Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

Where San Francisco Bartenders Find Inspiration for Their Cocktails

It’s primarily at the farmers markets, organic stores, and Asian-food shops for which the Bay Area is known.

Produce at Heart of the City Farmers Market, where many bartenders shop for fresh ingredients

Getty Images / Joey Kotfica

San Francisco was one the last U.S. cities to emerge from Covid-era indoor-dining and -drinking restrictions. From March 2020 to June 2021, the fun of bartending and creating new drinks got lost to survival strategies (for both businesses and people), shut-downs, and professional pivots. But as the industry and guests return, San Francisco’s bar pros are back to scouring the city for products and flavors they can incorporate into their menus. 

Farmers Markets

Buddy—a project from dream team Nora Furst, Alvaro Rojas, Claire Sprouse, and Nicolas Torres—opened in fall 2021 in the Mission with a natural wine list and a tightly edited cocktail selection. “Most of the inspiration for our drinks comes from the local farmers market and what our farmers are producing seasonally,” says Torres, who’s also a partner in and the bar director at True Laurel

In particular, Torres likes to support Heart of the City Farmers Market, where he can stock up on berries from Yerena Farms and Medina Farms. On his current menu at Buddy is a Bitter Milk Punch with “tons” of bitters, Rubino vermouth, citrus, and strawberries from Yerena, a certified organic family-run berry farm in Santa Cruz county. In years past, owner Poli Yerena has gifted Torres his blackberry “seconds,” which the bartender made into blackberry wine.

In addition to berries, Medina also grows guavas. “It’s a short season, so get them while you can,” says Torres, who cooks the fruit down into a guava syrup for a Bamboo variation. His Buddy Bambu combines manzanilla sherry, dry and bianco vermouths, guava syrup (“a little goes a long way,” he says), and chocolate bitters. 

The Buddy Bambu by Nicolas Torres, made with guavas from the Heart of the City Farmers Market
The Buddy Bambu by Nicolas Torres, made with guavas from the Heart of the City Farmers Market.

Nicolas Torres

Independent East Bay Grocers

Eric Ochoa was born and raised in the Bay Area, and “farmers markets are part of growing up here,” says the partner at the temporarily shuttered Elda and soon-to-open Dalva. A self-identified “Mexican hippie,” Ochoa now lives in the East Bay and plays double-duty as dad and bar owner, and he frequents “granola, hippie-esque grocery stores” in Berkeley instead of trekking to the Ferry Building in downtown San Francisco. “When you’re a dad, you have to be economical with your movements,” he says. “I double-shop for the business and our family.”

In north Berkeley, there’s Monterey Market for local produce and specialty herbs. If Ochoa wants to add a cucumber to a cocktail, he can pick up Persian, English, and watermelon gherkins in August and September. Winter means chicory, citrus, and California-grown avocados. “When summer is kicking, there are so many styles of sweet tomatoes: Dirty Girl Farms’ Early Girl tomatoes and Black Princes, which my son devours,” he says. 

In April 2020, when “we were all going through hell,” Elda collaborated on a dinner and a drink kit with Flour + Water. In addition to green garlic farfalle and garlic bread, to-go guests received the Chef’s Kiss cocktail with gin, lime juice, and a snap pea cordial made with yellow Chartreuse, aquavit, and snap peas from Monterey Market.

There’s also Berkeley Bowl, where “you can get everything,” according to Ochoa. There’s cereal, almond milk, cheese-free cheese sauce (it is Berkeley, after all), sugar cane stalks, dragon and star fruits, jarred moles, and so much more. Berkeley Bowl also sells spices in bulk, and Ochoa just finished workshopping a drink for Dalva that showcases Szechuan peppercorns. Following Fuchsia Dunlop’s method for chile oil, he made a mala syrup that he mixes with Del Maguey Vida mezcal, a cucumber shrub made with Da Puti sugarcane vinegar, also from Berkeley Bowl, and a splash of soda. “It’s a sessionable snack as a drinking experience,” he says. 

Chinatown Favorites

Food also drives much of Danny Louie’s cocktail creations. Louie founded Gamsaan Cocktail Co. in 2019 and started popping up in the middle of the pandemic at bars and restaurants. The former bar director of Mr. Jiu’s in Chinatown also launched bottled and canned cocktails with the goal of tapping into the Asian drinking market. 

While he’s not opposed to lychee Martinis and Singapore Slings per se, Louie wants “to dig deeper and not just use the most obvious products,” he says. “I want drinks to linger in your mouth, make you salivate, and want to eat.”

Whether he’s shopping for staples or looking for old-school ingredients to use in new ways, Louie hits up New May Wah in San Francisco’s Richmond neighborhood. “It’s a well-known hole-in-the-wall, family-owned Asian supermarket that everybody visits,” he says. “You can get seafood, proteins, all the Chinese vegetables, and all the new hip Asian ingredients.” 

Especially with the scale of his current pop-up, Louie can affordably buy many of his non-alcoholic ingredients at New May Wah, like pandan, rau ram, Thai basil, boba, grass jelly, Chinese teas, winter melon sugar, hot mustard, and bitter melon.

Louie’s Prosperity cocktail is a clarified milk punch with Nikka vodka, vanilla-wafer milk, black tea, winter melon, orange juice, and clear, carbonated grass jelly. For the Harmony, he sous-vide-infuses Denizen rum with rau ram and pandan, then adds almond syrup, pineapple gomme, and citrus. “It has a very tropical, you’re in Thailand or on some beach in Vietnam vibes,” he says. “It’s pretty intense.”

He’s also adding nose-clearing hot mustard to his Happiness canned cocktail. For Louie, who grew up in San Francisco and whose father worked as a barman at Cecilia Chiang’s legendary Mandarin Restaurant, it’s not a stretch. The flavors of Chinatown are etched into his taste memory, and it just takes a stroll through New May Wah (plus serious R&D) for hot mustard, tequila, homemade sweet-and-sour sauce, bitter melon juice mix, and citrus to make sense together.