25 Best Craft Cocktails in the East Bay
Here’s our guide to the East Bay’s craft cocktail scene, including profiles on some of the master mixologists behind the bar.
Pick Your Poison
Vodka, gin, rum, whiskey, or tequila?
“Vodka is our enemy, so we’ll utterly consume it!”
1 Black magic: Chimney Sweep
The Cooperage American Grille, Lafayette
The winning cocktail of Orinda’s 2016 Art of Mixology competition, the Chimney Sweep is made with activated charcoal. But don’t let that scare you off: It’s spectacular. Odorless at first, it transforms as you drink, starting with a delectable combination of floral and almond flavors that blend seamlessly into citrus and herbal bitters as the atomized Laphroaig emits a wonderful peaty aroma. Finished with a giant pansy, this libation is a stunning experience for the senses. thecooperagelafayette.com. —l.b.
2 Blackberry Fields Forever
Corners Tavern, Walnut Creek
A throwback to bartender Carmen Barclay’s childhood, the deep maroon martini—featuring Skyy vodka shaken with house-made bay leaf syrup, blackberry puree, and a splash of lime—took first place at Martinez’s Martini Festival last year. “I’m a Martinez girl born and raised. We used to play out in Reliez Valley and hike Mount Wanda, and there were blackberry fields and bay leaf trees. When I entered the competition, I wanted to do a nod to what Martinez meant to me,” says Barclay. “The flavor profile worked out perfectly.” cornerstavern.com. —r.c.
3 Elderflower Cucumber Collins
Lokanta Mediterranean Grill and Bar, Pleasanton
When imbibed in Lokanta’s quaint, glass-ceilinged sunroom, this crisp and aromatic spritzer—topped with a twist of cracked pepper—couldn’t be more refreshing. The collins is a shaken medley of elderflower liqueur, the Bay Area’s own Square One Cucumber vodka, and a squeeze of lime. It’s served stylishly over a tall glass of ice with a splash of soda and a crunchy cucumber round. The honeyed, floral cocktail is stirring: A second round is always in order. eatlokanta.com. —n.b.
4 Lakeside Lemonade
Va de Vi, Walnut Creek
When a cocktail has been on the menu since the day the doors of a restaurant opened, it’s a no-brainer what you should order, right? The Lakeside Lemonade at Va de Vi pays homage to a similar drink that the restaurant’s owners order in Lake Tahoe (sitting lakeside, of course). Made with Alameda’s Hangar 1 Buddha’s Hand citron vodka, Pama pomegranate liqueur, and lemonade, this drink is simple and refreshing.
Sip it under the old oak tree out back on a sunny day while nibbling on small bites, and you just might feel as though you’ve been transported to the lakeside yourself. vadevi.com. —r.c.
Incontro Ristorante, Danville
This herbaceous cocktail is as fresh and vibrant as spring itself. The neon green concoction brightens up your taste buds with the citrusy notes of Buddha’s Hand citron vodka from Alameda’s Hangar 1. The vodka’s lemon, apricot, and jasmine flavors mingle on your palate with the muddled basil and thyme, while a splash of Sprite creates a slightly effervescent mouthfeel. Crisp and refreshing, the drink is best enjoyed outside on the inviting patio, but a seat inside at the luxe, marble-topped bar is wonderful, too. incontrodanville.com. —a.s.
The Power Couple
Meet Rick and Theresa Dobbs, owners of The Last Word in Livermore. By Kristen Haney
Since opening The Last Word more than three years ago, Rick and Theresa Dobbs have helped propel craft cocktail culture into the Tri-Valley, and they’ve brought a national spotlight to the East Bay suburbs. With the couple planning a new, casual rooftop eatery called Aviation Rooftop Bar and Kitchen for Livermore this spring, and another spot in 2018, the buzz doesn’t seem to be dying down anytime soon.
Q: Why did you decide to open The Last Word?
Rick: We wanted to change the paradigm a bit. One of the best compliments I got was, “You brought cocktail culture to a place no one thought needed it,” which is exactly what we were trying to do.
Q: What makes The Last Word work?
Rick: Our drinks are either classics or in that classic style, and there’s a reason those drinks have been around for 100 years: They’re freaking good. I don’t want to create bad art. There’s so much bad art out there.
Theresa: As you always say, we’re not using yak bitters. We’re not going that far.
Rick: It’s basic stuff—stuff people understand, elevated a bit and executed perfectly. People are choosy about where to go out, and we need to be worthy of that choice.
