A drink named after a gun. A bourbon called Bulleit. A garnish set on fire.
With such sensational elements, perhaps it was preordained that the Revolver, a Manhattan variation created by San Francisco bartender Jon Santer in 2004, should attract attention. But it wasn’t as simple as that. There would be a number of serendipitous steps between the drink’s creation and subsequent fame.
Though it clocks in at just four ingredients, including the garnish—two ounces of bourbon, a half-ounce of coffee liqueur, two dashes of orange bitters and a flamed orange twist—each element was discerningly selected by Santer, who intentionally created a minimal build. As he explains, in the early aughts, sweet “’tini” type cocktails were still common in San Francisco, and the city’s most interesting cocktail programs were only found in restaurants, where the bartenders—having access to the kitchens—created bespoke syrups, infusions and fresh garnishes to bolster their creations.
“My initial thoughts around the Revolver were a reaction to both of those trends,” says Santer. “I wanted to make a cocktail based in the classics without the use of in-house-only ingredients. I wanted to create a drink from readily available materials, that anyone with a little bit of skill could make.”
One of the crucial ingredients in Santer’s Revolver was inspired by a friend who always added crème de cacao to his Manhattans. That idea stuck with Santer, whose thoughts eventually turned from chocolate to coffee as a flavoring. “I feel like coffee and chocolate are closely aligned flavors, not much of a leap there,” explains Santer, who notes that both flavors play well with citrus, another element he was hoping to include. At the time, there weren’t many coffee liqueurs on the market. Of the few, Santer preferred the rum-based Tia Maria. As for the bourbon in his coffee-laced Manhattan project, the decision was mostly made for him; at Bruno’s, the jazz club in San Francisco’s Mission District where Santer worked as bar manager, his boss did the liquor buying.
“One week I found myself with a case of Bulleit bourbon,” recalls Santer, “a whiskey no one was going to call for, because no one knew what it was. I started experimenting with it because I had it and needed to sell it.”
Bulleit was a relatively new high-rye blend developed by lawyer Tom Bulleit. The brand took off in San Francisco, where Stephen Beal, a whiskey business veteran who worked with Diageo (which owns the brand), and Bulleit himself hand-sold many bottles, marketing it as an affordable craft spirit. “Bulleit began as a tiny brand and our strategy was engagement on a one-on-one basis with our ‘partners in chemistry,’” explains Beal. “Jon was one of the first.”
To bring the bourbon and Tia Maria together, Santer turned to orange bitters. At the time, bartenders were just rediscovering the once-ubiquitous cocktail ingredient, and only one shop in San Francisco carried it.
“Dom Venegas was the spirits buyer at John Walker & Co.,” recalls Santer. “Once a month I'd ride my motorcycle down there and buy a few bottles for the bar.” As for the eye-catching garnish, Santer gives credit to bartender Dale DeGroff. “I saw Dale’s book, The Craft of the Cocktail, with him flaming an orange disc on the cover and, well, here we are.”
The drink’s name, apart from nodding to the bourbon brand, evoked the gun-smoke aroma emitted by the flamed orange twist and doubled as a tribute to the classic 1966 album by The Beatles.
Santer put the Revolver on Bruno’s 10-cocktail list, but the drink didn’t make much of an impression. Bruno’s wasn’t that kind of place. There, most of the guests order lagers or whiskey and Cokes; they rarely even look at the cocktail menu. Instead, it became a drink ordered by fellow bartenders, including Venegas. “The simplicity of the drink is what I loved,” he says. “A classic three-ingredient spec, stirred, flamed peel.”
It wasn’t until the opening of Bourbon & Branch in the city’s Tenderloin neighborhood in 2006 that the Revolver gained a real foothold. Patterned after the renowned New York bar Milk & Honey, it upped the city’s cocktail game tenfold. Santer was on the opening bar staff, and his Revolver was the only original cocktail not created by bar director Todd Smith to land on the debut menu. The trouble was that the menu had 63 drinks on it, and the Revolver was back on Page 10.
The cocktail’s fortunes shifted when, a half a year after opening, the wildly popular Bourbon & Branch opened the Library, a standing-only, no-reservations space within the same Jones Street address. The Library’s menu listed only a few drinks, and the Revolver was one of them. Venegas, who also worked at Bourbon & Branch at the time, recalls making 50 to 75 Revolvers a night.
“I remember my Library colleagues complaining about blackened fingertips from flaming so many orange discs,” says Santer.
One of those scarred bartenders was Erick Castro, now proprietor of San Diego’s Polite Provisions. Santer was long gone from Bourbon & Branch by the time Castro joined the crew in summer 2008. But the bar was still turning out dozens of Revolvers a night. “My right thumb was permanently stained black from striking countless matches when flaming the orange peel garnish,” says Castro. “Since I was cranking out Revolvers five or six nights a week, there was no solvent in the world strong enough to remove the ash from all those struck matches.”
The cocktail’s renown was sped along by a 2007 write-up of Bourbon & Branch by Eric Felton in the Wall Street Journal. When the Revolver was subsequently adopted by Milk & Honey, and all Sasha Petraske’s other associated bars including Little Branch and Dutch Kills, its bona fides were certified in cocktail circles.
“That is the point when I felt the drink really cemented its place in the canon of modern classics,” explains Castro, “because the Milk & Honey family of bars [did] not send anything across the bar unless it was absolutely on point as they did not fuss with second best.”
Richard Boccato, who has served countless Revolvers at his bar, Dutch Kills, recalls: “Jon’s drink was such a heavy-hitter that never failed to please the crowd, even to this day.”
Soon, Santer was being sent pictures of Revolver appearances on cocktail lists around the world, from Austria to New Zealand. In 2012, he heard from his friend Patrick Brennan that a bar in Oakland had the Revolver on the menu. When Brennan told the bar manager that his pal Santer—who lived nearby—invented the drink, the manager scoffed. “The bar manager told my friend the Revolver was a classic from a long time ago,” says Santer. “Older than dirt.”