Three Centuries of San Francisco Cocktails

Duggan McDonnell tended bar at Absinthe and the Starlight Room, two instigators of the San Francisco cocktail renaissance, before opening Cantina and launching the Pisco brand Campo de Encanto. In his new book, Drinking the Devil’s Acre: A Love Letter from San Francisco and Her Cocktails, he places the current scene in historical context, giving equal billing to Jerry Thomas (who stirred his Martinez cocktail at the Occidental Hotel during the Gold Rush) and Julio Bermajo (who is probably mixing Margaritas at Tommy’s in the Outer Richmond this very evening).

McDonnell pays particular attention to the Devil’s Acre, a small triangle of saloons, opium dens and brothels that served as San Francisco’s watering hole between the Gold Rush and the 1906 earthquake. Each chapter begins with a cocktail recipe (usually according to Duggan’s proportions), followed by an essay connecting the drink to its interpretations by celebrated Bay Area bartenders past and present. We learn that the Pisco Punch was the city’s first must-have cocktail—a drink so famous it was championed by Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling—the later describing it as “compounded of the shavings of cherubs wings, the glory of a tropical dawn, the red clouds of sunset and the fragments of lost epics by dead masters.” The most celebrated was made by Duncan Nicol at the Bank Exchange Saloon (now the site of the TransAmerica Building), although the recipe was lost upon his death during Prohibition. McDonnell gives a compelling argument for his recipe centered on the unusual inclusion of Lillet Rouge, which he uses in lieu of the coca-leaf infused Vin Mariani that, he posits, would have been included in the original.

By Duggan McDonnell, Photographs by Luke Abiol $24.95

This is a W&S web exclusive review.