Q: How will Aviation differ from The Last Word?
Rick: The Last Word is always going to be our important restaurant. We’ll innovate there. Aviation will be a return to fun. We’re going to do a bunch of kitschy stuff. The Last Word was kind of our indie film; we got our street cred. Aviation will be our Michael Bay, blow-stuff-up blockbuster. drinkeatgather.com.
“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” —Rick Blaine, Casablanca
6 Lavender Cherry Blossom
Coco Cabana, Dublin
Coco Cabana’s cocktail menu has a Latin vibe, but our favorite tipple features English gin (Tanqueray 10) with French elderflower liqueur (St-Germain). It’s shaken hard with lemon juice and house-made lavender bitters, then strained into a martini glass. But the final kick has Latin soul: Blue curaçao is thickened with grenadine so the colorful liqueur sinks, producing a reverse float. This tart cocktail takes on a sweeter, cherry-citrus punch as you drain the glass. cococabanadublin.com. —n.b.
7 Lost at Sea
The Fourth Bore Tap Room and Grill, Orinda
Known for its relaxed environment and great local beers, The Fourth Bore is shaking things up with a new craft cocktail menu. The Lost at Sea takes a light peach color thanks to the pink hue of the gin and packs a nice punch of Key lime juice—without the pucker—that mellows into St-Germain’s elderflower sweetness before ending with the gin’s botanical bite. It’s a cool twist on classic flavors that will make you wish you were somewhere at sea. thefourthbore.com. —l.b.
8 Thank You Note
Tupper and Reed, Berkeley
Created by bar manager D.J. Mull, this crisp spring sipper clocks in at a slightly lower ABV than your average cocktail—so you can savor more than one in the romantic, low-light bar. Named after a song by the band Champion, the Thank You Note epitomizes Tupper and Reed’s respect for the classics by featuring Genever, an old-school spirit. Combined with house-made raspberry syrup, rosemary syrup, lemon, Grenache Blanc, and tonic, the gin’s botanicals meld with the fruity notes for a light libation that’s easy to love. tupperandreed.com. —k.h.
9 0ff-Menu: Pimm’s Rose
The Peasant and the Pear, Danville
Server Rochelle Wilson brings back old-fashioned flavors with her off-the-menu creation, combining components of two classic gin-based cocktails: Pimm’s Cup and War of the Roses. With Pimm’s No. 1 as the base, this experimental concoction has hints of caramelized orange and delicate spices that fuse beautifully with the warm floral notes of St-Germain. A few dashes of sweet and sour and Angostura bitters add even more depth. rodneyworth.com/peasant-pear. —a.s.
10 Victoria Fizz
Telefèric Barcelona, Walnut Creek
At Telefèric, smooth-talking bartenders serve creative Spanish drinks. Our favorite is the lilac-hued concoction inspired by the classic Aviation and Ramos gin fizz cocktails. “We [wanted] a cocktail that offered a combination of floral aromas and floral taste, with a unique texture,” says owner Xavi Padrosa. The result: Lavender-infused gin is balanced by sweet Maraschino liqueur and complemented by the floral aroma of crème de violette. Beaten egg whites provide a silky texture, while soda water adds the namesake fizz. telefericbarcelona.com. —r.c.
11 Tropical punch: The Drake
Walnut Creek Yacht Club
The Walnut Creek Yacht Club may be almost as popular for its rum- forward cocktails as it is for its seafood. Try The Drake, a drink inspired by the Dark and Stormy (rum and ginger beer) and named for the Caribbean’s notorious English pirate, Sir Francis Drake. The cocktail is made with Pusser’s Rum, a rum from Guyana and Trinidad that was a favorite among the British Navy; Licor 43, a Spanish liqueur made from 43 different ingredients; and house-made hibiscus syrup. It’s topped off with ginger beer and served over ice with lime. Retire to the Aft Deck behind the main dining room to sip this sailor’s solution with the cool breeze on your face. But sailors take warning: This easy-drinking cocktail may have you asking, “But why’s the rum gone?” wcyc.net. —r.c.
12 El Diablo
Sabio on Main, Pleasanton
Having a hankering for rum one chilly evening, we asked wine director Jeremy Troupe-Masi for a suggestion. He literally whipped up a cocktail on the spot—a whole egg shaken hard with white and dark rums, sencha tea nectar, lemon juice, and a dash of black walnut bitters—producing a devilishly rich, complex brew with a frothy top. A spritz of “bar cologne” (aged Japanese scotch) and a brandied cherry garnish lent smoke and spice. Sabio keeps a list of recipes that were designed in the moment, often for particular patrons. So, just ask for El Diablo. sabiopleasanton.com. –n.b.
