What Has Become of the West Coast Cocktail?

The rise of the "West Coast style" of cocktail, what drove it, who embraced it and just what's happened to it.

When I first started bartending the notion of the “West Coast style” of cocktails was in full bloom. It was 2007, and I’d been given a job on the opening staff of a new San Francisco bar, Cantina, whose mission was to celebrate everything that was California and put it in a glass. We juiced. We muddled. We shook the shit out of our drinks. Chefs and butchers in our own right, we, at the end of our shifts, washed not blood and guts off our arms, but citrus pulp and agave goo.

The question of existence and definition of regional styles in cocktails has long been a matter of fascination in the drinks industry, much in the same way that wine aficionados search for signals of terroir. Yet, more apt today is the question of whether such styles still exist, or if the inevitable homogenization of the cocktail—thanks, in part, to technology—has made the question irrelevant. If that’s the case, the West Coast style of cocktail might be the last major regional movement we’ll see.

No one really questions that, for a time, this style existed. “I could emphatically state,” says Duggan McDonnell, who founded (and hired me at) Cantina and has been a stalwart of the SF cocktail scene for well over a decade, “that about 10 years ago when the cocktail renaissance was starting to bloom one definitely noticed a regional style.” Calling it “West Coast” is a bit broad, however, since it really began in and flourished most intensely in San Francisco.

But the real inspiration for the modern West Coast-styled drink was the Bay Area food movement, whose guiding refrain—local and seasonal!—has become a culinary cry so de rigueur it now seems trite.

McDonnell goes on to note that, historically, San Francisco’s contribution has always been distinctive and regionally focused. “Going back to the original famous bartenders—Harry Johnson, Jerry Thomas—the earliest books were written by guys who cut their teeth in San Francisco.” He adds that the foundation of West Coast cocktails involved spirits that, for a long time, were much more available out west, namely pisco and tequila. (McDonnell has gone on to create the pisco brand Encanto, which has led him to do extensive research on the topic of West Coast style; his findings will appear in a book to be published next year.)

Tiki, which started in Los Angeles and moved north to San Francisco in the 1930s, should be also be factored into the equation as an influence. It’s a West Coast creation that emphasized local, fresh fruits, garden-inspired garnishes, and colorful presentations, all of which became hallmarks of the modern iteration of the style. But the real inspiration for the modern West Coast-styled drink was the Bay Area food movement, whose guiding refrain—local and seasonal!—has become a culinary cry so de rigueur it now seems trite. Though it started in the 1970s, the heightened consciousness of farming, food origins and food miles became the animating force behind the Bay Area’s culinary-minded in the 1990s and 2000s, around the same time that it migrated to the bar. And increasingly, the culinary-minded included bartenders as—unlike New York at that time—many of the city’s finest bars were in restaurants. To see bartenders shopping alongside chefs at farmer’s markets was truly novel.

If its philosophical inspiration was culinary, in practical terms the West Coast style was defined by “fresh juicing” of citrus, muddling and, to a degree, an emphasis on syrup making. Following the style of Tommy’s in San Francisco and its famous “margarita” (tequila, lime, agave syrup—no triple sec), at Cantina, and many other bars around town, citrus was squeezed individually by hand for each drink. Painstaking and time-consuming, this technique emphasized the freshness of the juice and gave a good show, even if it didn’t make major difference in the drinks. (Any high quality bar today freshly juices citrus before and/or throughout a shift. And, year round, much of the citrus in SF isn’t local or seasonal, though, to McDonnell’s credit, for a time he would raid the citrus trees of friends and family for Cantina.) 

Muddling is a time-honored bartending technique (Old Fashioned, anyone?), though it became a signature part of the renaissance in San Francisco, where anything could, and usually was, crushed into a drink. Neyah White, founding bar manager of San Francisco destination Nopa, and now a brand ambassador for Suntory, gives credit to Dave Nepove for inspiring SF’s penchant for smashing fruit and herbs in a glass. Nepove, aka “Mr. Mojito,” was the bar manager at now-defunct Enrico’s. According to White, he popularized the Mojito and Caipirinha in San Francisco and introduced other smashed-fruit drinks, like the Cranberry Caipirinha—“At the time, I thought of it as a Cosmopolitan that actually tasted good,” says White—and the Kumquat Caipiroska, which was local and seasonal, albeit for a very short period. Mr. Mojito, who is now the Director of Mixology for Southern Wine and Spirits of California as well as the National President of the United States Bartenders Guild, still sells his own line of muddlers.

Flavored syrup making was also a part of the culture in San Francisco. Marco Dionysus, a seminal figure in the modern SF scene, made his mark with the Ginger Rodgers, a drink that fused, gin, lime, and muddled mint with his homemade ginger syrup. It’s the drink that Scott Beattie—the apotheosis of the West Coast bartender—credits with changing his life. Beattie gained fame as founding bar manager at Healdsburg’s now-defunct Cyrus restaurant in Sonoma County, where he became the prototype for the idea of the “bar chef.” He not only shopped for seasonal ingredients at farmers markets, but at herb and spice stores in Chinatown, and eventually even contracted farmers to plant specific crops for use in his drinks. His artful, laborious concoctions incorporated all the techniques that had come to define West Coast bartending, while upping the ante to become culinary creations in their own right. To wit, his Hot Indian Date incorporated muddled Rangpur lime and freshly-squeezed lime juice, as well as homemade Hot Tamarind syrup and pickled hearts of palm.

While Beattie and his concoctions can still be found at the Napa Valley’s Goose & Gander, his rococo drinks at Cyrus probably were the high water mark of the West Coast style, which doesn’t exist today in such a fevered way. Fatigue set in. After all, farmers market visits for seasonal fruits and herbs are laborious and expensive for a product that sells for $10-$14, and the elaborate off-hour process of syrup-making is time consuming for a profession largely remunerated by tips during service hours. Not to mention one of the biggest gripes about the West Coast style:  In an industry predicated on wetting whistles quickly, culinary cocktails often take an achingly long time to prepare. And, as their devotion to the culinary dimmed in intensity, San Francisco bartenders became more infatuated with classic spirituous cocktails and the speakeasy-channeling bars of New York.

It started to evolve around two or three years ago. Jonny Raglin, partner in Comstock Saloon, a bar that pays tribute to San Francisco’s wild Barbary Coast days, says, “All that shit—those flavored syrups and such—people aren’t even looking for that anymore. I don’t have an Old Fashioned on our menu, but it’s probably our most popular cocktail.” Even Cantina no longer juices citrus to order.

If no one’s practicing it, what will become of the West Coast style? For some, it continues to evolve. Beattie insists that the style still exists, but points to a 2010 change in California law that allowed pre-mixing and infusing of spirits, fruits, bitters, etc. “It completely changed everything for me.” A ten-step drink has become a one-step drink, he told me, because he pre-batches non-perishables and adds only fresh juice and fizzy stuff to complete the drink. What once might have taken 10-15 minutes, now takes only a few minutes, allowing him to maintain his ornate garnishing process. “It’s all been consolidated and people can have the same drinks they always did,” he says, adding that he’s instituting this program all over the country at bars with whom he consults.

So in that sense, West Coast cocktail lives on, though without the elaborate show of mixing it used to entail. And even in San Francisco, where it’s less obvious now, the style will always exist in theory, just as people still give a design Art Deco touches. Indeed, the West Coast style was never really about a methodology. Rather it was about a city that ate from the garden and then decided it wanted to drink in the same way, creating a unique confluence of culinary and liquid aesthetics and a heady period of time when that city fell head over heels in love with the cocktail again and everybody was drunk and happy.