Craft cocktails create the opportunity to celebrate human artistry while going out drinking with friends. That’s what I’d call a win–win.
3365 India Street, Mission Hills
Known to have more than 800 whiskies to choose from, it’s little surprise the bulk of Aero Club’s cocktails feature bourbon and rye to go with their divey vibe, killer jukebox, and smartass bartenders.
The question becomes whether anyone should ever add anything to whiskey beyond an ice cube.
Their signature Be Good or Be Gone proves it can be done well, dressing Jameson with St. Germain, muddled citrus, and club soda. The St. Germain’s elderflower coaxes a surprising amount of refreshment out of the Irish whiskey, all but making a case not to take it straight.
3085 University Avenue, North Park
Crafting URBN's Solemn Pigeon Occasion
There are perfectly good explanations for some of the cheeky cocktail names at URBN, and then there’s the Merk, a potent blend of bourbon, Fernet Branca, and ginger beer that begs for an origin story you wouldn’t want to hear.
Ask bartender fatale Michele Willard to make her favorite, the Solemn Pigeon Occasion, which smoothly balances the spicy vanilla of Spanish Licor 43 with chocolatey mole bitters, cardamom, and a creamy tequila. Or go off the ten-dollar cocktail list for a customer-dubbed “Just the Tip,” which slips a little chartreuse in with gin, muddled cucumber, and St. Germain.
3829 30th Street, North Park
It’s doubtful any cocktail lounges–slash–music venues go through as much pink lemonade as this one — you’ll find it in a pink martinis and pink shots, in cocktail specials ranging from pinked-up pisco to pinked-up tequila. Fortunately, John Reis and co’s place does offer “something for the fellas,” even if only with irony. The Mustache keeps it simple, with tonic, lemon, and bitters added to Bulleit bourbon. It tastes a million miles from pink. At a measly six dollars, it might be the most bang-for-your-buck cocktail mentioned in this issue.
4020 Goldfinch Street, Mission Hills
(Has gone out of business since this article was published.)
The Patio on Goldfinch
Chris Simmons, GM of the Patio’s airy new Mission Hills restaurant, is a certified catador — usually described as tequila’s answer to a sommelier. Not surprising then that the burgeoning tequilería features a number of cocktails in the agave spirit (at about 12 bucks each). House-made ginger beer mixed with vanilla/pineapple-infused blanco gives the tequila mule sweet depth. A spice-loving palate should relish the house-made sangrita, served on a wood stave in a shot-sized ceramic cup beside a whiskey glass of tequila blanco. Alternate sips, per tradition, or try them mixed in the cocktail Simmons calls a Sassy Sangrita.
830 25th Street, Golden Hill
Counterpoint established itself as a wine bar with a terrific tap list, but upon obtaining a full spirits license, owner Cam Fomby took to craft cocktails with artisanal zeal. He makes his own simple syrups and uses them to barrel-age twists on classics, such as a cherry-vanilla Manhattan, or the standout lemongrass martini, which ages house-made lemongrass bitters, gin, and vermouth in charred oak. Barrel-aged cocktails go for 12 bucks, while something like a gin and tonic starts at 9, depending on which gin you pair with the ultra-refreshing house-made agave and citrus tonic.
2730 Via de la Valle, Del Mar
Perfectly situated for post-racetrack dinner and drinks, the nominally Italian Cucina Enoteca features a number of old-country apertifs and mixes them with infused spirits to build a deep bartender-driven roster of craft beverages. Before dinner, try the sweet vermouth Ramato, mixed with carpano antica bolstered by fresh-pressed orange. With dinner — well, stick with wine, as the place offers excellent value on hundreds of fine bottles. But definitely stick around to try an Averna Manhattan, or buck tradition with a tequila mule; a spicy jalapeño infusion gives it legitimate kick that plays off the ginger beer beautifully.
7837 Herschel Avenue, La Jolla
Brian Malarkey brought in Snake Oil Cocktail Co. to design conversational cocktail menus for his restaurants, so, naturally this spacious, tree-filled La Jolla seafood spot boasts a slick variety of on-point creations ranging from a cinnamon-apple infused Old Fashion [sic] and a strawberry-jalapeño-infused tequila drink dubbed Jalé Berry, which sounds like a joke any way you order it. I just can’t get past the top of the list, the Peter Rabbit. It’s all of Pimm’s with “bruised” basil and pressed lemon — not a very potent drink but refreshingly simple, and deserving a taste even at 12 bucks.
1015 Orange Avenue, Coronado
Leroy’s Kitchen & Lounge
The farm-to-table ethos of Leroy’s impacts its cocktail list, which may add or alter recipes depending on which in-season produce turns up at the restaurant that week. The so-called Summer Solstice is a current example, using blackberries, watermelon, and strawberry to make Ketel One Citroen taste seasonally appropriate. For a real treat, get the Sweet Heat, which stars a mango, chipotle and coconut tequila — you’ll see it infusing behind the bar. Each sip starts with fruity coconut, gradually replaced with spice rolling off the roof of your mouth. And every sip demands another.
576 North Coast Highway 101, Leucadia
Priority Public House
This Encinitas gastropub takes a sort of greatest-hits approach to craft cocktails, finding some of San Diego’s most successful drink recipes and bringing them to its North County patrons. Enlisting the help of local cocktail-consulting group Blind Tiger, the curated recipes include the pisco, cinnamon bark, and vermouth La Serena, attributed to Seven Grand’s Brian Prugalidad; and the mezcal, Fernet, and strawberry Willy Branca, credited to Eric Johnson of Sycamore Den. Priority seems to take this celebration of cocktail craft seriously, with simple syrups made in-house and none of the limited spirits in stock without purpose.
25 East E Street, Encinitas
Solace and the Moonlight Lounge
Just off the 101, the second-floor Moonlight Lounge looks out over downtown Encinitas with garage doors open on warm nights, promising artisanal spirits within. This essentially means they opt for small-batch producers rather than stalwarts such as Grey Goose or Tanqueray, and even some of the well drinks turn out to be novel renderings of familiar liquors. The menu’s most notable is the Skinny Libations section, which incorporates organic spirits and low-calorie mixers for drinks like the Gordon’s Cup, which turns crushed cucumber, velvet falernum and gin into a refreshing diet cocktail for it’s lithe, suntanned clientele.