13 Ginger Oh’ Snap!
Rustic Tavern, Lafayette
You can’t go wrong with any of the cocktails on the menu, especially when Z is behind the bar—his playful banter and the speed and precision at which he makes the libations add some zest to your drinking experience. But this beverage in particular is a nice respite from traditional rum drinks. Featuring a combination of house-made ginger simple syrup, tamarind, Angostura bitters, lime juice, and a splash of soda, this drink offers an entirely new way to enjoy rum. Z places a piece of candied ginger garnish on top, creating a perfectly spicy finishing touch. rustictavernlafayette.com. —l.b.
14 Improved Masala Caipirinha
East Bay Spice Company, Berkeley
This downtown Berkeley gem—run by the same team behind North Berkeley’s Tigerlily and Oakland’s Blackwater Station Restaurant and Bar—takes its rum seriously, featuring three different varieties in its iteration of the classic caipirinha. Bartender Adam Stemmler blends two types of cachaça (a Brazilian spirit similar to rum) with house-infused garam masala rum, based on a spice blend recipe from a sixth-generation Indian chef. Much like the other inventive creations on the menu, the resulting tweak on Brazil’s national cocktail capitalizes on Indian ingredients and exotic spices for an elixir that’s both well-balanced and unexpected. eastbayspicecompany.com. —k.h.
15 the Old Cuban
Locanda Ravello, Danville
This bubbly twist on the classic mojito features a delectable quintet of rum, muddled mint, lime juice, and bitters—and most importantly, a float of champagne. The crisp combo evokes the refreshing coolness of a mint-forward mojito but offers a number of surprises: the fizz of the bubbly, the herbal effect of the bitters, the oaky character of the rum. Bonus: If you’re imbibing the cocktail in the cozy Italian eatery’s main dining room, you may get to hear the pizza chef belt out some tunes. ravello-danville.com. –a.s.
“There is no bad whiskey. There are only some whiskeys that aren’t as good as others.” —Raymond Chandler
16 Vendetta Season
Pizza Antica, Danville
Barman Brandon Clements had The Godfather and mafiosos on his mind when he created this top-selling drink for the refined-yet-rustic Italian restaurant: He was in what he called “vendetta mode,” attempting to get more guests interested in the little-known Italian liqueur amaro. It worked. Now a top seller, the delectable drink features rich, bittersweet Amaro Lucano alongside slightly sweet and spicy Wild Turkey bourbon. A squeeze of lemon juice offers a subtle zesty kick, while apricot preserves and amaretto serve as sweet additions to complete the killer combo. The dried apricot and almond floating on top are tasty finishing touches. pizzaantica.com. —a.s.
17 Honey Water
Yankee Pier, Lafayette
Sidle up to the welcoming bar at this local haunt for a tasty pour. If you’re looking for something a little more exciting than an old-
fashioned, but not too fruity, then this beverage is a tasty solution. The Bulleit-laced mixture has the classic taste you’d expect, but with an added splash of apple juice and honey water: It’s reminiscent of a delicious juice box that just turned 21. Topped off with Peychaud’s Bitters, the drink is a playful riff on some familiar flavors. yankeepier.com. —l.b.
18 The Cherry Envy
The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards, Livermore
Set in rolling vineyards, Wente screams wine, but hold the cork—at least until dinner. The Cherry Envy is as gratifying as a fine Meritage, and it is certainly more stimulating. The charm of this soul-stirring cocktail is its naturally sweet and deeply complex character. The bar macerates two split vanilla beans, seven cloves, two and a half pounds of dried tart cherries, and three bottles of Angel’s Envy Kentucky straight bourbon—for three days. One and a half ounces of the resulting mix are shaken with an ounce of sweet vermouth to create the luscious libation, which comes with a cherry on top. (A skewer of “drunken cherries” to be precise.) wentevineyards.com/restaurant. —n.b.
19 Local Love: Midnight Oil
At this Charlie Hallowell restaurant, bar manager Matt Harrison brings a locals-first ethos to the menu, stocking the bar with an array of spirits from NorCal distilleries. For this smooth riff on an old-fashioned, Harrison lets barrel-aged whiskey from Berkeley’s Mosswood Distillers take center stage, but adds a little Irish whiskey, demerara sugar, and bitters. Citrus oil from the grapefruit peel garnish plays off the whiskey’s coffee notes for a spirit-forward cocktail that even traditionalists will appreciate. For more local love, stop by for a weekly changing #LocalsOnly creation from bartender Pilar Vree. Each one highlights the best of the Bay Area’s offerings, ranging from Oakland’s Wright and Brown Distilling Co.’s rye whiskey to Berkeley’s Small Hand Foods syrups. penroseoakland.com. —k.h.
