Lately, mixologists have been advancing a trend that favors the unadulterated flavor of a liquor over its peripheral ingredients. It’s called “spirit-forward,” and it’s redefining the way we experience cocktails. But what if our taste buds never developed an appreciation for distilled spirits? What if our souls still crave a good buzz and a yummy cocktail or two with friends. What if the kid in all of us wants to remember the joy of a cold, sweet drink while the adult in use wants booze? Luckily, San Diego still has something for that kid.
4612 Park Boulevard, University Heights
The first stop on our yellow brick road of tasty adventures is appropriately named The Slide, a specialty at Park & Rec, where games such as cornhole and ping-pong are set up on a vast patio. Revelry Cocktail Co. was aiming for something between a Mudslide and Wendy’s Frosty. The result is a frozen chocolaty dream of cacao-infused rum, coffee liqueur, cream, and chocolate malt dispensed into an old-fashioned milkshake glass. The rum isn’t as tucked in this one, but paired with in-house food cart Royale with Cheese’s excellent seasoned tater tots will take you back to those times dipping fries into a Wendy’s Frosty.
956 Broadway Circle, Downtown San Diego
In that same dessert-drink vein is Dobson’s Huevo masterminded by their 18-year-veteran bartender Alex Sanchez. His Huevos — the name is jokingly celebrated by his regulars — are based on the classic after-dinner coffee drinks, but birthed out of his customers’ desires for a smaller version of a pick-me-up after their heavy martini lunches. The presentation is beautiful — Liquor 43 and espresso layered between steamed and frothed milk, served in an egg-shaped port glass. It proved difficult not to gulp down what tasted like a high-end vanilla latte while sitting at the century-old mahogany bar.
695 Sixth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
On the way out of Dobson’s, Alex prepared me a shot he gives to the “younger crowd” where he shakes up Jack Daniels and Fireball with ice. With a taste of cinnamon in my mouth, and fire in my belly, I strutted a few blocks to Double Standard in search of more. They came through with Fire in the Hole. Whiskey spiced in-house with nutmeg and cinnamon is ice-shaken with falernum, firewater, bitters, and simple syrup, then poured into a fluted cordial glass, creating a frothy, bellini-colored potion. The spice punches in the throat but quickly gives way to a light cinnamon taste with no syrupy sweetness — like the true essence of a fireball candy.
3926 30th Street, North Park
The cinnamon path also led to Coin-Op Game Room. Despite being served among ’80s posters and video games of the same era, their house-spiced whiskey shot might be too boozy for the kid in us. Bohemian Revolt, however — composed of pear brandy, dry sherry, cardamom-clove liquor, honey, and lemon — is anything but. It was like drinking autumn; every sip was a new delight. Served over ice in an old-fashioned glass garnished with mint, the pear was present but not overbearing. All the flavors were present and melded perfectly.
I needed to quench a soda craving, so the boozy merry-go-round ride twirled over the border to urban gastrobar La Justina (Avenida Revolución, between 3rd & 4th Avenues, Centro, Tijuana). Their Snake Oil is also the only cocktail still on the menu that was developed with the cocktail consultation company of the same name. Served in a mason jar on a bar top lined with 10,000 pennies encased in resin, it’s a mix of cardamom-infused bourbon, Fernet Branca, and Mexican Coca-Cola served over ice, garnished with an all-important toasted marshmallow. Although the cola stands front and center, all the flavors — especially that marshmallow — complement each other without being too herbaceous from the Fernet or too sweet.
El Remedio, found at namesake Los Remedios (Diego Rivera 2479, Zona Rio, Tijuana), is like day to Snake Oil’s night. It’s a light and clean concoction of tequila, apple soda, lime, and apple chunks served in a clay jar called a cazuela, based off the popular drink in Guadalajara. The cazuela is rimmed in chamoy and tajin, adding an optional salty, sour, spicy, and sweet depth to the cocktail at one’s choosing. The restaurant itself is a festive cantina where mariachis roam, lotería cards line the ceiling, and bullfighting posters festoon the walls.
At long last we reach the end of our play time with the Everlasting Gobstopper of them all: the clarified milk punch. For those not familiar, this idea of the milk punch dates back to at least the late 17th Century and takes a few days to prepare. In the most basic recipe, liquor, lemons, tea, and sugar hang out together for a few days. Hot milk is added, curdling begins, and the mixture is continuously filtered until clear.
1250 Prospect Street, La Jolla
The version at California Modern-George’s at the Cove (1250 Prospect Street, La Jolla) runs an infusion of white rum, Hamilton’s Jamaican black rum, black lime-infused rum, mezcal, brandy, Pernod, St. George Absinthe Verte, fresh pineapple, lemon peel, lemon juice, clove, star anise, cinnamon, and yerba mate tea through the milk clarification process. The result is a perfectly sweetened, citrusy, off-yellow elixir dubbed Modern Milk Punch, which has a silky-smooth mouth-feel and absolutely no hint of alcohol whatsoever.
2259 Avenida de La Playa, La Jolla
A simplified version of the clarified milk punch will soon be found at Galaxy Tacos. Cosmic Punch, consisting of rum, tequila, pineapple, baking spices, lemon juice, and bitters, will be clarified with coconut milk instead of cow’s milk for a texture that’s even more velvety and a taste more tropical. Served on the rocks with a lemon twist, just blocks from the beach, it’s exactly what our inner child desires.