentally passed the Saloon -- perhaps the oldest bar in San Francisco, it survived the 1906 earthquake. An object lesson: the venues may have changed, but San Francisco is still a town that loves to drink. Always has.
15 Romolo, 15 Romolo Place; (415) 398-1359; 15romolo.com
A/Q, 1085 Mission Street; (415) 341-9000; aq-sf.com
Bar Agricole, 355 11th Street; (415) 355-9400; baragricole.com
Beretta, 1199 Valencia Street; (415) 695-1199; berettasf.com
Bourbon & Branch, 501 Jones Street; (415) 346-1735; bourbonandbranch.com
Cantina, 580 Sutter Street; (415) 398-0195; cantinasf.com
Comstock Saloon, 155 Columbus Avenue; (415) 617-0071; comstocksaloon.com
Dalva/The Hideout, 3121 16th Street; (415) 252-7740
Hog & Rocks, 3431 19th Street; (415) 550-8627; hogandrocks.com
Jasper's Corner Tap, 401 Taylor Street; (415) 775-7979; jasperscornertap.com
Mosto, 741 Valencia Street; no phone; mostosf.com
Smuggler's Cove, 650 Gough Street; (415) 869-1900; smugglerscovesf.com
Tommy's Mexican Restaurant, 5929 Geary Boulevard; (415) 387-4747; tommystequila.com
Tradition Bar, 441 Jones Street; (415) 474-2284; tradbar.com
Trick Dog, 3010 20th Street; (415) 471-2999; trickdogbar.com
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.