If there’s one thing San Franciscans know, it’s their alcohol. Walk into any restaurant or bar at 5:30pm, and you’ll see a happy hour scene done right. What other cities can claim to reportedly consume 70% of the world’s Fernet? And with historic bars and bar patrons, like Vesuvio and The Buena Vista, it’s no surprise that world-renowned drinks have been invented here.
There is much debate about where the Mai Tai was actually invented, whether by Victor J. Bergeron, aka Trader Vic in Oakland in 1944, or Don the Beachcomber at his bar of the same name in Hollywood in 1933. Most believe the drink was created by Trader Vic, after a Tahitian friend, after the first sip cried out “Maita’i roa e!“, meaning “very good!”. The drink is made using Jamaican rum, triple sec, lime juice and orgeat syrup, though Trader Vic made a variation using pineapple syrup instead of orgeat which has been more prominent. This drink sparked the rise of the tiki-themed restaurant, and many bars in San Francisco still offer a traditional Mai Tai.
There are two Bay Area theories as to the origins of this cocktail. One theory suggests the drink was invented in the city of Martinez, in the East Bay. A miner who recently struck it rich, went to a local bar to celebrate. He ordered Champagne, but the bartender only had gin, vermouth, bitters, maraschino liqueur and lemon. The miner was so impressed with the cocktail, that he shared the recipe with a San Fransico bartender, and helped to spread the word of the new creation. The second theory is that the drink was created at the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco in the early 1860s, and was named for the many patrons about to board the daily ferries to Martinez. Either way, it’s clear the cocktail has roots in the Bay Area, whether East or West.
Irish coffee was not invented in San Francisco, but the city holds a special chapter in the history of this cocktail. Irish coffee had existed in Ireland for ten years before it was discovered by The Buena Vista owner Jack Keoppler while traveling through the country. When he returned, he partnered with travel writer Stanton Delaplane to recreate Ireland’s Shannon Airport’s “Irish Coffee”. After the first few attempts, they could not figure out how to get the cream to float on the top of the cocktail. It took another trip to Ireland, the mayor of San Francisco, and a local dairy farmer to isolate the problem. The cream needed to be aged for 48 hours and then whipped to the perfect consistency. The success of their cocktail skyrocketed The Buena Vista and Irish coffee to international regard, which still continues to this day.
In the years before prohibition, The Bank Exchange bar sat at the present day location of the Transamerica Pyramid. Owned by Duncan Nicol, the bar was already known for pisco cocktails when he bought it. However, it was his Pisco Punch that drew in patrons, including famous authors such as Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling. The drink features pisco, a grape-based brandy from Peru, which had been imported to San Francisco since the 1830s. Paired with pineapple, lime juice, sugar, distilled water and gum arabic, the cocktail packs a punch without the taste of the brandy. While Duncan Nicol was said to take the exact recipe to his grave, the Pisco Punch is now featured at most bars and restaurants around the world.
During the Gold Rush, most breweries did not have consistent access to cold water and ice, needed to ferment the yeast. It was at this time in the late 1800s, that brewers in San Francisco discovered a yeast which would ferment at much higher temperatures. The process, known as ‘steam beer’, was made famous by Anchor Brewing Company. The word steam is said to describe what formed when the hot wort had to be pumped up the room, where it would mix with the cool air from the Pacific Ocean. This formed a cloud of steam above the large open bins the wort was cooling in. The steam brewing process ferments lager yeast at temperatures normally used for ales, which made for a unique taste in the beer. It was initially considered a blue collar beer, a much lower quality than traditionally brewed beer. To this day, Anchor Brewing is one of the only breweries still producing beer using this method.
When a San Francisco summer day is described as the coldest winter, drinking indoors is really the only activity available. This may have contributed to the storied history of cocktails in the city, among other reasons. Whatever the reason, San Francisco is the ideal destination for any cocktail fan looking to drink Martinis in Martinez or Pisco Punch in some of the oldest bars on the West Coast.