20 Monkeys in a Barrel
Lark Creek Walnut Creek
A bite of smoke on the tongue from the Jameson Black Barrel whiskey pairs deliciously with tangy apricot liqueur and the apricot preserves that settle at the bottom of this no-nonsense drink (despite its playful, childlike name). Sit at Lark Creek’s mirror-backed, old-fashioned bar, and enjoy your libation, as vested waiters flit to and fro about the restaurant. Or take your beverage out onto the patio, and watch Walnut Creek’s pedestrians pass by. larkcreekwalnutcreek.com. —r.c.
Behind the Rooftop Bar
We checked in with Walnut Creek’s Rooftop Restaurant and Bar on a Friday night to watch how the shaking-stirring-juicing-zesting-swirling magic happens, from the moment the first bartender arrives till just after the bar stools are full. By Sara Hare
3:30 p.m.: Bartender Hayley Watson arrives and adjusts the spotlights, slices citrus, squeezes fresh fruits, and checks the glassware.
3:45 p.m.: Watson replenishes specialty syrups like the aromatic cardamom used in Rooftop’s popular Wedding Punch cocktail.
3:55 p.m.: Six customers roll in and order whiskey drinks all around. Watson pours Rooftop’s big seller, her signature Fireside old-fashioned made with Bulleit bourbon, spicy Ancho Reyes liqueur, honey, and bitters.
4:00 p.m.: Lead bartender and wine director Nathan Bouse arrives. He checks the garnish trays; slices cucumbers, limes, and lemons; and picks mint.
4:15 p.m.: A party of three arrives asking for Rooftop’s best white wine. Bouse pours Veuve Clicquot. “Two Crimson Moons, please,“ ask a pair wanting the Belvedere vodka, lemon, blood orange, and Prosecco creation.
4:45 p.m.: The bar seats 20, and it’s half full.
5:00 p.m.: Food orders are flying. Cocktails, too. Owner Jim Telford talks French wine with customers.
5:30 p.m.: “The regular?” Bouse asks a well-dressed couple as they arrive. They order cocktails in tall, thin collins glasses and a raft of small plates. The bar is almost full.
6:00 p.m.: The bartenders pour liquor so fast that it’s splashing around. They fly through bucket glasses, the tapered tumblers. Another bartender named Sid Pierce arrives.
6:30 p.m.: All the seats at the bar are full. All three bartenders are in constant motion. The noise level rises.
7:00 p.m.: The bar is packed. People stand behind seated guests after ordering drinks. The tables are almost full. Lights twinkle in town. This is the scene at one of Walnut Creek’s hottest bars. rooftopwc.com.
21 Salute To the Spirits: Flor de Muerto
Bridges Restaurant and Bar, Danville
Bridges’ bar draws crowds for all of its cocktails, including this one inspired by the Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday when families present offerings to their departed loved ones. Bartender Patrick Mendoza commemorates this tradition by making the Flor de Muerto his offering to guests. Each sip reveals another layer of flavor—whether it’s the Casamigos Blanco tequila’s citrus notes, the muddled corn and honey’s sweetness, the lemon juice’s tanginess, or the chocolate bitters’ richness. The creative mixture is not only delicious, it also plays interesting tricks on your palate. bridgesdanville.com. —a.s.
22 Chipotle Margarita
Blue Agave Club, Pleasanton
Whether you’re basking on this Mexican villa’s spacious courtyard or seeking solitude at its bar (which offers a mind-bending array of tequilas), this peppery treat is tantalizing as much for its sublimity as for its brashness. Pineapple juice is balanced by tart lime juice; a floral peach liqueur tames a fiery tequila blanco; and a rough grind of guajillo and chipotle peppers on the rim awakens the senses. With each sip, the margarita glass’ chile-stained crown lends depth to this cocktail’s light, fruity notes. blueagaveclub.com. —n.b.
23 Wild Magnolia
Wild Magnolia, Orinda
This boozy creation is not your typical tequila drink. (You know the classic combo: lime, tequila, salt.) As soon as the recognizable flavor of agave liqueur floods your tongue, the taste morphs into tart lime, sweet strawberry puree, herbal mint, and muddled basil, with just a hint of heat—thanks to the house-made jalapeño-infused simple syrup. Then it disappears into a smoky mescal finish in the back of your throat. Truly one-of-a-kind, the eponymous cocktail is a must-try at this modern bistro. wildmagnoliaorinda.com. —l.b.
24 El Bandito
Sunol Ridge Restaurant and Bar, Walnut Creek
Any bartender worth his or her salt can make a margarita. But Evan Drake likes to riff on the classics. “I stuck cinnamon sticks in tequila, waiting to see if the color would change and if the infusion would taste good,” says Drake. He mixed the resulting brandy-hued Herradura Silver with lime juice, orange juice, and house-made agave syrup, and served it up with a lime twist. The drink became a restaurant staple. “We encourage our bartenders to experiment,” says general manager David Cabrall. sunolridgerestaurantandbar.com. —r.c.
Nido Kitchen and Bar, Oakland
While margaritas abound at this farm-to-table Mexican joint, bar manager John Flores and his team of talented mixologists add a culinary spin to much-maligned libations, using house-made ingredients or house-infused spirits. This riff on a Paloma is no different. Traditionally made with grapefruit soda, lime, and tequila, the Paloma at Nido gets a gastronomic twist: clarified grapefruit juice and a spicy lime oleo-saccharum (a mix of citrus oil and sugar), both of which are made in-house. nidooakland.com. —k.h.
The Dream Team
Meet the duo behind Calavera’s creative cocktail menu. By Alejandra Saragoza
Ryan Benguerel and Michael Iglesias aren’t your average booze-slingers. Whether they’re making corn silk tea tincture, crafting an espuma (foam) from fresh passion fruit, or hunting down obscure spirits like mezcals fermented in cow skin, the two are true creatives who take their craft seriously.
“There’s an originality to what we do that I’m extremely proud of,” says Iglesias. “We love to pull different things out of our hats and play with ices, espumas, bitters. ... We don’t really have boundaries.”
Their desire to push the envelope makes drinking at Oakland’s Calavera restaurant an adventure. The cocktails highlight the seasons and the flavors of Mexico, and each one contains a surprising or mysterious component. (Think house-made huitlacoche honey, Oaxacan mole bitters, a fluffy salt cloud, an ice sphere dusted in gold leaf.)
Benguerel and Iglesias work in tandem to create each cocktail, brainstorming their ideas. Once they decide which ingredients
to feature in a drink, they fine-tune the recipe.
The beautiful Princesa de la Maracuyá, one of Calavera’s signature mezcal cocktails, illustrates their meticulous process. Benguerel spent two weeks working on the concoction, making it 10 different ways before figuring out what to include in the drink and in the espuma. The result? The frothy top is made with passion fruit and ginger-laurel-Fresno chile syrup, and the bottom consists of the same syrup, mezcal, and orange juice.
“I’m super proud of our Princesa,” says Benguerel. “That was my first time doing true R&D, where you’re lining up cocktails with fractions of differences.” Iglesias adds, “That ginger-
laurel-Fresno chile syrup is just magical. It’s unicorn shit. ... You can put it in anything.”
The pair teamed up about two years ago; Iglesias was opening Calavera with restaurateur Chris Pastena and needed someone to help him manage the bar program. Benguerel jumped at the opportunity to work with Iglesias, who learned from luminaries such as Todd Smith (owner of ABV and Bourbon and Branch) and worked at such acclaimed institutions as Coqueta in San Francisco and Bottega in Yountville. Iglesias also helped create the cocktail programs for Walnut Creek’s Telefèric Barcelona and Lafayette’s The Cooperage American Grille.
Benguerel is a third-generation bartender who’s been crafting drinks since he was a kid: “I was making my dad old-fashioneds by age six, and if I put in one extra dash of bitters or too much sugar, I had to remake it.” He honed his craft bartending at Oakland’s Era Art Bar and Lounge, and later managing the bar program at the Tribune Tavern.
While Iglesias and Benguerel connected over their shared vision for the bar program at Calavera, they also discovered a mutual love for mezcal: “We’re proud to have one of the best mezcal collections in the country,” says Iglesias. “We have 188 bottles of mezcal alone, so we have a lot of things we can play with.”
The smoky agave spirit shines in many of Calavera’s cocktails, adding yet another exotic element to the innovative creations.
“People should come here for a mezcal cocktail adventure,” says Iglesias. “The menu changes daily, and that’s the fun thing about our program.” calaveraoakland.com.